B. Baert : “Kairos: The Right Moment or Occasion” (www.ias.edu)
Barbara Baert is Professor in Medieval Art, Iconology and Historiography at the KU Leuven.
Franz Werfel (1890–1945) ends his novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand with the protagonist Leonidas dozing off: “While sleeping under the oppressive dome of the ever-louder music, Leonidas knew with inexpressible clarity that today an offer of salvation had been made to him—dark, muted, vague, like all such offers. He knew that he had missed it. He knew that such an offer would not be made again.”
The ancients had a word for the joy and the sorrow of an opportunity that suddenly presents itself but is just as suddenly gone: kairos. The word goes back to before Homer.
One of the meanings of the Greek kairós is a crucial but vulnerable part of the body. This sense of the word is closely related to the Homeric to kairion: the part of the body can be “hit” to most devastating effect, the place where life is most in danger (Iliad 8.48), or the place where the rock that Hector threw hit Teucros: “just between the shoulder and the neck” (Iliad 8.326). Kairos is the point that makes sacral “passage” possible, the right place, the “target,” the place where the knife pierces the skin.
Doro Levi’s extensive study shows that the Homeric kairos was part of a group of related words of uncertain origin: kèr: death; keraïzein: to plunder, to slaughter; kèr: heart; kèrainein: to be anxious; kar: lock of hair; keiein: to split; keirein: to cut. All of these related roots have at their kernel the idea of splitting or division, an action of sacrifice in a ritual context.
Gradually kairos came to connote a complex system of signification linking time and space, qualitative and quantitative elements, at a hermeneutic intersection, a knot or node so perfect that it provided the only possible “occasion”…