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Romantic Poetry and the Fragmentary Imperative: Schlegel, Byron, Joyce, Blanchot (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 623-626 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0026

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Christopher A. Strathman's Romantic Poetry and the Fragmentary Imperative will be of interest to Joyce scholars because it offers a useful means of reading Joyce's fragmentary work and because it treats that work as a vital link in an evolving continuum of literary theory and practice. Strathman uses the ideas of the poetic fragment and fragmentary writing to advance a compelling argument which links theories of German Romantic poetry with modernist literature and modern literary theory. His stated objective is "to sketch a genealogy of fragmentary work from romanticism to Joyce and, with important qualifications, Blanchot" (26). Strathman begins his discussion with Friedrich Schlegel's concept of "romantische Poesie," traces its influence on Lord Byron, finds echoes of the idea in Ulysses, and then suggests the further development of the notion in Maurice Blanchot's theories of fragmentary writing.

Strathman defines Schlegel's romantische Poesie as a "call for a new and highly self-conscious literary work that embodies the fractured, decentered consciousness of ancient philosophical dialogue" (1). Indeed, one of Strathman's most important points is that any fragmentary writing—not just poetry—creates the same kind of exigency as does Socratic dialogue. A monologue establishes a rhetorical situation in which information is passed in one direction, and this type of situation implies that the thought process behind the discourse is complete. In contrast, a dialogue invites participation, interruption, contradiction, digression; as a consequence, it is inherently fragmentary. Moreover, its disjunctive nature fosters additional thought about the subject at hand. Strathman is interested in how the fragmented-ness of a literary work—whether the work itself is a fragment or whether it is fragmentary—creates different kinds of dialogue and thus encourages continued thought. The dialogue itself need not be between characters but may be between genres, between theory and practice, or between philosophy and poetry. In Strathman's view, for example, Romantic poetry is "a hybrid genre that moves unpredictably back and forth between theory and practice; it exhibits both philosophical and literary, narrative and lyrical dimensions, and it contains both transparent and opaquely self-critical moments" (2). The true power of the fragmentary work is in its invitation to the reader to move forward, to "traverse the world with the humility of a desert thinker or an exile rather than a debater (who, after all, desires to win) or an officially anointed poet laureate" (5). Strathman calls this invitation the "fragmentary imperative" and argues that it "underwrites much of what usually counts as romanticism" (5).

Strathman's introductory chapter is somewhat dense, especially since it moves rather quickly from one theorist to the next as he establishes the key points of his argument. Indeed, at times, the introduction exhibits an almost mimetic similarity to the fragmentary works it discusses, but if the chapter bristles with theorists, it does so only because Strathman has done exemplary research to ground his own work.

Subsequent chapters are more narrowly focused and clearly follow the line of reasoning established in the introduction. In his discussion of Schlegel, Strathman borrows from Blanchot to elaborate on the idea of the fragmentary imperative as "a persistent unsettling of intellectual and artistic territories and ideological positions" (31). Because it destabilizes readers' assumptions, fragmentary writing prolongs the thought process. As Strathman comments, "[c]omplete comprehension (with no remainder) leaves nothing more to be said and so ends a relationship, while endless interpretation, philosophical friendship, has two sides, and so preserves the open-ended (unpredictable) encounter between reader and text" (41). For Schlegel—and Blanchot—lack of understanding is a logical and necessary stage through which a reader must blunder because too ready a comprehension on a reader's part truncates the thought process. Indeed, complete comprehension may be undesirable in some cases.

Strathman interprets Byron's work, especially Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as rejection of "poetry masquerading as metaphysics; poetry as a form of authoritative knowledge" (84). In Strathman's terms, Byron rejects the absolutism of epic discourse in favor of the plurality of views associated with the novel and the lyric. He makes the point that even Byron's own narrator does not know the outcome of the narration. Strathman...



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