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On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth


Author(s): WERNER HERZOG and Moira Weigel
Source: Arion, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 3 (WINTER 2010), pp. 1-12
Published by: Trustees of Boston University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40645998
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On theAbsolute,theSublime,
and EcstaticTruth
WERNER HERZOG
(Translatedby Moira Weigel)
[This textwas originallydeliveredby WernerHerzog as a speech in
Milano, Italy,followinga screeningof his film "Lessons of Darkness" on the firesin Kuwait. He was asked to speak about the
Absolute,but he spontaneouslychangedthesubjectto theSublime.
Because ofthat,a good part of whatfollowswas improvisedin the
moment.]

The collapse of the stellar universewill occur- like creation- in


grandiosesplendor.
- Blaise Pascal

TXhe words

attributedto Blaise Pascal which

prefacemyfilmLessons of Darkness are in factby me. Pascal himselfcould not have said it better.
not falsiThis falsifiedand yet,as I will laterdemonstrate,
fiedquotation should serveas a firsthintof what I am tryingto deal within thisdiscourse.Anyway,to acknowledgea
fakeas fakecontributesonlyto the triumphof accountants.
Why am I doing this,you mightask? The reason is simple
and comes not fromtheoretical,but ratherfrompractical,
considerations.Withthisquotation as a prefixI elevate [erheben]the spectator,beforehe has even seen the firstframe,
to a highlevel,fromwhichto enterthe film.And I, the authorof the film,do not let him descendfromthisheightuntil it is over. Only in this state of sublimity[Erhabenheit]
does somethingdeeperbecome possible,a kindof truththat
is the enemyof the merelyfactual.Ecstatictruth,I call it.
ARION I7.3 WINTER 2OIO

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2 ON THE ABSOLUTE, THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATIC TRUTH

Afterthe firstwar in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in


Kuwait, the media- and here I mean televisionin particular- was in no positionto show what was, beyondbeinga
war crime,an eventof cosmic dimensions,a crimeagainst
creation itself.There is not a single framein Lessons of
Darkness in which you can recognizeour planet; for this
reasonthefilmis labeled "sciencefiction,"as ifit could only
have been shot in a distantgalaxy,hostileto life.At its premiereat the BerlinFilm Festival,the filmmetwith an orgy
of hate. Fromtheragingcriesof thepublicI could make out
only "aestheticizationof horror."And when I foundmyself
beingthreatenedand spat at on the podium,I hitupon only
a single,banal response."You cretins,"I said, "that'swhat
Dante did in his Inferno,it's what Goya did, and Hieronymus Bosch too." In my momentof need, withoutthinking
about it, I had called upon the guardian angels who familiarize us withthe Absoluteand the Sublime.
The Absolute,the Sublime,the Truth. . . What do these
words mean?This is, I mustconfess,the firsttimein mylife
thatI have soughtto settlesuchquestionsoutsideofmywork,
in practicalterms.
firstand foremost,
whichI understand,
Byway of qualification,I should add at once thatI am not
going to venturea definitionof the Absolute,even if that
thatI say here.The
conceptcasts itsshadow overeverything
Absoluteposes a never-ending
quandaryforphilosophy,religion,and mathematics.Mathematicswill probablycome
closestto gettingit when someone finallyprovesRiemann's
of prime
hypothesis.That questionconcernsthedistribution
it
numbers;unansweredsincethenineteenth
century, reaches
into the depthsof mathematicalthinking.A prize of a million dollars has been set aside forwhoeversolves it, and a
mathematicalinstitutein Boston has allotted a thousand
yearsfor someone to come up with a proof.The moneyis
For two and a half
waitingforyou, as is your immortality.
thousandyears,eversinceEuclid,thisquestionhas preoccupied mathematicians;if it turnedout Riemannand his brillianthypothesiswere not right,it would send unimaginable

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WernerHerzog 3
Shockwavesthroughthe disciplinesof mathematicsand natural science.I can onlyveryvaguelybeginto fathomtheAbsolute; I am in no positionto definethe concept.
THE TRUTH OF THE OCEAN

for now, I'll stayon thetrustedgroundof praxis.Even ifwe


cannot reallygrasp it, I would like to tell you about an unencounterI had with Truthwhile shootingFitzforgettable
carraldo. We were shootingin the Peruvianjungleseast of
theAndes betweentheCamisea and Urubambarivers,where
I would laterhaul a hugesteamshipovera mountain.The indigenouspeople who livedthere,theMachiguengas,made up
a majorityof the extrasand had givenus the permitto film
on theirland. In additionto being paid, the Machiguengas
benefits:theywanted trainingfortheirlocal
wanted further
doctor and a boat, so that theycould bringtheircrops to
marketa few hundredkilometersdownriverthemselves,instead of havingto sell themthroughmiddlemen.Finally,they
wanted supportin theirfightfora legal titleto the area betweenthe two rivers.One companyafteranotherhad seized
oil firms
it in orderto plunderlocal stocksof wood; recently,
had also been castinga greedyeye on theirland.
Everypetitionwe enteredfora deed vanishedat once in
the labyrinthineprovincial bureaucracy.Our attemptsat
briberyfailed,too. Finally,having traveledto the ministry
responsibleforsuch things,in thecapital cityof Lima, I was
told that,even ifwe could arguefora legal titleon historical
and cultural grounds, there were two stumblingblocks.
First,the title was not contained in any legally verifiable
document,but supportedonly by hearsay,whichwas irrelevant. Second, no one had eversurveyedthe land in orderto
providea recognizableborder.
To the latterend, I hired a surveyor,who furnishedthe
Machiguengaswith a precisemap of theirhomeland.That
was mypart in theirtruth:it took the formof a delineation,
a definition.I'll admit, I quarreledwith the surveyor.The

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4 ON THE ABSOLUTE,THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATICTRUTH

incerwas,heexplained,
topographic
mapthathefurnished
tainwaysincorrect.
It did notcorrespond
to thetruthbecauseitdidnottakeintoaccountthecurvature
oftheearth.
In sucha littlepieceof land?I asked,losingpatience.Of
and pushedhis waterglasstoward
course,he said angrily,
me.Evenwitha glassofwater,
youhaveto be clearaboutit,
whatwe'redealingwithis notan evensurface.You should
see the curvature
of the earthas you would see it on an
oceanora lake.Ifyouwerereallyable toperceiveitexactly
- youwouldsee the
as itis- butyouare too simple-minded
earthcurve.I willneverforget
thisharshlesson.
The questionof hearsayhad a deeperdimension
and reresearch
of
an
different
kind.
for
quired
entirely
[Arguing
theirtitleto the land] the Indianscould onlyclaimthat
they'dalwaysbeenthere;thistheyhad learnedfromtheir
thecase appearedhopeless,I
When,finally,
grandparents.
to
an
audience
with
thePresident,
[Fernando]
managed get
Belaunde.The Machiguengas
of Shivankoreni
electedtwo
to accompany
me.[InthePresident's
in
office
representatives
when
our
conversation
threatened
to
to
a
standcome
Lima]
in
Belandewiththefollowing
still,I presented
argument:
inadmissible
law,although
Anglo-Saxon
hearsayis generally
as evidence,it is not absolutelyinadmissible.
As earlyas
1
in
the
case
of
vs.
a
in the
colonial
court
19 6,
Angu Atta,
GoldCoast(todayGhana)ruledthathearsaycouldserveas
a validformofevidence.
Thatcase was completely
different.
It had to do withthe
use of a local governor's
palace; then,too, therewereno
official
thatwouldhavebeenrelevant.
documents,
nothing
inhearsay
consensus
But,thecourtruled,theoverwhelming
thatcountlesstribesmen
had repeatedand repeated,had
cometo constitute
so manifest
a truththatthecourtcould
it
without
further
restrictions.
Atthis,Belaunde,who
accept
had livedformanyyearsin thejungle,fellquiet.He asked
fora glassof orangejuice,thensaid onlyGood god,and I
knewthatwe had won himover.TodaytheMachiguengas
havea titleto theirland; eventheconsortium
of oil firms

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Werner
Herzog 5
one ofthelargestsourcesof naturalgas [in
thatdiscovered
in theirvicinity
it.
theworld]directly
respects
The audiencewiththePresident
grantedyetanotherodd
ofthevilglimpseintotheessenceoftruth.The inhabitants
not
sure
whether
it
was
truethat
of
Shivakoreni
were
lage
on theothersideoftheAndestherewas a monstrously
large
therewas thefactthat
bodyofwater,an ocean.In addition,
thismonstrous
water,thePacific,was supposedly
salty.
on the beach a littlesouthof
We droveto a restaurant
Limato eat. ButourtwoIndiandelegatesdidn'torderanything.Theywentsilentand lookedout overthe breakers.
Theydidn'tapproachthewater,juststaredat it. Thenone
askedfora bottle.I gavehimmyemptybeerbottle.No, that
wasn'tright,
ithadto be a bottlethatyoucouldsealwell.So
and
I boughta bottleofcheapChileanred,had ituncorked,
sand.
We
sent
the
bottle
to
the
wine
out
into
the
the
poured
as possible.Thenthemen
kitchen
to be cleanedas carefully
tookthebottleand went,withouta word,to theshoreline.
that
and T-shirts
Stillwearingthenewbluejeans,sneakers,
in
to
the
waded
we had boughtforthemat themarket,
they
the
of
the
Pacific
waves.Theywaded,lookingover expanse
Then,they
Ocean,untilthewaterreachedtheirunderarms.
tooka tasteofthewater,filledthebottleand sealeditcarefullywitha cork.
Thisbottlefilledwithwaterwas theirproofforthevillage
whether
it
thattherereallywas an ocean.I askedcautiously
if
there
is
a
botwasn'tjusta partofthetruth.
No, theysaid,
tleofseawater,
thenthewholeoceanmustbe trueas well.
THE ASSAULT OF VIRTUAL REALITY

- or,to putitin much


truth
fromthen on,whatconstitutes
whatconstitutes
form,
mysreality becamea greater
simpler
decadeshave
teryto methanithadbeen.Thetwointervening
to ourconceptofreality.
posedunprecedented
challenges
ofreality,
WhenI speakofassaultson our understanding
I am referring
to newtechnologies
that,in thepasttwenty

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6 ON THE ABSOLUTE,THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATICTRUTH

years,have become generalarticlesof everydayuse: the digital special effectsthatcreatenew and imaginaryrealitiesin
the cinema.It's not thatI want to demonizethesetechnologies; theyhave allowed the human imaginationto accom- for instance, reanimating dinosaurs
plish great things
on screen.But,when we considerall the possiconvincingly
ble formsof virtualrealitythat have become part of everyday life- in the Internet,in video games,and on realityTV;
- the question of
sometimesalso in strangemixed forms
what "real" realityis poses itselfconstantlyafresh.
What is reallygoing on in the realityTV show Survivor}
Can we ever reallytrusta photograph,now that we know
can be fakedwithPhotoshop?Will we
how easilyeverything
able
to
ever be
completelytrustan email,when our twelveyear-oldchildrencan show us that what we're seeing is
or perhapsa virus,
probablyan attemptto steal our identity,
a worm, or a "Trojan" that has wandered into our midst
Do I already
and adopted everyone of our characteristics?
exist somewhere,cloned, as many Doppelgnger,without
knowinganythingabout it?
Historyoffersone analogyto theextentof [changebrought
about by]thevirtual,otherworldthatwe are now beingconfrontedwith.For centuriesand centuries,warfarewas essentiallythe same thing,clashingarmiesof knights,who fought
withswordsand shields.Then,one day,thesewarriorsfound
themselvesstaringat each otheracross canons and weapons.
Warfarewas neverthe same. We also know thatinnovations
in the developmentof militarytechnologyare irreversible.
in partsofJapan
Here'ssomeevidencethatmaybe ofinterest:
therewas an attemptto do
in the earlyseventeenth
century,
so thatsamuraicould fightone another
away withfirearms,
hand to hand,withswordsagain. This attemptwas onlyvery
it was impossibleto sustain.
short-lived;
A couple of yearsago, I came to grasphow confusingthe
conceptof realityhas become,in a strangeway,throughan
incidentthattook place on Venice Beach in Los Angeles.A
friendwas havinga littlepartyin his backyard- barbecued

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WernerHerzog 7
steak- it was alreadydark,when,not faraway,we heard a
fewgunshotsthatnobodytook seriouslyuntilthepolice helon and commandedus,
icoptersshowed up withsearchlights
overloudspeakers,to getinsidethehouse. We sortedout the
factsof the case only in retrospect:a boy,describedby witnessesas around thirteenor fourteenyearsof age, had been
loitering,hangingaround a restaurantabout a block away
fromus. As a couple exited,the boy yelled,This is forreal,
shot both with a semi-automatic,then fled on his skateboard. He was nevercaught.But the message [Botschaft]of
the madman was clear: this here isn't a videogame,these
shotsare forreal, thisis reality.
AXIOMS OF FEELING

we must ask of reality:how importantis it, really?And:


how important,really,is the Factual? Of course, we can't
disregardthe factual; it has normativepower. But it can
never give us the kind of illumination,the ecstatic flash,
fromwhich Truthemerges.If only the factual,upon which
then
theso-calledcinmavritfixates,were of significance,
one could argue thatthe vrit the truth at its most concentratedmustresidein thetelephonebook- in itshundreds
of thousandsof entriesthatare all factuallycorrectand, so,
correspondto reality.Ifwe wereto call everyonelistedin the
phone book underthe name "Schmidt,"hundredsof those
we called would confirmthat theyare called Schmidt;yes,
theirname is Schmidt.
In my filmFitzcarraldo,thereis an exchange that raises
this question. Settingoff into the unknownwith his ship,
Fitzcarraldostops over at one of the last outposts of civilization,a missionarystation:
Fitzcarraldo:And what do the older Indians say?
Missionary:We simplycannot cure themof theiridea thatordinary life is only an illusion,behind which lies the realityof
dreams.

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8 ON THE ABSOLUTE,THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATICTRUTH

as
The filmis about an opera beingstagedin therainforest;
I
I
As
one
set
about
did,
you'llknow,
actuallyproducingopera.
maximwas crucialforme: an entireworld mustundergoa
transformation
into music, must become music; only then
would we have producedopera.What'sbeautifulabout opera
is thatrealitydoesn'tplay any role in it at all; and thatwhat
takes place in opera is the overcomingof nature.When one
looksat thelibretti
fromoperas(and hereVerdi'sForceofDesis
a
tiny good example),one sees veryquicklythatthestoryitselfis so implausible,
so removedfromanything
thatwe might
laws of probability
actuallyexperiencethatthe mathematical
are suspended.Whathappensin theplotis impossible,butthe
powerof musicenablesthespectatorto experienceit as true.
It's thesame thingwiththeemotionalworld [Gefhlswelt]
of opera. The feelingsare so abstracted;theycannotreallybe
subordinatedto everydayhumannatureany longer,because
theyhave been concentratedand elevated to the most extremedegreeand appear in theirpurestform;and despiteall
thatwe perceivethem,in opera, as natural.Feelingsin opera
like axioms in mathematics,
whichcannotbe
are, ultimately,
The axconcentratedand cannot be explained any further.
ioms of feelingin the opera lead us, however,in themostsecretways,on a directpathto thesublime.Here we could cite
"Casta Diva" in Bellini'sopera Norma as an example.
You mightask: whydo I say thatthe sublimebecomesacin opera,of all
cessibleto us [lit."experience-able";
erfahrbar]
thatopera did notinnovatein anyessential
forms,considering
as otherformstook its place?
way in the twentieth
century,
This onlyseemsto be a paradox: the directexperienceof the
sublimein opera is not dependenton further
developmentor
new developments.
Its sublimity
has enabledopera to survive.
ECSTATIC

TRUTH

our entire sense of realityhas been called into question.


But I do notwantto dwell on thisfactanylonger,sincewhat
moves me has neverbeen reality,but a questionthatlies be-

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WernerHerzog 9
hind it [beyond;dahinter]:the questionof truth.Sometimes
- have such an unusual,
facts so exceed our expectations
bizarrepower- thattheyseem unbelievable.
But in the finearts,in music,literature,and cinema,it is
- a poetic, ecpossible to reach a deeper stratumof truth
static truth,which is mysteriousand can only be grasped
witheffort;one attainsit throughvision,style,and craft.In
thiscontextI see the quotationfromBlaise Baseai about the
collapse of the stellaruniversenot as a fake ["counterfeit";
Flschung],but as a means of makingpossible an ecstatic
experienceof inner,deepertruth.Justas it'snot fakerywhen
Michelangelo's Piet portraysJesus as a 33-year-oldman,
and his mother,the motherof God, as a 17-year-old.
However,we also gain our abilityto have ecstaticexperiences of truththroughthe Sublime,throughwhich we are
able to elevate ourselvesover nature. Kant says: The irresistibilityof the power of natureforcesus to recognizeour
physicalimpotenceas naturalbeings,but at the same time
disclosesour capacityto judge ourselvesindependentof natureas well as superiorto nature... I am leavingout some
sake. Kant continues:In thisway
thingshere,forsimplicity's
natureis not estimatedin our aestheticjudgmentas sublime
because it excitesfear,but because itsummonsup our power
(whichis not of nature). . .
I should treatKant withthenecessarycaution,because his
explanations concerningthe sublime are so very abstract
thattheyhave always remainedalien to me in my practical
work. However,Dionysus Longinus,whom I firstcame to
know while exploringthese subjects,is much closer to my
heart,because he always speaks in practicaltermsand uses
examples.We don't know anythingabout Longinus.Experts
aren'teven sure thatthat'sreallyhis name, and we can only
guess thathe lived in the firstcenturyafterChrist.Unfortunately,his essay On the Sublimeis also ratherfragmentary.
In the earliestwritingsthatwe have fromthe tenthcentury,
the Codex Parisinus 2036, there are pages missingeverywhere,sometimesentirebundlesof pages.

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io ON THE ABSOLUTE, THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATIC TRUTH

here,at thistime,I canLonginusproceedssystematically;


not even startin on the structureof his text.But he always
quotes verylivelyexamplesfromliterature.And hereI will,
again, withoutfollowinga schematicorder,seize upon what
seemsmostimportantto me.
What's fascinatingis that, rightat the beginningof his
text, [Longinus]invokesthe concept of Ecstasy,even if he
does so in a different
contextthan what I have identifiedas
"ecstatictruth."With referenceto rhetoric,Longinussays:
Whateveris sublimedoes not lead thelistenersto persuasion
but to a state of ecstasy;at everytimeand in everyway imposingspeech,withthespell it throwsoverus, prevailsover
that which aims at persuasion and gratification.Our persuasions we can usually control,but the influencesof the
sublimebringpower and irresistible
mightto bear,and reign
over
hearer
.
.
.
Here
he uses the concept of
supreme
every
a
out
of
himself
into an elevated
ekstasis, person'sstepping
state wherewe can raise ourselvesover our own naturewhich the sublimereveals "at once, like a thunderbolt."1
No one beforeLonginushad spoken so clearlyof the experienceof illumination;here,I am takingthe libertyto apply
thatnotionto rareand fleetingmomentsin film.
He quotes Homer in orderto demonstratethesublimityof
images and theirilluminatingeffect.Here is his example
fromthe battleof the gods:
lordoftheshades,in fearleapthe fromhisthroneand
Aidoneus,
criedaloud,lestabove himtheearthbe clovenby Poseidon,the
Shakerof Earth,and hisabode be madeplainto viewformortals
- thedreadanddankabode,wherefor
theverygods
andimmortals
have loathing:so greatwas the din thatarose whenthe gods
clashedin strife.
well-readman, one who
Longinuswas an extraordinarily
quotes exactly.What is strikinghereis thathe takes the libpassages fromthe Ilertyof weldingtogethertwo different
iad. It is impossible that this is a mistake. However,
Longinusis not fakingbut,rather,conceivinga new,deeper

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Werner
Herzog n
and
truth.He assertsthatwithouttruth[Wahrhaftigkeit]
into
And
of
soul
the
sublime
cannot
come
being.
greatness
to
hequotesa statement
thatresearchers
todayascribeeither
or to Demosthenes:
Pythagoras
is thestatement
ofthemanwho,in response
to
Fortrulybeautiful
thequestionofwhatwe haveincommonwiththegods,answered:
andtruth.
theabilityto do good [Wohltun]

hiseepyeaasimplywith"charWe shouldnottranslate
culture.Nor is
as
that
notion
is byChristian
ity,"imprinted
theGreekwordfortruth,
aXrfieia,
simpleto grasp.Etymo"to
logicallyspeaking,it comesfromthe verbXavGdvew,
the
related
word
"the
"the
conand
hidden,"
hide,"
^Go,
a formof negation,
a negacealed."-x|0eia
is, therefore,
therevealed,
thetruth.
itis the"not-hidden,"
tivedefinition:
the
Denken],
[im
sprachlichen
Thinkingthroughlanguage
to definetruthas an act ofdiscloGreeksmeant,therefore,
sure- a gesture
relatedto thecinema,wherean objectis set
intothelightand thena latent,notyetvisibleimageis conjuredontocelluloid,whereit firstmustbe developed,then
disclosed.
or thespectator
thisact
The soulofthelistener
completes
itself;the soul actualizestruththroughthe experienceof
act of crethatis, it completesan independent
sublimity:
For
our
soul
is
raised
out
ation.Longinussays:
of nature
throughthetrulysublime,swayswithhighspirits,and is
filledwithproudjoy,as ititselfhad createdwhatithears.
in Longinus,whomI alButI don'twantto lose myself
I
of
as
a
friend.
stand
beforeyouas somewaysthink
good
one who workswithfilm.I wouldliketo pointout some
scenesfromanotherfilmofmineas evidence.A goodexample would be The Great Ecstasyof WoodcarverSteiner
wheretheconceptofecstasyalreadyshowsup in thetitle.
WalterSteiner,
a Swisssculptorand repeatworldchamin
raiseshimself
as ifinreligious
ecstasyinto
pion ski-flying,
he
the air. He fliesso frightfully
enters
the
far,
regionof
deathitself:onlya littlefarther,
and he wouldnotland on

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12 ON THE ABSOLUTE, THE SUBLIME, AND ECSTATIC TRUTH

thesteepslope,butrathercrashbeyondit.Steiner
speaksat
theendofa youngraven,whichhe raisedand which,in his
lonelinessas a child,was his onlyfriend.The ravenlost
whichprobablyhad to do withthe
moreandmorefeathers,
feedthatSteiner
gavehim.Otherravensattackedhisraven
that young
and, in the end, torturedhim so frightfully
I
had
had
one
choice:
Steiner only
Unfortunately, to shoot
becauseit was torture
to watchhow he
hinri
saysSteiner,
because
he couldnotfly
was tortured
his
own
brothers
by
- inplaceof
in
we
see
Steiner
more.
And
a
fast
then,
cut,
any
in a terribly
aestheticframe,in extreme
his raven flying,
of
Thisis themajesticflight
slowmotion,slowedto eternity.
if
fear
of
death
as
dea man whosefaceis contorted
by
rangedby religiousecstasy.And then,shortlybeforethe
deathzone- beyondtheslope,on theflat,wherehe would
be crushedon impact,as ifhe had jumpedfromtheEmpire
State Buildingto the pavementbelow- he lands softly,
and a written
textis superimposed
upontheimage.
safely,
The textis drawnfromtheSwisswriterRobertWalserand
itreads:
I should be all alone in thisworld
Me, Steinerand no otherlivingbeing.
No sun, no culture;I, naked on a highrock
No storm,no snow,no banks,no money
No timeand no breath.
Then, finally,I would not be afraidany more.
NOTE
i. 3'|/o6 Troo)Kdipix; evexov x le TcpYjiaxaktiv oKxyixox)nvxa
. . . "Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everySiecJxSpTiaev
thing before it like a thunderbolt" (1.4).

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