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.

Nausicaa pyxis; climate change and fragments; N. K. Jemisin; tempora cum causis (15)

Ancient. In the Boston MFA, there is a late 5th c. BCE pyxis which depicts the scene from Odyssey Book 6 where a naked Odysseus encounters Nausicaa. Given that the pyxis was an object used by women (as a make up or jewelry box), it is really interesting to see what kind of scenes are depicted on them; i.e. what kind of media did the Greeks of this period think was fitting for women? I look at this object and imagine a young (affluent) woman holding it in her hands, seeing reflections of her own life in the life of Nausicaa in Phaeacia (as well as the “calculated flirtation”, as Emily Wilson calls it, between herself and Odysseus). Note the care given by the painter to distinguish each of the figures on the vase according to their narrative role, and class: Odysseus, as in Homer’s depiction, is embarrassed by his nakedness; Athena is present as his guide; the women in Nausicaa’s attendance run wildly away when Odysseus appears (as in Homer), except for the one still engaged in the washing; Nausicaa stands tall, and is elaborately dressed. This graphic representation is remarkably faithful to the verses of the Odyssey. Compare the 20th century version by American painter, William McGregor Paxton, in which everyone is naked, not just Odysseus.

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Here is Emily Wilson’s translation of the scene (Odyssey 6.119-146):

“What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent,
or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?
I heard the sound of female voices. Is it
nymphs, who frequent the craggy mountaintops,
and river streams and meadows lush with grass?
Or could this noise I hear be human voices?
I have to try to find out who they are.”

Odysseus jumped up from our the bushes.
Grasping a leafy branch he broke it off
to cover up his manly private parts.
Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,
and beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes
burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,
or wild deer, and hunger drives it on
to try the sturdy pens of sheep — so need
impelled Odysseus to come upon
the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked.
All caked with salt, he looked a dreadful sight.
They ran along the shore quite terrified,
some here, some there. But Nausicaa stayed still.
Athena made her legs stop trembling
and gave her courage in her heart. She stood there.
He wondered, should he touch her knees, or keep
some distance and use charming words, to beg
the pretty girl to show him to the town,
and give him clothes. At last he thought it best
to keep some distance and use words to beg her.

Modern. Earlier this week I was texting with a friend when they mentioned that coffee production may be at risk by the year 2050. The dread of climate change is something that is always with me (I stopped eating meat a few years ago for this reason), but I find myself always pushing it to the back of my mind. The coffee thing brought it forward in an instant. I found myself googling flood projections for Boston, where I live now, as well as my childhood home, Glasgow. I thought about the fear of things to come which washed over me when I saw the flood sequence in Parasite. I asked my husband whether, in light of all of this, we were really doing enough. I asked myself why, given our knowledge of the climate emergency, I don’t give up everything and try to grow vegetables and live off the grid in some sustainable way. Then the next day, I got up and continued to write and worry about my book about Latin fragments.

Last week Parul Sehgal’s review of Jenny Offill’s novel, Weather (2020) appeared in the The New York Times: “How to Write Fiction When the Planet is Falling Apart.” (Thanks, Christian and Michele! Who individually sent me this because they knew I would like it.) Sehgal writes:

‘In her new novel, “Weather,” Offill applies her instruments — the fragment, the odd fact, her deep banks of knowledge on mysticism and natural history — to a broader canvas. The stakes are the survival not of a marriage but of the planet itself. “The question I was thinking about in this book,” she told me, “was, Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”’

And, further in:

‘These might be familiar stories of family life, but now imagine them told in shards, the plot edging forward in jokes, quotes, Zen koans. The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling. I read somewhere that clouds could be called floating lakes. That is what these fragments feel like: teeming worlds suspended in white space, entire novels condensed into paragraphs… The domestic and intellectual meet on the same plain in her work; the swirl of hair on the back of a baby’s head is as worthy a subject of contemplation as one of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms.’

The fragment has an essential duality. Whatever it is, it exists in its original context, connected to its surroundings (a baby’s hair swirl to the baby; Wittgenstein’s aphorism to the rest of his work); but it also exists on its own, as an image in a frame. It is both broken off (fragment is from frangere, Latin “to break” — it means “broken thing”) yet simultaneously resistant to breakage. Hence Sehgal’s invocation of the atom, which is, ostensibly, the thing which cannot be broken down any further (atom is from ἄτομος, Greek for “a thing that cannot be cut”). The atom as an idea (leaving aside the physical phenomenon which has been given this name) is a hard core, resistant to the processes of damage and loss which eat away at all the things which once surrounded it.

Sehgal’s analysis of Offill’s work highlights how dread in the face of climate change works upon a human observer of reality. Dread eats away perceptive connectivities, and leaves behind the most intense fragments of experience. Fragmentation plays a role in the micro but also the macro. Contemplation of its process brings up the inevitable question: what will survive? Scholars of antiquity look at this process of fragmentation after it has already occurred: shards of Sappho papyri, torturous manuscript traditions, small parts of once colossal statues. And while destruction (accidental or deliberate) has a role to play and how things do or don’t survive from antiquity, the kind of destruction we observe does not compare to what climate change can do to the face of the earth in the near future.

In the urgency of the present moment the question shifts from what will survive, to who will survive. The idea that coffee, such a mundane but profound part of my life now, may disappear in thirty years jolts me. But there is so much more at stake than this comfort, this little fragment of my life. The richest countries are the most responsible for climate change, but it is the poorest who will be most affected. How we treat each other is reflected in how we treat the earth. A renewed focus on what is lost, what we’re in the process of losing, and what we stand to lose soon is frightening, but it is what we need. In context of all of this, the fragment gains a new significance as a symbol both of our perception of reality, but also our capacity for action. Reconnecting what is fragmented, contextualizing the atomized, reframes the discrete, isolated parts of our lives as part of an urgent, global narrative.

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Excerpt. N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, p150): “A break in the pattern. A snarl in the weft. There are things you should be noticing, here. Things that are missing, and conspicuous by their absence.”

Daily life. We’ve been seeing a lot of films at Coolidge Corner, and it has been wonderful.