- How to Analyze Texts that Were Burned, Lost, Fragmented, or Never Written
Fragment: beyond fracturing, or bursting, the patience of pure impatience, little by little suddenly.—Maurice Blanchot (1995, 34)
These fragments I have shored against my ruins—T.S. Eliot (2002, 69)
Works which were written and were burned, like ghosts, leave something of their trace behind; that is to say, the potential of a lone title belonging to either an imaginary or destroyed work contains within it the ability to conjure an entire literary world that signifies as one of the potential books in Borges’ Library of Babel. The title of an imaginary and/or destroyed work acts like an aphorism, a fragmentary piece of text that contains within it several layers of significations and potential significations.
I will return more fully at the end of this essay to the theoretical implications of a hermeneutics of the fragment, even if the theoretical case to be made will, of necessity, be less “full” and rather, as partial and fragmented as its object. For now, I wish to approach these theoretical matters by way of analyses of a number of literary texts, namely Eco, Borges, Lovecraft, Sade, Nabokov, and Joyce.
Traditional thinking of the fragment would site the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers as the exemplars of a theory of the fragment. In many cases, the only remnants of many Greek philosophers’ oeuvres are via fragments of their writings recorded by subsequent philosophers (Socrates in the case of Plato) or doxographers (such as Diogenes Laertius). [End Page 239] Therefore, there is no original text to cite or analyze in its entirety when considering the philosophical writings of say, Empedocles or Heraclitus. The philosophical fragments of Hellenic philosophers will not be my focus; instead, I am interested in the implications of the fragment/supplement in relation to poetics or literary criticism, especially considering the recent publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (2009) and the translated notes of the Marquis de Sade’s The Days at Florbelle (2003). By using the theoretical concepts of the fragment and the supplement as a guide, I will briefly sketch out a history of such a hermeneutics through three different categories of absent or partially-absent texts: 1) imaginary fragments will be highlighted in the works of Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, and Luigi Serafini in order to demonstrate that the “imaginary” and non-existent texts created by these writers and artists manifest as supplemental textualities; 2) biblioclasmic or destroyed texts will be epitomized in the work of the Marquis de Sade whose self-declared “magnum opus” was burned after his death by his son, who was seeking to save the world from his father’s depravity; and 3) saved fragments will be focused on, primarily in the work of James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. Both of these examples (Joyce and Nabokov) highlight the benefit and textual complexity of scholarly engagement with fragmented texts, demonstrating how in the case of Joyce, fragmentation illustrates his theoretical concerns with the “epiphany,” and in Nabokov, his final work becomes a collaborative product with his son, Dmitri.
Unfortunately, given the terrain that I will cover, this essay will itself feature a somewhat fragmented style; this is, I feel, unavoidable given the breadth of such a history of textual fragmentation. It may be possible, in another context, to focus on one or two texts and delve deeply into their fragmentation in a methodical and linear way. My intention in this essay is, rather, to begin to think through a literary criticism of fragmented, lost, or imaginary texts—to offer a hermeneutics of absent textuality—in order to better understand a metaphysical arche-writing that can only ever remain as “virtual” or potential textual-production. Blanchot suggests that fragmented texts inevitably lead to rupture and what he calls a “writing of the disaster”: “When all is said, what remains to be said is the disaster. Ruin of words, demise writing, faintness faintly murmuring: what remains without remains (the fragmentary)” (1995, 33, original emphasis).
The fragment is that which remains after either the biblioclasmic event (as in the case of manuscript burning), or the title...