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Formes brèves

 | 
Cécile Meynard
, 
Emmanuel Vernadakis

Quatrième partie : Fragment et inachevé

Short form and literary aesthetics : fragmentation and unity

Mario Farina

Texte intégral

  • 1 I refer in particular to the nineteenth Century debate that immediately follows the age of expressi (...)
  • 2 Of course, the notion of form has always been problematic in philosophical reflection. One could su (...)

1The aim of this paper is to investigate in which terms short literary form (in particular, in the sense of fragment), despite its distinctive independence from any element of unity of form, can be philosophically, and notably aesthetically, understood against the background of literary formality. More precisely, what I intend to do in what follows is to investigate the challenge raised by short literary forms, and, as a result, radically stress their notion, as paradigmatic exemplification of contemporary literary expression. In doing so, I will read the notion of short form by relocating it in the framework of the aesthetic debate about fragment and fragmentation.1 What I intend to take in account is the problematic relationship between the classic notion of form as an organic unity among the parts and the fragmentation of form in nineteenth century production, in which literary work resembles a broken glass : even restored, the glass is still broken, and the unity of its form can be understood only as a collage of fragments. At first, I will stress the general concept of form in the philosophical determination of the artwork. In this first part I will focus on the so-called “classical aesthetics,” that is to say on the German philosophical tradition (namely, Kant and Hegel) ;2 secondly, I will investigate the persistence of the notion of form in the philosophical tradition of the twentieth Century ; I will in particular focus on the critical concept of form as “complete incompleteness.” In this context, and by following the literary examples of Kafka and Beckett, I will draw attention to the notion of fragment in the aesthetic theory of Benjamin and Adorno ; finally, I will test the previously provided philosophical definition on some examples from contemporary novel.

2My investigation stems, in short, from the following question : is it still possible to think something as a complete notion of form in the context of the extreme contemporary fragmentation of the novel ? In other words, one could legitimately wonder if the destruction of the unity necessarily implies that the aesthetic form itself is once and for all ruined. In this respect I will argue that, although the classical paradigm defines the aesthetic object in light of an organic, and therefore harmonic, interpretation of form, also a set, a collection, of single short forms – that is, of single fragments – can anyway be considered as a determinate aesthetic form.

The form and the aesthetics

  • 3 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Eng. R. Hullon-Kentor, London-New York: Continuum, 1997, p. (...)
  • 4 On classical aesthetics as a reaction to the crisis of the formal rational paradigm: J. M. Bernstei (...)

3“It is astonishing, however,” writes Adorno,“how little aesthetics reflected on the category of form, how much it, the distinguishing aspect of art, has been assumed to be unproblematically given.”3 With these words, Adorno refers to classical, namely German, aesthetics, and he reveals what can be considered as a simple open secret. Every true aesthetics, every full-fledged philosophy of art, includes a given concept of form in its core structure, but at the same time the concept of form, at least in an aesthetic sense, is conceptually indefinable. As a result, one could argue that aesthetics start with the unavoidable problematizing of the very concept of form. After the collapse of classicism and of its both harmonic and rigid paradigm, the concept of form had begun to become problematic.4

  • 5 I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Eng. P. Guyer and E. Matthews, Cambridge: Cambri (...)

4Already in Kant’s account on beauty, especially developed in the Critique of Judgement, a problematic, or somehow paradoxical, notion of aesthetic form comes to the fore. On the one hand, in fact, the feeling of beauty – Kant says – is caused only by the “mere form” of the representation of the object ;5 on the other hand, Kant does not even try to conceptually define the notion of form within the realm of the aesthetic judgement. As is well known, in the judgement on beauty, in fact, the relation between the particular and the universal is different from any other kind of judgement, particularly from a judgement of knowledge. Therefore, a judgement like “the rose is beautiful” is theoretically different from a judgement like “the rose is red.” In the second case, we can have a universal concept in mind – the concept of red – and we can apply this concept to a particular object – the rose. In the case of beauty, we simply have a particular object in front of our eyes and precisely through the contemplation of the object we try to reach the universal of beauty. Therefore, the aesthetic judgement (“the rose is beautiful”) does not amount to the application of the universal concept of beauty to a particular rose, but it is instead the experience of the existence of such universal in the rose, without the possibility to conceptually grasp it. As Terry Pinkard puts it, in such kind of judgements

we are perceiving the instance as beautiful and, as it were, searching for a concept under which we could subsume it. (We do not, as it were, walk into a museum armed with a definite and precise concept of the beautiful and then examine each painting to see if it is subsumed under that concept).

  • 6 On this point, see the classic of literature: E. Cassirer, Kant’s Life and Thought, trans. Eng. J.  (...)

5Within this framework, we walk into a museum precisely pushed by the desire to reach and to catch the universal concept of beautiful, which is at any rate impossible to own.6

  • 7 See E. Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 10 (...)
  • 8 I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, op. cit., § 45, p. 179.

6Upon the end of Winckelmann’s age, the ruin of the classicist paradigm of beauty imposes, so to say, a search for some kind of substitution, without the guarantee offered by the canon. Consequently, the post classicist age, the so called Goethezeit, is born under the sign of nostalgia and yearning (Sehnsucht).7 In all the attempts to conceptually grasp the category of beauty, what emerges is in fact an organic but indefinable concept of form ; one whose description is mediated by the harmony and purposiveness of the natural and organic product. Thus, the description of the form of an aesthetic object is linked to the kind of purpose we perceive in nature : the representation according to which the flower is red because it has to seem poisonous to the herbivorous, the giraffe is tall because it needs to eat the top leaves of the trees, and so on. In Kant’s words : “nature was beautiful, if at the same time it looked like art ; and art can only be called beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature.”8 In short, the form of the beautiful object is a form that reminds us of the free disposition of nature. It is an organic, not fragmented and not mechanical form, that seems to be spontaneously created. Along these lines, emerges the modern and romantic conception of genius, as some sort of divine man who is able to reproduce God’s creation of the universe through art.

7Following the Kantian discussion of form, Hegel develops an aesthetic theory of the artwork based on the identity of form and content. At variance with Kant, though, he sees the realm of aesthetics not in the artistic reflection of the ideal of natural beauty, but rather in the artistic overcoming of nature itself :

These lectures are devoted to Aesthetics. Their topic is the spacious realm of the beautiful ; more precisely, their province is art, or, rather, fine art. […] By adopting this expression we at once exclude the beauty of nature [Hegel’s italics].

8According to Hegel, a successful artwork is a product in which we cannot see any kind of interruption between form and content. “By a definite content” says Hegel “the form appropriate to it is also made definite” and this is the reason why “in these arts form and content raise themselves to identity.” Most specifically :

For the work of art should put before our eyes a content, not in its universality as such, but one whose universality has been absolutely individualized and sensuously particularized. If the work of art does not proceed from this principle but emphasizes the universality with the aim of [providing] abstract instruction, then the pictorial and sensuous element is only an external and superfluous adornment, and the work of art is broken up internally, form and content no longer appear as coalesced. In that event the sensuously individual and the spiritually universal have become external to one another.

  • 9 The origin of this idea of form is clearly kantian; see I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, (...)

9Form and content are to such a degree united that no junction point is visible. To be more precise, and this is where the heritage of classical aesthetics has left its mark on Hegel’s thought, it would be impossible to define the content independently of its being submerged in a determinate form. The content, in the sense of the true meaning of the work, consists precisely in the fact that a set of conceptual problems are actually fixed, solidified, crystallized in an exterior, sensible and aesthetic form. Although rather intuitive when it comes to plastic arts, this account is, to say the least, problematic in the case of literature. Within the realm of the visual arts – take a painting or a sculpture – it is relatively easy to figure out what “form” in this respect means : all what can be perceived in the object without being at the same time material, the exterior exoskeleton of the work, the abstract structure deprived of any other meaning, or something like that.9 On the contrary, in the case of a work of literature, this operation is not as easy and intuitive. If “form” meant, for example, the structure of verse, then “literature” would be identified with lyrical poetry. Nevertheless, as is well known, Hegel himself points to Sophocles’ Antigone, that is a tragedy, a dramatic piece, as to the most accomplished artwork of history. In the case of drama, the question of form implies a relation to action, in an Aristotelian sense, which is instead extraneous to lyrical poetry, at least in a Hegelian sense. One might then want to conclude that the form cannot be simply identified with the external structure and that a different approach is needed.

  • 10 By differentiating the romantics from the contemporaries, and by criticizing Heinrich Heine for his (...)

10Hegel in particular, but actually all the so-called Goethezeit, thinks therefore the form as a paradigm of unity. The form of any literary work, of any proper work, is the kind of quality that makes it an organic product, it is the structural disposition able to host the spiritual content and therefore to communicate the historical and social condition of the period in which it has been written.10 In fact, without any reference to the organic paradigm of unity – the true legacy of classicism – it would be impossible, Hegel maintains, to distinguish a work of literary art from any other kind of writing. The form of a literary artwork is that inexplicable quality of the artistic writing that permits to distinguish between the two following sentences :

I was almost thirty, and I got lost in a dark wood ; so, I couldn’t find the way to come back ;

11and

nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.

12To sum up, one could say that the artistic form of a literary work, according to the definition of classical aesthetics, consists in a sort of ineffable, but critically demonstrable dimension, conceived in terms of unity, organicity and continuity. Form then, in an artistic context, reveals the integrity of the artist’s interiority, one which mirrors solidarity and unity among the work’s individual elements in play. The solidarity ideal is also, of course, the counterpart of an ideal society, of the ideal relations among human beings. This concept of form resists, almost unvaried, almost throughout the 19th Century. In 1857, still inspired by such an organic theoretical notion of form, in the pages of the Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx writes :

The difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal.

13Furthermore, also in Nietzsche’s idea of the Dionysian (and therefore passionate and violent) origin of tragedy, the successful realisation of the artwork consists in the fragile equilibrium among the unconscious – Dionysian – content and the crystal clear – Apollonian – formality, confirming once more the unitarian paradigm of form we have found in classical aesthetics :

Now, hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels himself to be not simply united, reconciled or merged with his neighbour, but quite literally one with him, as if the veil of maya [μάγια] had been torn apart, so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial unity (das Ur-Eine).

The fragmentation of the form

14To confirm Adorno’s claim about the naïve stance of modern philosophy toward the notion of form, the nineteenth Century debate launched a huge problematisation of its aesthetic definition. Thus, over the astonishing changes in artistic practices – particularly in the field of literature – in the course of 19th and 20th Centuries, the organic idea of form begun to show its cracks, too. Where is the ideal identity of form and content in Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne” ? The poem scorns this ideal by creating a shrilling contrast between, on the one hand the sensual attractiveness and formal perfection of the verses and, on the other, a loathing, nauseating content :

Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d’été si doux :
Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,
Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons.

15Where is the unity of the organic form in Marinetti’s futuristic poetics, which openly advocates the collapse of any idea of harmony ? Not just by means of Zang tumb tumb poetry, but also by means of theoretical pamphlets, the futurists launched an assault to the classical and organic idea of form : “une automobile rugissante, qui a l’air de courir sur de la mitraille, est plus belle que la Victoire de Samothrace”, says the Manifest of Futurism, published on Le Figaro in February 1909. In brief, one main question sums up the aesthetic quarrels engendered by 19th century art : face to extreme formal fragmentation, is it still possible to identify something as a well-developed literary form ?

  • 11 This is also Robert Pippin’s idea as he says that Hegel “may be the theorist of modernism, malgré l (...)

16In this respect, my claim is that not only a positive answer to this question is possible, but that this answer stems, somehow unexpectedly, from how even classical aesthetics, above all Hegel’s, defined its core theoretical structure.11 In what follows I will try to explain what I mean by that.

  • 12 For a full account on the quarrel, see T. Gusman, L’arpa e la fionda. Kerr, Ihering e la critica te (...)
  • 13 B. Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner, trans. Eng. M. Chalmers, San Francisco: City of Lights Books, 200 (...)
  • 14 J. Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 6.
  • 15 Quoted by G. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite all. Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Eng. S. B. (...)

17Heavily contributing to the crumbling of classical aesthetics, Bertold Brecht disperses in his oeuvre a critique to the concept of originality, as exemplified by a well-known fragment in the Stories of Mr. Keuner. In his famous Threepenny Opera (1928), he also included the – almost literal – copy in German translation (by Karl Anton Ammer) of some of François Villon’s ballades, thus underwriting one of the most interesting cases of plagiarism of the 19th century.12 More openly, in the Stories of Mr. Keuner (1958) Brecht heavily mocks, with his expressionistic style, the romantic idea of genius, that is the idea that the pure origin of the work should rise from the integrity of the subject’s interiority, in the same way in which the perfection of world and nature originates from the infinite integrity of God’s activity. On the contrary, neither the supposed originality of the creation, nor the alleged integrity of sense, but rather the practice of text quotation and fragmentation is presented by Brecht as determining a whole literary artwork in the time of late capitalism.13 The interiority of the subject, the supposed purity and harmony of the artistic genius, Brecht would say, is neither harmonic, nor pure. All the material comes from an alienated and disenchanted world, and the task of the writer is to take this content and make sense of it by means of something which resembles the cinematographic technique of movie montage. The ideal of unity is no longer the paradigm of art, replaced instead by the image of the fragment ; as James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus put it, the symbol of art is the cracked looking glass of a servant.14 Precisely within this context, the idea of a single, defective, fragile splinter of the world comes to the fore as the last possible source of salvation. The idea is brilliantly developed by Georges Didi-Huberman, as he quotes Jean-Luc Godard’s theory of movie frame laid out in the Histoire(s) du cinéma, according to which : “même rayé à mort, un simple rectangle de trente-cinq millimètres sauve l’honneur de tout le réel”.15

  • 16 See the reference to “constellation” in the Epistemo-Critical Prologue of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel’s (...)
  • 17 Ibid., p. 29.
  • 18 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p. 140.
  • 19 Th. W. Adorno, “Funktionalismus heute,” in Th. W. Adorno, Ohne Leitbild. Parva Aesthetica, Gesammel (...)
  • 20 Th. W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Eng. R. Hollot-Kentor, Minneapolis-London: Universit (...)
  • 21 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p. 45.

18Also pioneer of the value of the fragment against the unity of the whole, Walter Benjamin makes reference, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, to the ideas of allegory and constellation. Following the lead of the expressionist theory of composition, Benjamin conceives the literary form as a collection of fragments.16 Every piece of the artistic product maintains its specific independence and autonomy, and the unity of the work is given through the juxtaposition of contrasting materials. Modelled on the example of a mosaic, the work becomes a composition of individual splinters, in which the observer is always able to see the junction. The literary work resembles the ruin of an ancient broken amphora : once the archaeologist restores it, the pitcher is still broken, and the unity of its form can never be fully reinstated ; it remains a collage of fragments. This is, in short, what is implied by the idea of artwork as constellation. In the Ursa Major, for example, every single star maintains its autonomy in relation to the others, and only the gaze of an expert observer is able to unveil the form of the constellation itself. In the same way, the contemporary literary form must be conceived as a composition of bare objects, bare matters of facts, whose fragile singularity shapes a formless form : “the value of the fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on their value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass past.”17 As in the case of the amphora, the work of art has in time lost its compact meaning and the critic, like an archaeologist, can only try to restore sense by gazing at the fragments of materials, at the quotations coming from the disenchanted world. On the same ground, according to Benjamin, the artwork can also be taken as an allegory. The artwork is not symbolic, because the symbol implies the full resolution of the meaning in the medium of form. It is rather allegorical, as the allegory is a lacking, incomplete reference to meaning. In other words, in the alienated and disenchanted world of late capitalism, the work of art cannot allude to a harmonic and guaranteed ideal of form, it can only present itself as fractured unity. Along the same lines, Adorno conceives the form of the artwork as a “dissociate unity.”18 He suggests, moreover, that, also based on this fragmented and dissociated understanding of form, it is still impossible to define an artwork without focusing on its formality. Form is the quintessence on art, even in the context of the collapse of totality. On the one hand, in fact, “art, in order to be art according to its own formal laws, must be crystallized in autonomous form. This constitutes its truth content ; otherwise, it would be subservient to that which it negates by its very existence ;”19 on the other hand, “only in the fragmentary work, renouncing itself, is the critical content liberated – liberated, that is, exclusively in the collapse of the closed artwork.”20 In other words, the fragmentation of harmony does not imply the destruction of the form. On the contrary, in the most advanced literary products, the formal and logic union of the elements is anyway achieved through illogic cogency. The formless formality should not be mistaken, then, as randomness, because “the category of the fragmentary – which has its locus here – is not to be confused with the category of contingent particularity : The fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.”21

  • 22 Th. W. Adorno, “Is Art Lighthearted?,” in Th. W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. II, trans. Eng. (...)

19According to these ideas, the aphorism is one of the most important literary experiences of contemporary art. The short and fulminating observation reveals, in fact, the unstable condition of sense. The actual meaning of the literary work rests only upon the contrasts in work between its materials. This leads to interrupted totality, fragmented unity, whose illogical consistency effectively expresses the damaged life of the subject in the society of late capitalism. The life of particular and concrete subjects is here nothing but an everlasting contrast between a deprived humanity and an oppressive socio-economic totality. Consistently, the product of artists presents every single element of the whole composition in the light of its fragmented relation to unity. What characterises the artwork is, however, a promise of happiness. Art preserves, nevertheless, some kind of formal conciliation. The fragments of the work, in fact, do not remain isolated and alienated as the subject in society ; they rather hold together by the strength of the aesthetic form, which keeps relying on the social conditioning in order to allude to a possible redemption. Art is, after all, “freedom in middle of unfreedom”22 inasmuch as it communicates the social alienation while at the same time conveying the subject’s peculiarity.

  • 23 Th. W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka,” in Th. W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Eng. Sa. Weber and Sh. Weber, Bos (...)
  • 24 P. Szondi, Theory of Modern Drama, trans. Eng. M. Hays, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (...)
  • 25 Ibid., p. 247.

20This underlying mood is also clearly exemplified by the literary works of Kafka and Beckett. Kafka’s prose, for example, “is a parabolic system the key to which has been stolen,” “each sentence says ‘interpret me,’ and none will permit it.”23 This clearly alludes to the irruption of fragmentation in the novel. The typical long form of the novel, whose unity is guaranteed by the compactness of the “epic-I” of the narrator,24 crumbles in a parabolic system, in a constellation of particularities, impossible to grasp in terms of comprehensive, complete and defined meaning. As preliminarily stated, the key to the constellation has been stolen. In this context, what emerges is the relevance of the single elements, in other words “the fact that Leni’s fingers” in The Trial “are connected by a web, or that the executioners resemble tenors, is more important than the Excursus on the law.”25 What characterizes Kafka’s novel is not some sort of overall meaning, but instead the discordant shrilling of its elements. The form of the novel can no longer be taken as a long and unified form, as it comes to the fore, rather, as a collection of single short forms, unified through a reciprocal and binding contradiction.

21Moreover, something similar happens not only with the realm of the novel, but also with Samuel Beckett’s overall approach to dramatic composition. As one reads in Endgame :

CLOV : Why do you keep me ?
HAMM : There’s no one else.
CLOV : There’s nowhere else. (Pause.)
HAMM : You’re leaving me all the same.
CLOV : I’m trying.
HAMM : You don’t love me.
CLOV : No.
HAMM : You loved me once.
CLOV : Once !
HAMM : I’ve made you suffer too much. (Pause.) Haven’t I ?
CLOV : It’s not that.
HAMM : I haven’t made you suffer too much ?
CLOV : Yes !

22In front of the concrete condition of men in contemporary society, it is impossible to recover something like a meaningfulness of the narration. In order to qualify as a real artwork, the form of the novel turns into a fragmented constellation of splinters. The dialogue is no longer a logic sequence of sentences, but rather a meaningless eruption of meaning. Any attempt to write a classical novel, as Balzac did, faces nowadays – Adorno would claim – the danger of depreciating the artwork and becoming kitsch. The formal principle of the novel, that is the epic I of the narrator, pours in the prose a damaged interiority and a disenchanted world, which can no longer offer the guarantee of meaning.

Restored form : the fragment and the novel

  • 26 Th. W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka,” op. cit., p. 263.
  • 27 “The work of art is produced only by means of montage. And each individual component of this montag (...)
  • 28 M. Horkheimer and Th. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Eng. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Sta (...)

23According to what Adorno tells us about Kafka, “in the eyes of the panic-stricken person who has withdrawn all effective cathexis from objects, they petrify into a third thing, neither dream, which can only be falsified, nor the aping of reality, but rather its enigmatic image composed of its scattered fragments.”26 Based on this kind of example, one can argue not only that the short form is a fully legitimate literary structure, but even that any contemporary attempt to produce literature needs to integrate, to an extent, short forms within, possibly, longer ones. Typically connected with the novel, the long form requires the support of the short form in order not to fall into what in German is called Trivialliteratur. An implicit parallelism between the condition of art in late capitalism and that of commodities might seem to stem directly from the account provided by this paper. Art, in fact, is always exposed to the risk of becoming a commodity, an instrumentalised consumer good ; this is the core warning of both Benjamin’s essay on The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility27and Adorno’s piece about Culture Industry in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. The aesthetic incorporation of the fragment corresponds in fact to art’s escape strategy from its conversion in mere commodity. The fragment in this respect turns the artwork into a disturbing and provocative object, thus avoiding its transformation in simple, industrial, divertissement. At any rate, one should keep in mind that an “amusement, free of all restraint, would be not only the opposite of art but its complementary extreme.”28

24Far from being a normative and elitist position, a tirade on behalf of the old artistic values, this position can be seen – and this is what I tried to argue in this essay – as a lucid description of the qualifications of contemporary literary production. The threat of commodification, along with the literary defensive reaction in the direction of fragmentation, provides a comprehensive framework for the investigation of the development of the novel in the second half of the 20th Century.

  • 29 I refer here to the “maximalist novel” label, first proposed by S. Ercolino, The Maximalist Novel. (...)
  • 30 A good example in this respect is provided by the dramatic piece played in the center of the novel, (...)

25Particularly encouraging results come from applying this framework to the development of the postmodern novel in the last three decades of the 20th Century. I refer in particular to American postmodern novels also known under the labels of hysterical realism and literary maximalism.29 The short but path-breaking book, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is generally taken as the starting point of this kind of literary revolution, and its reputation ensues mainly from the narrative matter and content of the novel. As is well known, Pop mythology provides here the background of the characters’ consciousness. My investigation lingers, however, on the structural construction of the novel. The plot is built as a series of flashes, single scenes alluding in some way or another to a general and enigmatic meaning of the story. No element can be referred to, however, as centre of the narration. Each fragment refers to the others without being able to convey a meaningful picture. The writer makes display of powerful virtuosity and his text is rich in quotations, allusions, inversion, irony and cultural references.30 However, despite the seeming omnipotence of the author, the novel fails to reach a definite unity. This is ultimately what tells postmodern novel apart from the irony of romantic writers. The ironic novels of Jean Paul, for example, are written following the idea of the subject’s supremacy over the world, and the meaning of the story rests in the interiority of the writer. In Pynchon’s novel, on the contrary, the materiality of the world and of the cultural objects assaults the epic I and challenges the author to resist :

“What were you dreaming about him ?” “Oh, that,” perhaps embarrassed. “It was all mixed in with a Porky Pig cartoon.” He waved at the tube. “It comes into your dreams, you know. Filthy machine.”

  • 31 P. Szondi, Theory of Modern Drama, op. cit., p. 9.
  • 32 T. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, New York: Viking Press, 1973, p. 749.
  • 33 D. DeLillo, Underworld, New York: Scribner, 1997, p. 323.

26The instability of the narration, along with the fragility of the formal principle of the novel, otherwise identified by Peter Szondi as the “epic-I,”31 is made very clear in what is certainly the most famous of Pynchon’s novels, the Gravity’s Rainbow. There, an impressive collection of fragments of almost eight hundred pages culminates in the literary dissolution of he who is closest to be the protagonist.32 Similarly, the voice of the narrator dissolves into a myriad of narrative rivulets. The same structural features apply to Don DeLillo’s novels. The structure of texts such as White noise and Libra pursues a continuous intersection of different lines. But the clearest example of this kind of narration is beyond the shadow of a doubt Underworld. Here the fragmentation reaches its highest level. Not only is the timeline broken, not only is the continuity of the plot missing, but also the formal principle of the novel itself decays. Some parts are written in first person, some parts in third, and some parts even in second person in the mode of epistolary novels. The ultimate form of unity in novel, the unity of the narrator falls short. The only thing which still holds together the 900 pages of Underworld is an object : a baseball ball. The novel’s only fil rouge is the broken trajectory of one ball’s history. An otherwise insignificant waste of consumption economy is here able to tie up the whole of American history between the first Soviet nuclear test and the incident of Chernobyl. The only task left to the author is then that of observing the fragmentation of life and to register it, and this is “the revenge of popular culture on those who take it too seriously.”33

27The same trend can be detected in one of the most influential novels of the end of nineteenth Century, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. As a 1096 pages novel, with one hundred pages footnotes and even some footnotes to footnotes, Infinite Jest appears as a major authorial effort to master the art of the novel. But nothing, in the plot, resembles the image of unity and order. There are at least ten main stories, and each of them is divided into innumerable flashes. The time of the novel covers not longer than one year. It begins at a given, insignificant point in the future and it ends at a given, equally insignificant moment in the past. One could also say that, as a novel, Infinite Jest is simply a big bluff. Its massive length is nothing but a fragmented unitary collection of short stories or short forms. The book spins somehow around the concept of dependence : alcohol dependence, cocaine dependence, sex dependence, sport dependence, TV dependence, and the author itself reveals his own weakness, its own writing dependence. He simply cannot stop collecting pieces of the world nor can he stop trying and look for their autonomous composition in a constellation of fragments.

28Finally, what the contemporary American novel shows is the impossibility to reproduce the classical idea of form, without giving the impression of something fake. The debate on the literary quality of some contemporary bestsellers is, basically, a debate on the problem of form. The history of the 20th century novel, according to this perspective, is the history of the incorporation of the short form in the core of the long form. Then, the organic and aesthetic idea of form, modelled on the classicist harmony of parts, resists in contemporary literature at the price of a full fracturing of all ideal of harmonic unity. In this sense, the short form is not only a fully legitimate aesthetic form, but also the only available strategy to save the concept of form from the threat of full dissolution. Provided we still nowadays accept that the novel’s task is that of describing reality, we must nevertheless concede that our lives are not that well-written. Our lives have no organized plot, and none of their characters has one determinate function. People appear and disappear from our point of view creating countless subplots. Compared to the ideal lives of 18th century’s bourgeoisie, from whose projection of sense originated the classical novel, our journey on Earth is much more similar to an indeterminate form made of a collection of brief, single, short forms.

Notes

1 I refer in particular to the nineteenth Century debate that immediately follows the age of expressionism and develops itself until the second half of the century.

2 Of course, the notion of form has always been problematic in philosophical reflection. One could suggest that philosophy itself is starting with the post-Socratic discussion about the value of form as an ideal (Plato) or as a quality of the object itself (Aristotle). Moreover, in spite the fact that short forms, such as epigraphs, epigrams, epitaphs, maxims, axioms and apothegms, were common in the ancient world, my essay focuses exclusively on the modern period.

3 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Eng. R. Hullon-Kentor, London-New York: Continuum, 1997, p. 140.

4 On classical aesthetics as a reaction to the crisis of the formal rational paradigm: J. M. Bernstein, “Introduction,” in J. M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. ix-xi.

5 I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Eng. P. Guyer and E. Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, § 11, p. 106.

6 On this point, see the classic of literature: E. Cassirer, Kant’s Life and Thought, trans. Eng. J. Hade, New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 182-287.

7 See E. Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 108-110.

8 I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, op. cit., § 45, p. 179.

9 The origin of this idea of form is clearly kantian; see I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, op. cit., § 14, p. 110.

10 By differentiating the romantics from the contemporaries, and by criticizing Heinrich Heine for his attempt to identify the Romantic Circle to the spirit of the Goethezeit, Ernst Behler clarifies the shift toward organic unity at the end of eighteenth and at the beginning of nineteenth Century: “He [Heine] constantly evaluates the early Romantics according to standards which are by no means their own, comparing them to Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, and Schelling, and depicting them as searching for an ideal of organic unity which is actually denied by their own theory.” (E. Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory, op. cit., pp. 32-33.)

11 This is also Robert Pippin’s idea as he says that Hegel “may be the theorist of modernism, malgré lui and avant la lettre.” (R. Pippin, After the Beautiful. Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 38.)

12 For a full account on the quarrel, see T. Gusman, L’arpa e la fionda. Kerr, Ihering e la critica teatrale tedesca tra fine Ottocento e l’inizio del Nazionalsocialismo, Pisa-Roma : Fabrizio Serra, 2016, pp. 161-163.

13 B. Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner, trans. Eng. M. Chalmers, San Francisco: City of Lights Books, 2001, p. 13.

14 J. Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 6.

15 Quoted by G. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite all. Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Eng. S. B. Lillis, Chicago-London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 1.

16 See the reference to “constellation” in the Epistemo-Critical Prologue of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel’s book: W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. Eng. J. Osborne, London-New York: Verso, 1998, pp. 34-35.

17 Ibid., p. 29.

18 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p. 140.

19 Th. W. Adorno, “Funktionalismus heute,” in Th. W. Adorno, Ohne Leitbild. Parva Aesthetica, Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 10.1, hrsg. v. R. Tiedemann, Frankfurt a. M. : Suhrkamp, 1973, p. 390.

20 Th. W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Eng. R. Hollot-Kentor, Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p. 97.

21 Th. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p. 45.

22 Th. W. Adorno, “Is Art Lighthearted?,” in Th. W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. II, trans. Eng. S. Weber Nicholsen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 248.

23 Th. W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka,” in Th. W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Eng. Sa. Weber and Sh. Weber, Boston: MIT Press, 1981, p. 245.

24 P. Szondi, Theory of Modern Drama, trans. Eng. M. Hays, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 9.

25 Ibid., p. 247.

26 Th. W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka,” op. cit., p. 263.

27 “The work of art is produced only by means of montage. And each individual component of this montage is a reproduction of a process which neither is an artwork in itself nor gives rise to one.” (W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the age of its Technical Reproducibility, trans. Eng. ed. M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty and T. Y. Levin, Cambridge (MA)-London: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 29).

28 M. Horkheimer and Th. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Eng. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 113.

29 I refer here to the “maximalist novel” label, first proposed by S. Ercolino, The Maximalist Novel. From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, trans. Eng. A. Sbragia, New York-London-New Delhi-Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014.

30 A good example in this respect is provided by the dramatic piece played in the center of the novel, titled The Courier’s Tragedy, the model of which can be found in Walter Benjamin’s conception of Trauerspiel.

31 P. Szondi, Theory of Modern Drama, op. cit., p. 9.

32 T. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, New York: Viking Press, 1973, p. 749.

33 D. DeLillo, Underworld, New York: Scribner, 1997, p. 323.

Auteur

Dipartemento di Lettere e Filosofia, università degli Studi di Firenze ; Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, università del Piemonte Orientale

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2019

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