The fragment – that white-spaced text – has been in vogue of late. From music critic Ted Gioia’s claim that “novels are falling to pieces” to Maggie Nelson revolutionizing the form with her prose-poem Bluets, and even to popular novels such as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, the fully evolved narrative seems to be giving way in favor of the defragmented and the disintegrated. Perhaps it has to do with our inability to maintain our attention spans as our lives become ever more interconnected. Conversely, perhaps it’s our desire to focus it: to still the mind as it’s captured by a single aphorism on a page, for example, or to feel the sense of collaboration as we rise to complete a poetic image.
Whatever the reasons for our interest in broken forms, the fragment is unique in its ability to allow both a singular idea and its collated whole to speak on their own. It’s also unique in its ability to be meaningful from deliberate fracturing; that is, fragmented art can be intentionally put together, like Matisse, or be devolved, or lost, like Sappho’s poetry. Or the fracturing can be accidental, in the way that a piece of broken pottery in the Japanese aesthetic (wabi-sabi) can be more beautiful in its imperfection. “The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness,” said Tobias Wolff, and in considering these qualities, I’ve compiled a list of both found and made literary fragments that maintain a brilliant completeness both at the time they were made as well as today.
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book
Ink painting of Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai (1781 – 1878).
47. Rare Things
A son-in-law who is praised by his adoptive father; a young bride who is loved by her mother-in-law.
A silver tweezer that is good at plucking out the hair.
A servant who does not speak badly about his master.
A person who is in no way eccentric or imperfect, who is superior in both mind and body, and who remains flawless all his life.
People who live together and still manage to behave with reserve towards each other. However much these people may try to hide their weaknesses, they usually fail.
To avoid getting ink stains on the notebook into which one is copying stories, poems, or the like. If it is a very fine notebook, one takes the greatest care not to make a blot; yet somehow one never seems to succeed.
When people, whether they be men or women or priests, have promised each other eternal friendship, it is rare for them to stay on good terms until the end.
A servant who is pleasant to his master.
One has given some silk to the fuller and, when he sends it back, it is so beautiful that one cries out in admiration.
54. Things That Give a Pathetic Impression
The voice of someone who blows his nose while he is speaking.
The expression of a woman plucking her eyebrows.
– From The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris (1967)
Sei Shōnagon (born around 965 AD) was a poet who lived in the Heian period. A lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako during the end of the tenth century, she spent her days writing poems, entertaining the empress, and jotting down observations about court life. Shōnagon was a rival of fellow court lady Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, the first modern novel, who mentions her in her own diaries. Though little else is known about Shōnagon, the book contributed greatly to contemporary knowledge about upper class life in Imperial Japan, and her descriptions of nature, character sketches, anecdotes, and so on, would later be copied by many admirers, in a form that would later be named a “pillow book,” due to the owner keeping the journal by his or her pillow.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment”
Print by Patten Wilson in an 1898 edition of “Selections from the Poets: Coleridge” by Andrew Lang.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote the poem “Kubla Khan” after a drug-induced dream about Xanadu. According to a preface, after reading the phrase “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall,” in a work describing the Mongol’s summer palace, he fell into an opium-induced dream state where he saw the poem in its 200-300 line entirety. When he woke, he set about writing it down, but was interrupted by a business call, and promptly forgot the remaining words. Coleridge did not publish the “fragment” for several years, preferring to read it aloud for house guests, but at the urging of Lord Byron, he eventually published the poem alongside another now famous poem, Christabel, in 1816.
The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert
Icarus and Daedalus from Joseph Meyer’s Meyers Konversationslexikon (1888).
Thought forms in the soul in the same way clouds form in the air.
Writing is closer to thinking than to speaking.
The imagination has made more discoveries than the eye.
Like Daedalus, I am forging myself wings. I construct them little by little, adding one feather each day.
This poetic nudity within words.
Happy is the man who can do only one thing: in doing it, he fulfils his destiny.
– From The Journals of Joseph Joubert, translated by Paul Auster.
Though French writer Joseph Joubert did not publish a single word during his lifetime, the thoughts he wrote down every day for forty years remain available as the volume Pensées. Writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, he first used his diaries to prepare for a longer work, eventually realizing that this work would never eventuate. Nevertheless, he continued to write, stating that “these thoughts form not only the foundations of my work, but of my life.” After his death, the diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand and politician Louis-Marcelin de Fontanes put together a collection of his journals and distributed them privately among his friends in 1838. It was not until 1938 that a two-volume compilation of his works was finally published by André Beaunier.
Roland Barthes, Love by Stendhal and A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt.
Here is what happens in the soul:
2. You think, ‘How delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her,’ and so on…
3. Hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure. Even the most reserved women blush to the whites of their eyes at this moment of hope. The passion is so strong, and the pleasure so sharp, that they betray themselves unmistakably.
4. Love is born. To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.
5. The first crystallization begins. If you are sure that a woman loves you, it is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from Heaven, unknown as yet, but certain to be yours.
What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
You hear a traveller speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her!
– From Chapter 2: Concerning the Birth of Love, Love, by Stendhal, translated by Gilbert and Suzanne Sale (1822)
ravissement / ravishment
The supposedly initial episode (though it may be reconstructed after the fact) during which the amorous subject is ‘ravished’ (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object (popular name: love at first sight; scholarly name: enameration).
5. …the first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness (what makes me irresponsible, subject to fatality, swept away, ravished): and of all the arrangements of objects, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time: a curtain parts: what had not yet ever been seen is discovered in its entirety, and then devoured by the eyes: what is immediate stands for what is fulfilled: I am initiated: the scene consecrates the object I am going to love… Is the scene always visual? It can be aural, the frame can be linguistic: I can fall in love with a sentence spoken to me: and not only because it says something which man- ages to touch my desire, but because of its syntactical turn (framing) which will inhabit me like a memory.
– From A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard (1977)
The essayist and novelist known as Stendhal wrote the book Love (De l’amour) as a thinly disguised confession of his love for his paramour Méthilde. Both deeply analytical and profoundly sensitive (he reportedly wept during the correcting of the proofs), Stendhal sought to dissect the construct of love by defining four kinds of love (physical love, love as a social construct, vanity love, and passion), as well as devising the idea of crystallization, the hypothesis of falling in love for which the book is most well-known. Similarly, linguist Roland Barthes surprised the stuffy literary theorist world by writing eighty fervent fragments on the discourse of love. Reflecting the nature of passionate love itself, the fragments are expressed as a series of gestures, “figures” of the lover at work, alongside references to Werther, Zen Buddhism, and Nietzsche. Both men, each impassioned by a love affair (Barthes was never publicly out as a homosexual; A Lover’s Discourse is reportedly also based on a romance), were unsuccessful in parsing out their thoughts in a satisfyingly logical way, lamenting the way their minds “went crazy” (Stendhal) or “raced with desire” (Barthes); what remains for each is a loving gesture towards an emotion that perhaps no-one can comprehend.