Friday, November 26, 2010

`The More Everything Matters'

“The fragment is the medium of expression of one who has learned that man lives among fragments.”

So writes Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Don Colacho, the eminent Columbian composer of fragments, a form, or absence of form, much romanticized and scorned. In English, the word dates from the early fifteenth century, rooted in the Latin fragmentum, “a fragment, remnant,” literally “a piece broken off,” from frangere, “to break.” A fragment is a shard from a greater whole, damaged and incomplete, a trace of something lost, the part left to imply what once was intact. In The Pound Era (1971), Hugh Kenner writes of ancient Greek literature, what can be pieced together from rotting bits of papyrus, and how the modernists put their example to use:

“There was virtue in scraps, mysterium in fragments, magical power in the tatter of a poem, sacred words biting on congruent actualities of sight and feeling and breath.”

In Kenner’s words from A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973), “The less there is, the more everything matters…” He says of the short prose pieces Beckett wrote later in life:

“They exact a new order of attention, entailing as they do the reconstruction of whole worlds out of minimal fragments. We examine one as a geologist might the sole piece of some exploded planet…”

Beckett, of course, wasn’t writing fragments. His craft was rigorous. Each story and play is whole, though hinting at fragmentation. Stirrings Still (1988) suggests the plangency of an ancient text:

“Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more.”

The recovery of incomplete ancient texts, pages of Sappho filled with textual lacunae, contributed to the modern taste for the castoff, threadbare and unfinished, a shard aesthetic, the collage. No writer worth attention strives to leave fragments. Each sentence written by Don Colacho is dense with experience and thought. He wasn’t writing fragments after all. An aphorism or any words highly compacted – whether prose by Montaigne, La Rouchefoucauld or Wittgenstein, or poems by J.V. Cunningham or Edgar Bowers – contain more matter than most books. From the shard aesthetic we learn:

The depth of a sentence (paragraph, stanza, post, chapter, book) is not to be judged by its length.

A single sentence, even a word in the right hands, may possess a vast wholeness.

An aesthetically pleasing whole can be built of discrete parts, a pulling together of resonant fragments.

This is a shard aesthetic and we might think of it as a blog aesthetic. This is from Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Montaigne in Mimesis (translated by Willard R. Trask, 1953):

“Originally his book was a collection of the fruit of his reading, with running commentary. This pattern was soon broken; commentary predominated over text, subject matter or point of departure was not only things read but also things lived—now his own experiences, now what he heard from others or what took place around him. But the principle of clinging to concrete things, to what happens, he never gave up, any more than he did his freedom not to tie himself to a fact-finding method or to the course of events in time.”

Less important than fragments is the gift for fusing them into a luminous whole.

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