Forms of focus; tempora cum causis (17)

In The Content of the Form (1987), Hayden White discusses the Annals of Saint Gall’s chronicle of events from the 7th-10th centuries CE. White focuses upon entries for the 8th century CE (pp-6-7):


This year-by-year list of events is interestingly selective. Many years have no entries despite the fact that, presumably, things did happen during that time. But not ones considered necessary to include. The criterion for inclusion also embraces different kinds of event, particularly moments of destruction: bad crops (but also…”great crops”), flood, death of elites, battles. In 732 CE, there was a battle “on Saturday” but no other information is given — not date, not month. The significance of these events is indeed emphasized by such selectivity — the act of omission puts these particular moments in sharper focus. But it’s hard to look at this and not see anything other than a partial record.

In Allusion and Intertext (1998), Stephen Hinds described how focusing upon an aspect of a whole has a “fragmentizing” effect (p103):

“A reading of Virgil which ‘fragments’ the Homeric model into discrete events ‘alluded to’ may reflect nothing more (and nothing less) than a basic interpretative imperative felt by the Virgilian reader to ‘freeze‘ Homer, to hold him still for a moment so that he can be contemplated from a Virgilian point of view.”

Here we have the idea that discussing, or in any way narrativizing, a point of reference is to freeze and hold that referent from a particular point of view, but also to break it off from its original context. An equivalent might be: pressing pause on a video shot from one person’s perspective. So despite the fact that we might be longing for wholeness — indeed, might even be subjected to a kind of wholeness on a daily basis — our perceptive and intellectual faculties create a kind of fragmentation even when we simply try to engage with the reality which surrounds us.

This week, I read (or rather, inhaled) Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), which has just come out. (A few weeks ago I read about it in the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal.) This novel captures the dread of living in the present moment as an individual facing a future fragmented by climate change. The book itself proceeds in fragmented form, each entry a small paragraph:

These paragraphs might remind you of a number of things. Diary entries. Tweets. Words scribbled on the back on an envelope, or into the notes app. Offill’s novel, proceeding fragmentarily, argues like Hayden White: there is reality, it is happening, but our telling of it is distinct from that reality, and can only ever capture something partial. All narratives, White would argue, have to reckon with this. But Offill’s novel dramatizes this narrative problem, using it as a tool to bring to the foreground the movements of a internal human psychology as it responds to a variety of threats, from the banal of the everyday to the threat of climate destruction.

In my ancient women class this week, we were discussing the fragments of Sappho. Sappho (7th c. BCE) is an interesting figure, of course, because she has loomed so large and for so long in the imaginations of so many, despite the fact that, historically, her readers have only been able to access her work in partial forms. On twitter, there is a bot (@sapphobot) which periodically sends out verses of Sappho as translated by Anne Carson; these tweets are fragments in a number of senses — fragmented by textual transmission (via quotation or shattered papyri), by translation from Greek to English, by twitter’s character limit. In class, the students argued that fragments are more alluring than surviving wholes, and they are right. One student noted that people like “bite-sized” things now, miniatures of culture which can be easily consumed, and easily shared. The combination of ephemerality and immortality is potent. A fragment of Sappho can contain an expression of desire so profoundly human (it can also be a banal list of things). A tweet, an instagram story, captures something real (or something insignificant), and then it’s gone. Text and technology reflect the inherent process of fragmentation via focalization.


A newly made piece of papyrus in the foreground; fragmentary papyrus from the 2nd c. CE (P. Oxy. 2288) containing Sappho poem 1.