Why Fragments?

For some years now I’ve been experimenting with the performance of fragments. Up until 2016, I taught a course called ‘Attic Tragedy in Translation’ on the College Year in Athens Program at the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies. This course involves students in a practical exploration of Greek tragedy leading to a workshop production. In the Spring of 2007 we staged a reconstruction of Euripides’ lost play, Hysipyle. My fascination with staging fragments began – or rather ‘took off’ – then. I’ve gone on to develop playable versions of many other lost plays. The process has also been a great stimulus to my thinking about drama and theatre, both ancient and modern.

The point of this is not only (and perhaps not even primarily) to be able to access a little more of lost classical civilisation. Fragmentariness, I’d argue, has a kind of meaning in itself (at least it’s had such a meaning for the past two hundred years or so, more or less since the French Revolution). For one thing, it’s built into our scientific or scholarly encounters with the past, through, for example, bubbles of air trapped in ice cores, or fossilized bones, or shards of pottery, or half-decomposed papyrus documents. Fragments like these always imply two stories: the story of a ‘completeness’ that once was, and the story of its loss.

Your autobiographical memory too is a set of fragments. It can’t be anything else. It tells of a ‘life lived’ (a story so far), most of which does not appear in it; but it always also raises the question, why has this scene stayed in the memory and not another?

And maybe ‘completeness lost’ is the underlying sense (almost a memory?) of ‘Paradise  Lost’  – completeness (paradise) being the baby’s initial unity with the mother (not God the Father). We begin not so much as a fertilized egg, nor so much with the first differentiation of fetal limbs, or ticking heart, nor even on our (presumably shocked) emergence from the birth canal; we begin in those first frightening sensations of disconnection and incompleteness when what Winnicott calls the  ‘good-enough mother’ begins to appear to her baby as someone (or something) else by denying its fantasy of omnipotence.

Fragmentariness is one side of a coin. The other side is completeness, wholeness, unity, integrity…..

Until the later stages of the eighteenth century, with very few exceptions, tragic fragments were taken seriously by scholars only in the form of sententiae, relatively succinct and self-contained expressions of wisdom or moral maxims extracted from longer works. Other sorts of fragments, the mere flotsam and jetsam of the wreck of classical civilization (those ‘bits’ of works, that is, that spoke only of their own lost context), tended to be regarded with aesthetic distaste. This attitude survived and dominated until European Romanticism reconceived the very nature of poetry.

In 1798, Friedrich Schlegel declared that even “the fragment of a fragment” was sacred. The sea-change this announces, however, carries a paradox. For Schlegel, classical poetry was defined by its completeness, and the “fragment of a fragment” was sacred not ‘in itself’ but as the trace of that lost completeness. In a sense this restores its fragmentariness to the fragment (for the sententiae have a kind of ‘completeness’ of their own), but fragmentariness now indexes its own perfect negation. Moreover, Schlegel set the completeness – or the completed-ness –of classical poetry in opposition to what he saw as the essential ‘becoming’ of modern (Romantic) poetry, in which fragmentariness came to signify a ‘not-yet-completed-ness’ that was significant in itself.

Both the Modernist and Post-Modernist attitudes to fragments and to fragmentariness are best seen as inflections of the Romantic one, such that we can set the last two centuries or so squarely against the preceding two millennia. When T. S. Eliot writes at the end of The
Waste Land
, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he expresses the negative of Romanticism’s positive. The once-complete has faded from view, leaving fragments that fail to speak of a beyond-themselves even as they speak of a loss. Thus the complementary condition, becoming, is replaced by its mockery, a mere shoring up against further decomposition. Post-Modernism, in contrast, restores the in-completable becoming, in the guise, now, of exuberant play, an endlessly renewed but never quite repeated rehearsal. But it does so in an outright denial of complementary completeness. Fragmentariness, thus, is no longer alternative, even to something lost; it is that which trumps the Imaginary and reveals it as a never-was.

I do not want to go that far. In (or through) the fragment, something is encountered. It is as though something looks back.

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