Limits of totality; fragmentary fragilities  

When Henry Jocelyn reviewed Edward Courtney’s Fragmentary Latin Poets (1993) in Hermathena (1995), a major vector of complaint was Jocelyn’s perception of the capriciousness of Courtney’s selections of material in the face of a theoretical “totality.” Jocelyn begins (p53): 

“The title of this book and the advertisement on the dust-jacket appear to claim that all the surviving bits of the Latin poems produced between 743 B.C. and A.D. 476 and not transmitted to ourselves entire can be found between its covers.” 

A brief history of the various attempts to make editions of “fragmentary Latin poets” follows, including: Antonio Agustín (whose 16th c. collection “remained in manuscript”), Robert Estienne printed by Henri Estienne (1564); Emil Baehrens (1886), subsequently iterated by Willy Morel (1927), Karl Büchner (1982), and, soon after this review, Jürgen Blänsdorf (1995). Amidst this unfolding genealogical documentation of omissions, excisions, and expansions, Jocelyn (p53) first critiques the failed totality of Emil Baehrens’ Fragmenta Poetarum Romanorum

“This ought to have included everything cited by surviving ancient writers from poetic works which did not survive, but Baehrens behaved somewhat wilfully.” 

The critique of Baehrens’ “willfulness” prepares the way for Jocelyn’s (p54) critique of Courtney’s “personal whimsy”: 

“Edward Courtney keeps the inner structure of Baehrens’ FPR but toys with the superstructure more than Morel or Buechner did. Various slips (e.g. the reference to ‘DServ.’ and ‘codd.’ in relation to Cinna, fr. 6 on p. 218; the implication of a sentence on p. 251 that the ‘codex Illyricus’ of Festus was something other than cod. Naples, Bibl. Naz. IV. A. 3) indicate a less than total grasp of the sources of the material. No clear general design emerges from the preface or from the ‘fragments’ actually included in the volume. Personal whimsy runs free.” 

Of course, the idea that an authoritative scholar (or anyone, for that matter) might zero in on our “mistakes” and thereby accuse us of not knowing what we’re doing is itself deeply chilling – and in this case evidences the rootedness of our scholarly practices in a culture of honor and shame (especially shame), while also showing the human side of scholarship (even the big names make “mistakes”!). It would be fruitful here to consider Tema Okun’s identification of perfectionism as a characteristic of white supremacy culture: “mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes”; “ making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong.” The truth is that the outgrowth (iterating, versioning, re-versioning) of these fragmentary editions is ultimately motivated by the sense that our scholarly precursors were not quite correct in their editorial selections or the overall execution of the project. 

But let’s think about what it means to get this “right.” Jocelyn’s initial statement that a book called Fragmentary Latin Poets ought to contain every “bit” of “not-entire” Latin poetry from the founding of Rome to the fall of (the western half of) empire indicates an underlying desire for fragmentary editions to capture an impossible totality. And when Jocelyn found mistakes in Courtney’s work, he saw this as evidence of a “less than total grasp” of material so massive that it essentially represents a disciplinary totality. Now, Courtney himself engaged in this kind of critique of fragmentary editions, for instance in his BICS (1984) review of Morel and Büchner (p131):

“Now a revision of the work by Karl Büchner (Teubner, Leipzig 1982), has posthumously appeared, which has corrected a good few of Morel’s errors and supplemented a number of gaps. But Büchner is no more impeccable than Morel; there are still gaps and errors in what he provides.”

Courtney, then, was also engaging in some theorization of totality in addressing “gaps and errors” (via the moralizing language of scholarly “sin”). But when Courtney (p72) replied to Jocelyn’s review in Hermathena (1996), he responded to critique by pointing out the ways in which Jocelyn’s own knowledge (or, performance of knowledge) was less than “total”: 

“‘The title of this book…appear(s) to claim that all the surviving bits of the Latin poems produced between 753 BC and AD 476 and not transmitted to ourselves entire can be found within its covers.’ Consider now the title of Jocelyn’s only book (I shall return to that word ‘only’ at the end), The Tragedies of Ennius, the Fragments (edited with an Introduction and Commentary). We then find with astonishment that the last 100 lines of fragmentary text are left without annotation.” 

Aside from the fact that the heightened and competitive severity of tone in these discourses of review might dissuade some from entering into such “debates” at all – and thereby produce the kinds of “shadow books” theorized by Kevin Young (2012): i.e. the books that “fail” to be written – I find it significant that the question of the fragment is so wrapped up in the concept of totality. Aside from the fact that “totality” is essentially beyond human comprehension, the “fragment” describes so many different kinds of “non-entire” cultural artefact that no collection, no Borgesian “library” will ever rematerialize the totalities we have imagined. At the same time, the perception that these editions are lacking in some way (the “lack” is baked in – no amount of scholarly annotation will remedy it, although that isn’t a reason not to annotate) means that we will probably never stop iterating these editions. 

The more we attempt to approach totality, the more we inscribe ourselves into the fragments. (For it is no longer a “fragment” of whatever Latin poet or poem: but Jocelyn’s or Courtney’s – right?). Indeed, that was partially Jocelyn’s point: that Baehrens’ “willfulness” showed too much of his own personality, too much of his own “will” (as opposed to some theoretically “objective” selection process); that Courtney showed too much “personal whimsy.” The concept of totality presupposed is supposedly antithetical to the personal choice of an editor – but these choices will always be “personal” to some extent, and pretending otherwise is dishonest. (Modern selectiveness meets ancient selectiveness, though: perhaps the topic for another blog post is the fact that what is fragmentary is what has undergone, in many cases, the “personal whimsy” of ancient commentators.) More can be said about what a fragmentary edition intends to convey, and about what such a work presupposes about the possibility of “collection.” If totality is the intention, though, then the fragmentary edition is – in my view, anyway – committed to a conceptual impossibility.

imagine yourself in the library

library (after Borges) – h č-b

Imagine the library (“the universe (which others call the Library)”) that Borges thought of — infinite, and containing everything that you might want to know, in the way that you can know things from books. Imagine that your brain has been memory wiped — you don’t know what you know but you do know something about who you are because you have your body still, and you experience the world that way. Maybe that body you have is supported by some kind of biological exo-suit “for satisfying one’s physical necessities.”* Whatever is the optimal – that’s what you feel. You’re in a chemically induced state of bliss. And all you have to do — all you’ve somehow been instructed to do – is read. You can read whatever you want. You don’t know anything. Where do you start?

Borges’ “The Library of Babel” starts by building an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” The Library. The universe. This universe is infinitely recursive in its hexagonal shape. As I was drawing them, it occurred to me that hexagons don’t come naturally to my hand. (I had a “cubist” period recently, by which I mean I kept finding myself drawing and painting cubes). What’s interesting about drawing a hexagon (try it!) is that one hexagon invites another (“each letter influences the next”) — it’s hard to draw one without wanting to draw the next, which takes two of its lines from the first. This is not at all like my cubes, which stood alone (they, too, suggested the next in their own way — much more a result of my own desire to repeat). The hexagon, though: it wants more hexagons. Hexagons have a sci-fi feel — a special kind of texture, a flexible material. But the hexagon doesn’t belong to the future, at least, not only so. It’s already here, and has been here for a long time — in the shapes made by honey bees. (“Idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are the necessary shape of absolute space, or at least our perception of space. They argue that a triangular or pentagonal chamber is inconceivable.”)

Borges’ library contains everything (totality, wholeness, perfection, completeness), including things that are not true and which cannot be distinguished from the truth. At the same time, this recursivity is not as endlessly expansive as it might seem. Even though Borges provokes a desire in us — a hunger of a kind — for an answer, an end, and a limit in a seemingly limitless space, he also provides a number of imaginative boundaries. Even though there are children, young men, old men, fathers (the writer recalls an experience related to him by his father; the young worship the written word; the old try to mirror the library algorithm in secret) there are no not-men. The library is supposed to be able to produce all things in all languages, and yet the examples of totality are gnostic texts, commentaries, and the “lost books of Tacitus” — not books by, or even about, aliens or trees or deep sea creatures. The English word “book” (like Latin liber and codex) contains within a secret indication of its organic origin. But in the Library, the book itself is pure textuality.

If I am in my own library with my exo-suit but without my memory, I don’t know where I will go.

*As far as I can tell, Borges only really seems to mean “to go to the bathroom” with this phrase: over the course of the story he refers to “water closets for the seated librarian”, and “latrines” where old men would secretly try to replicate the library’s process with forbidden dice. Although he speaks of joy, depression, disease — he never in this story mentions food, drink, nature, exercise (except in the form of travel), sex. He does, however, speak of light in terms which imply organic growth but ultimately deny satiety: “Light is provided by certain spherical fruits that bear the name ‘bulbs.’ There are two of these bulbs in each hexagon, set crosswise. The light they give is insufficient, and unceasing.”