Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre

Article excerpt

Elias, Camelia. The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre. Bern: Peter Lang, 2004. 397 pp. $73.95 paperback.

In his wonderful, brief book Interruptions (1996; Unterbrechungen 1989), Hans-Jost Frey says that "One understands the fragment at the expense of its fragmentary nature. Understanding is precisely the suppression of fragmentariness, since it creates context where every relation breaks off" (26). Camelia Elias's book is a very long attempt to understand the fragment and to create a "taxonomy" (20) for this understanding. She discovers or invents ten different kinds of fragment, and places them on a "grid" that is both historical (or vertical) and poetic (or horizontal). Her exemplary texts are Heraclitus, the Romantics (particularly Friedrich Schlegel), a group of modernists (including Aragon, Cioran, and Stein), and many postmodern writers. But she seems primarily interested in providing a philosophical context for discussions of the fragment, often relying, however, on others' recent interpretations of Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger to make her points.

I should confess right away that I have sometimes been unable to follow her arguments. Often the book seems to be an example of what Wittgenstein called "the idling of language," language that grinds on without getting anywhere. A representative passage: "This is the unfinished form of the modern aphorism: to effectuate an incompatible compatibility in which the fragment's potential consists in 'seeing' the difference between the fragment and the fragmentary but only as an 'impression' of that difference. Giving the fragment to itself, as it were, is giving the fragment the role of knowing its reader" (153). Elias also loves to pun and play with words, though her English is not quite up to it. (Perhaps she also needed a more alert editor than Peter Lang seems to have supplied.) Writing about the fragment is inherently a paradoxical, even an impossible task, as Frey has pointed out-but Elias seems unable to find a language adequate to the delicacy and difficulty of her undertaking. …

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