Saturday, February 05, 2005

Fragments, Bits and Pieces

(This post is dedicated to the retirement of the Unquiet Grave. Thanks for everything, Tony.)

A fragment is a part of some larger whole, which has lost something in being detached from its source—namely, its ‘belonging’. This loss then becomes the interpreter’s task to recover. That is, the ‘fragmentary’ nature of a text raises interpretative difficulties, since what the text ‘really’ means is presumed to depend upon its original context, now lost. The interpreter’s job is then to overcome this difficulty: to sift through all the other evidence for the structure of the original whole, including the rest of the extant works, evidence of the life its author led, traces of the city he inhabited. An enormous task, full of many subtasks—an industry.

Now, while a bit is also of something, and so becomes a bit by being detached from something larger, the miracle of the bit is that it does not thereby become something ‘lesser’ and the interpretation does not become more difficult. On the contrary, while reading a fragment is, in a sense, impossible, reading a bit is comparatively easy. It is true that the bit is smaller than the thing from which it is detached, but only in a sense that brings it to hand, and from hand to mouth, making it more manageable, chewable, digestible. A piece of cake loses nothing from being detached from the whole, on the contrary, it comes into its own. If my knowledge of French is ‘fragmentary’ I am lost (specifically) in the French speaking world, but if I know ‘a bit of French’ then I can make myself understood for a set of limited purposes.

A writer of bits or pieces is not trying to express himself in his own full complexity, not hoping to display the eleborate machinery of his own existence. He is trying to contribute details, always in good working order, small improvements to the whole—gadgetry.When approaching a fragment hermeneutically we lament the loss of its belonging; but in stumbling on ‘a bit' of literature we celebrate its usefulness to the purpose for which it has been plucked from its becoming. These are two very different concepts of ‘meaning’, two very different kinds of ‘understanding’. The fragment is broken off from its source, and remains broken (in part because the source is an operatic myth not a working reality), while the bit is carefully cut from the source in order to be insertable into some specific set of circumstances for which its smallness is nothing less than its aptness to purpose, or what Ezra Pound simply called its ‘beauty’ (ABC, p. 64).

I hope to continue this line of thinking in connection with Jonathan Minton's editorial notes on Flarf in the current issue of Word For/Word, especially his invocation of Ann Lauterbach's "On Flaws".

1 comment:

Laura Carter said...

I often learn a good deal more [about the author] from a fragment, for the reasons you mention. I've been pleasantly amused / surprised when meeting in person the few bloggers I've met, also by some of the e-mail conversations I've had "off the blog."