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.

Plato, the shadow book, Samantha Irby; tempora cum causis (7)

Ancient. I wouldn’t say that I am the biggest Plato* fan in the world, but there is one passage of the Protagoras that I do actually find myself coming back to often. Here comes the Loeb of Protagoras 314a–314b:

καὶ γὰρ δὴ καὶ πολὺ μείζων κίνδυνος ἐν τῇ τῶν μαθημάτων ὠνῇ ἢ ἐν τῇ τῶν σιτίων. σιτία μὲν γὰρ καὶ ποτὰ πριάμενον παρὰ τοῦ καπήλου καὶ ἐμπόρου ἔξεστιν ἐν ἄλλοις ἀγγείοις ἀποφέρειν, καὶ πρὶν δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα πιόντα ἢ φαγόντα, καταθέμενον οἴκαδε ἔξεστι συμβουλεύσασθαι, παρακαλέσαντα τὸν ἐπαΐοντα, ὅ τι τε ἐδεστέον ἢ ποτέον καὶ ὅ τι μή, καὶ ὁπόσον καὶ ὁπότε· ὥστε ἐν τῇ ὠνῇ οὐ μέγας ὁ κίνδυνος. μαθήματα δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἄλλῳ ἀγγείῳ ἀπενεγκεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀνάγκη, καταθέντα τὴν τιμήν, τὸ μάθημα ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ψυχῇ λαβόντα καὶ μαθόντα ἀπιέναι ἢ βεβλαμμένον ἢ ὠφελημένον. 

“For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of doctrines than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them by in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when; so that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel: you are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your very soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man.”

Food and drink, the things we consume, can be good or bad for us. But we’re not immediately exposed to this benefit or harm. We have a chance to consider whether or not to ingest them. We can consult someone whose opinion is worth knowing. Ideas are different, according to Socrates. Once you hear something, you can’t unhear it. There is no mechanism to mediate ideas – we become infected, by good things and bad alike, via an organic movement of thought which no vessel can contain. Contagion of this kind is discussed in the Protagoras as part of a warning against accepting the teachings of the sophists – individuals who, from Plato’s perspective, can teach you intellectual parlour tricks, but not true wisdom. As James Collins (2015: 158) writes, “In this scenario, there is no gap between things taught and things learned; both are μαθήματα and instantly transmitted…To hear is to learn. Exposure means ingestion.”

As Collins notes, it’s surprisingly to hear Socrates speak this way. The absorption of ideas is figured as instantaneous – stripped of the possibility of a failure, or rejection, of understanding (ib.): “Following his metaphor of ingestion (δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα) to the end, also missing are the vital processes of chewing, swallowing, and digestion, not to mention the possibilities of indigestion and regurgitation.” Yet everyone who has tried to learn something knows that it’s not always easy to internalize new ideas. At the same time, the kind of unwitting contagion which this passage describes is a real phenomenon. In 1994, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues, John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson, produced a text entitled Emotional Contagion, outlining the impact of one individual’s emotions over another’s. In the introduction to the book, Hatfield describes a scenario in which she and Rapson, working together as therapists, left a session in a state of high-wired anxiety. After some reflection they understood that they were both feeling the emotions of their patient, even though they did not realize this was the case, and indeed, had initially missed the signs of her deliberately cloaked distress.

While we’ve historically been discouraged from thinking so, we learn with our emotions. Plato’s suggestion that we “catch” ideas reflects the mechanism of emotional contagion, which in turn suggests that knowledge is generated and conveyed relationally, socially. Despite the fact that we (academics especially) flagillate and exert ourselves into knowing more, there is something to be said for the fact that a student (and, in my case, a professor, i.e. the eternal student) learns passively from their environment and from their social surroundings. The internet’s role in this epistemology of contagion is an interesting one. On the one hand, the exposure to so much social information means that we are exposed (and ingest) ideas at a higher rate than ever before. This does have benefits. The confessional nature of social media has given me a chance to see into the lives of those who have different experiences from me. Getting to know the voices of the marginalized prepares me better to advocate them for them in my own positions of power (such as they are). On the other hand, the difficulty of resisting this absorption means that malicious ideas are also spread quickly. Ultimately, it is of interest to that, as original as I may think I am, some of my ideas are not coming directly from my interal processes but are developing passively from my interactions with others.

*My problem is not really with Plato, but with the reception of Plato. It bothers me that Plato is so often invoked without placing his ideas in their cultural and intellectual context.

Modern. After hearing Sarah Derbew discuss Kevin Young’s The Grey Album (2012) during her talk at BU last week, I wanted to read it too. The first chapter of this work, “The Shadow Book”,  presents a taxonomy of books which fail to be written. Given the fact that what we research and write about must be reflective of our identities, I’m not exactly sure why I am so interested in fragmentation and lack. At a certain point I moved away from the fullness (some might say over-fullness) of Cicero towards the other voices which his works contain – or at least echo – and from that point on I became attracted to the world of the fragmented, forgotten, or lost. Young’s work confirms something which can be readily felt: no writing contains everything that the writer might wish to say, and all writing reveals a negative imprint of the world which shaped it. There is no fullness. In the case of black culture, fullness is negated not just by the natural negation of existence, but by a deep and long history of violence – slavery, social death, and the social inheritance of their effects. Books, if they are written in the first place, are left unfinished, lost, burned. In the context of violence, black authors speak in code; their words say one thing, but there is also another meaning, a shadow. Donna Zuckerberg used the image of the shadow library to describe how harassment in the academy has made us lose brilliant scholarship that was never produced. Young’s writing invites a reflection on what we really think text can do — certainly, literature and writing gives an index of reality, but it isn’t the totality of what is real. I keep find myself saying to our students, “The ancient sources don’t want to tell you what you want to know.” There is an inherent conservatism to most ancient writing – they are not like William Carlos Williams, whose poetry attempts to include, as Young (2012: 16) writes, “not everything but anything.” Cicero, whose letters often seem so confessional, wasn’t making a documentary for us. He took things for granted in his writing (as we all do); aspects of his life which were so familiar to him that he didn’t write about them are the kind of things which we could now never prove existed.


Excerpt. Samantha Irby 2017: 218: “People are boring and terrible. I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups,* my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge! I’m impatient. I like the whole bed.”

*I don’t usually include an editorial note on these excerpts (I like them to speak for themselves), but “my smart sometimes hiccups” is my new mantra.

Daily Life. Last week, thanks to Rhiannon Knol, I got to get up close and personal with some early printed classical texts at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair.