Foray into Fragments: Friedrich Schlegel

In this world, truth cannot be known in its fullness. We only get distorted images and fragments of the whole.

The ancient fragment, as a seemingly crucial part of its ontology, registers loss. This is what distinguishes it from the non finito works of sculptors such as Auguste Rodin. Take for example, Rodin’s moving Danaïd. The female figure seems to emerge from the rough-hewn rock, or rather she collapses in her exhaustion back into the inchoate marble from which she came. The suppleness of her flesh stands in stark contrast to the rugged, unkempt contours of the unpolished stone. The figure is not fully realized in all dimensions — imbuing the sculpture with a poetic aura of incompletion.

She is a thought in motion; her emergence from or disappearance into untouched, unformed, irrational matter serves as a physical manifestation of our relation to the fleeting, ephemeral nature of thought and of the ideal; or better, of reason’s attempts to grapple with the ideal. The ideal, incapable of being realized in this imperfect world of Becoming (insofar as the ideal is meant to be pure Being — immutable, incorruptible, eternal), can only be glimpsed obliquely by its devotees. Any attempt to arrest its fugitive passing before our mind’s eye forces its collapse.

This is the ecstatic nature of art’s relation to the ideal. Ecstasy derives from the ancient Greek ekstasis, meaning to “stand outside of oneself”. The ideal is always that which is in the Beyond, beyond our ability to reach it or even to adequately grasp it in its truth. Art often offers the ideal but can only do so through a sort of built-in impossibility, a necessary failure. It offers the ideal, at best, in representation; it’s that glimpse, the peripheral view, the veiled image so beautifully articulated in the justly celebrated passage from 1 Corinthians 13:12, in reference to the truth of God, another figure of the ideal: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

In this world, truth cannot be known in its fullness. We only get distorted images and fragments of the whole. And yet many authors and devotees of ancient art seem to have believed that such repletion was attainable within ancient art. The Danaïd is intentionally non finito; it registers incompletion but not loss. Ancient fragments, however, are viewed with their past wholeness in mind as part of the experience. If the non finito gestures to an ideal that never was manifested in reality (and indeed if part of the meaning of the non finito is grounded in the implicit impossibility of such a manifestation) then the ancient fragment gestures toward an ideal of completion that is assumed to have once been not only possible but also realized.

The view of the fragment as something that points beyond itself is a central concern in the writing of Friedrich Schlegel. The fragment is a representation of the condition of all art but for Schlegel there are two kinds of fragment: the ancient fragment and the Romantic (or modern) fragment. As he states in the 24th of his Athenaeum Fragments: “Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments. Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written.” (This and all subsequent quotations from Schlegel were translated by Peter Firchow and can be found in Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments [University of Minnesota, 1991].)

Schlegel’s conception of the modern fragment as indicating a glimpse of a whole that is unattainable in modern life is well known and widely discussed. His conception of the ancient fragment, however, seems to serve merely as a foil to the modern one. But we can see, even from the 24th fragment, that the ancient fragment is predicated on the notion of loss. What was once whole is now irreversibly shattered. Schlegel, in his earlier writing, traces this moment of loss to the Alexandrian period of late Greece. At that point, he claimed, literature was merely assembled from degraded fragments, lacking any sense of wholeness.

What is of interest to me here is this notion that the art of the ancient past was complete in a way that was perceived as being no longer possible for Schlegel’s generation — indeed impossible for anyone after that one moment of aesthetic repletion. Of course, by the 1790s, when Schlegel wrote the works cited here, there was already a strong foundation for the belief that the ancient world had some purchase on ideality as manifested in works of art: the seminal writings of Johann Winckelmann, particularly his History of Art in Antiquity of 1764.

According to Winckelmann, ancient art attempted to give rise to an ideal type based on the harmonious proportions suggested by nature but not found in actuality within the natural world. Thus, art was mimetic of nature but in a rather oblique manner. The overall effect achieved is one of harmoniousness — a fitting and proper attunement of the various parts with the whole object, of the individual imagination with the guiding principle of nature, of the ideal with its physical instantiation.

Schlegel accepts this account of ancient art and uses it as a foil for what he sees as the necessarily fragmented approach to Romantic artistic production, the latter being the target of his focus in the Athenaeum Fragments. However, fragment 22 also briefly refers to the ancient fragment. Here he discusses the “project”, and he claims: “The feeling for projects — which one might call fragments of the future — is distinguishable from the feeling for fragments of the past only by its direction: progressive in the former, regressive in the latter.” So the modern viewer/reader finds herself perched between two forms of perfection (one in the past, one in the future), neither of which she may attain.

This, it seems to me, sheds an intriguing light on one possible modern relationship with the art of antiquity. On the one hand, many historians and admirers of ancient art view Ancient Greece as the beginning of the Western tradition; ancient sculpture, theater, literature, and philosophy play a foundational role in that tradition (think of the centrality of the Odyssey, for example, or Oedipus Rex). One the other hand, antiquity is seen as a culture from which we are irrevocably severed. It remains shrouded in a haze of unfamiliarity. Our understanding of Ancient Greece is itself uncanny — it is at once familiar and alien. In this sense, the fragment is the perfect metonym for our relationship with the ancient past insofar as it too is uncanny (as expounded upon in the previous “Foray into Fragments”).

Following out the logic of Schlegel’s 22nd fragment, the ancient past is as unknowable, as lost to direct access, as is the future. Moreover, the unknowable past and future have something almost sacralized about them. In our fragmented state, the promise that we derive from and will return to wholeness offers us a sense of redemption within our fallen world. In looking at the ancient fragment, we are reassured that while repletion cannot presently be experienced in its fullness, it did once exist and may do so again.

Perhaps this contributes to our fascination with the ancient fragment as an art object, as opposed to an archeological object. Indeed, we often seem to resist seeing these fragments in their archeological guise. Although it’s now well known that ancient Greek sculpture was painted (often in rather gaudy colors) and adorned with metal jewelry, the idea of displaying these works in that manner has long struck most curators as somehow wrong-headed. While restoration efforts are common throughout museum culture, the idea of trying to replicate the initial presentations of these sculptures flies in the face of what many people seek out ancient sculpture to experience. For the most part, when we attend to the ancient fragment, our goal is not to see those objects for what they were, but rather to see them as a resplendent synecdoche for what ought to have been.