Fragments of Fragments

In 2016 I wrote a couple of posts on lists of writers whose work survives or is best known in fragments, who could even be imagined as the precursors of bloggers.

This morning I have rewritten these posts for the collected prose book, From the Burning Archive that I will publish later this year. I hope you enjoy it.


A blog is a fragmentary artwork. The aesthetic philosophy of the blog – a dissonant phrase of paradox – is at odds with the virtues of the masterpiece. You do not find here completion, mastery, comprehensiveness, or any perfectly realised vision. Some blogs do present their niche as an encyclopedia of their author’s thought-world. But the evanescent writing that I enjoy reminds us to be

“Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.”

(Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus)

Before the internet, much of the best writing survived and was made in fragments. This afternoon, for example, I picked up a book of aphorisms, only turned into one whole piece after Kafka’s death and in only partial fulfillment of his design. In this collection of fragments, this remarkable parable on tradition survived.

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony.

(Franz Kafka, The Collected Aphorims, #20)

I was introduced to this parable by Howard Felperin in the only year at university when I studied literary studies. And Felperin had been taught by Harold Bloom who placed Kafka in the Western Canon because of his fragments. It was not the whole works, not the Kafkaesque essence, that Bloom saw as canonical. The canon was mined only from the good parts of the incomplete novels, the aphorisms or parables, the stories, some not finished, and parts of his diaries and letters. Bloom wrote

“one must range widely in his writings, because no particular genre that he attempted holds his essence. He is a great aphorist but not a pure storyteller, except in fragments and in the very short stories we call parables.”

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, p 448

Kafka’s writings only survived because Max Brod, his friend and executor, defied Kafka’s instructions to burn all his writing. Brod made other small breaches of faith to edit and smooth Kafka’s shards into a coherent whole. But like the entropic energy of a collapsing star, the fragments fragmented again.

I celebrate and commemorate writers like Kafka who made their art in fragments or who only survive in fragments. Among them, fragments perhaps of all writers, are Sappho, Maurice Blanchot, Emile Cioran, Walter Benjamin, and Heraclitus. When we read, no fragment stands in the same river twice.

This morning, while reading Harold Bloom on Ralph Waldo Emerson, I found another sage’s voice shattered into fragments. In Anatomy of Influence Bloom commented that Emerson thought in isolated sentences. The best of Emerson is found in fragments that shimmer in those sentences within the wild growth of his paragraphs and the loose forms of his essays.

Here I found a model for myself. My writing and my thought prefer the fragmentary, where I see glints of prophecies of a long transformation of the self. The long haul novel or well structured book, comfortable in its genre, is not for me. The path of the masterpiece is blocked, but the way, the trail of curiosity, intuition and curation of the fragmentary, is open to me.
From Bloom, I learned of Emerson’s Journals. Here Emerson was most himself. They are vast miscellanies of a self-reliant spirit in search of wisdom. They show the drama of a mind conflicted about its cultural heritage. The Journals are full of snippets of quotation and commentary on the literary heritage, like a polymath’s field notes. Despite his practice of the fragment, Emerson dreamed of a transcendent remaking of the poet. Bloom calls this dream, Orphism. This philosophy urged the self-reliant thinker not to destroy the written past, but leave behind its ruins. So Emerson wrote: “When we have new perception, we will gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish.”

As I read read fragments of the Journals, available in a complete edition online, I image Emerson as a precursor of the blogger, with his weekly lectures, his frequent sermons, and the vast random curiosity of his Journals. He is a precursor of my own dream of writing in fragments. In the Journals Emerson transcribed this anticipation of the burning archive from Goethe:

Literature is a fragment of fragments: the least of what happened and was spoken, has been written; and of the things that have been written, very few have been preserved.

Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, # 404

Goethe spoke in lapidary phrases what I have struggled to express in these fragments. In maxim #80, Goethe wrote: “History writing is a way of getting rid of the past.” And in the first maxim of this collection, he wrote “There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.”

So, I find in these fragments an infintie conversation carried on from Goethe to Emerson to Bloom to myself. Was Goethe’s maxim the beginning of the sentence that Bloom describes as the most Emersonian of all? “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Fragments, conversation and rejected thoughts affirm the curious path I have taken.

Image: Goethe’s fragmentary collection of popular songs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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