Cut off, Torn off, Morsel: Fragmentary Friday

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Homer, Od. 9.373-4

“Wine gurgled up from his throat
Along with fragments of human flesh. And he burped, drunk.”

…φάρυγος δ’ ἐξέσσυτο οἶνος
ψωμοί τ’ ἀνδρόμεοι· ὁ δ’ ἐρεύγετο οἰνοβαρείων.

Theognis, 453-456

“Dude, if you had a serving of brains equal to your ignorance
And were as wise as you are foolish,
Then you’d seem enviable to many of these citizens
Just as now you are worthy of nothing”

῎Ωνθρωπ’, εἰ γνώμης ἔλαχες μέρος ὥσπερ ἀνοίης
καὶ σώφρων οὕτως ὥσπερ ἄφρων ἐγένου,
πολλοῖσ’ ἂν ζηλωτὸς ἐφαίνεο τῶνδε πολιτῶν
οὕτως ὥσπερ νῦν οὐδενὸς ἄξιος εἶ.

Plato, Sophist 266d

“I have now learned and I accept there are two types of creative ability: there is a divine portion and a human portion. The first part concerns the reality of things and the second is the generation of the likeness of these same things.

νῦν μᾶλλον ἔμαθον, καὶ τίθημι δύο διχῇ ποιητικῆς εἴδει: θείαν μὲν καὶ ἀνθρωπίνην κατὰ θάτερον τμῆμα, κατὰ δὲθάτερον τὸ μὲν αὐτῶν ὄν, τὸ δὲ ὁμοιωμάτων τινῶν γέννημα.

Woodhouse’s English to Greek Dictionary lists the following Greek nouns for the English word “fragment”

μέρος, τό: part of
μόριον, τό: portion of
τμῆμα, τό: somehing cut off
θραῦσμα, τό: something torn off
ψωμός, ὁ: Morsel

ἀτελής, adj.: fragmentary

Today for no special reason we are tweeting a large array of fragments. In part, this is because fragments comprise much of what we do. We present fragments; we make texts fragmentary by excerpting them; and we actively re-purpose the fragments we make by decontextualizing them and forcing them into real-world parallels on twitter (some intended, some merely serendipitous).

In this \we participate in the process that created many of what we now call fragments: rather than existing in tattered or reconstructed manuscripts, a large portion of fragments are actually quoted within other texts. The act of excerpting is an act of remaking—one needs only to read a little Plutarch to see the way he intentionally re-purposes lines he quotes.

The metaphors inherent to the Greek words for fragments above indicate a few things: the sense that a fragment belongs to something else, that it has been (violently) separated from this whole, and that a fragment may function like an appetizer, give us merely a taste of a larger ‘meal’. The sense of the adjective ἀτελής is also interesting—that which is fragmentary is incomplete?

Thinking about fragments—and our word is even more violent, it is something ‘broken off’—makes me think of what we are assuming when we consider a text ‘whole’, or non-fragmentary. Isn’t even a complete book merely a portion of someone’s output? What of a whole corpus or genres, are they not fragments of cultures long gone? Perhaps we should articulate more clearly that the study of fragments is, essentially, a metonym for the study of the whole.

Look for the hashtag.

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