Thursday, 11 March 2010

Fragmentation and continuity

In this article I'm looking at continuity and fragmentation, both in prose and poetry. The two properties co-exist in most texts, though their intensity and type might vary.

Broken Mirrors

When a text seems fragmentary there are several points to consider. Firstly, is the text mimetic? Underneath the surface disruption is there a represented world? If so

  • At what level does the disruption occur? Are words disrupted (Finnegans Wake)? Are there discontinuities between sentences? Or are there ruptures only when a chapter ends (Sartre's "Le Sursis")?
  • What types of interference are there? - Grammatical? Tonal? Point-of-view? Visual? Sonic? Temporal (flashbacks, etc)? Narrational (flicking between story-lines)?
  • How easily is the underlying story reconstructed? Episodic pieces might have gaps that can't be confidently filled, but that might not cause problems as long as readers can join the dots.

The author may introduce disruption for several reasons

  • Employing the aesthetics of conciseness, omitting all non-essentials (and even a few continuity cues)
  • To make perception harder ("The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" - Shklovsky, "Art as Technique"
  • To pack more into the text at the cost of surface clarity (as in Ulysses, which uses most of the methods of disruption listed above)

By disrupting linearity authors may be attempting to produce a more realistic rendition of how they think we perceive the world. However, reading is a special type of perception. According to Charney and Johnson-Eilola "we always read linearly and sequentially even if (1) the text presents information in a non-chronological fashion, and (2) the reader chooses the order of that sequence ... readers of hypertexts process network texts in much the same way as they would a text in print; that is, they store information in hierarchies even if they are reading in a user-determined order ... since the mind cannot import textural structure directly into long-term memory, the resemblance of a hypertextual structure to long-term memory is irrelevant"

Flattened Hierarchies

But maybe there is no underlying represented "reality" that can be pieced together. Maybe there's no disruption - what you see is what you get. Once parataxis substantially replaces syntaxis "the dethronement of language and logic forms part of an essentially mystical attitude towards the basis of reality as being too complex and at the same time too unified, too much of one piece, to be validly expressed by the analytical means of orderly syntax and conceptual thought" (Martin Esslin, "The Theatre of the Absurd", 1962.)

It's been suggested that "poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures." (D.Sperber and D.Wilson, "Relevance"). This effect can be achieved by having many secondary meanings and by disrupting the usually foregrounded vehicles of sense (syntax, meaning, etc), making cracks so that the secondary effects can bubble up.

Secondary effects may develop a net of interconnections - leitmotifs. The idea of a decentralised network of ideas has been described by Deleuze and Guattari ('rhizomes') but of course goes back much further than that - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" (Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25).

Montage and Collage are non-hierarchical ways of incorporating diverse fragments to produce a multicentred work, as are list poems. Gregory Ulmer described collage as "the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century". This may be because it cuts across the long-cherished Aristotelian notion of organic unity, where each component of a work is a necessary part of a whole. Max Ernst claimed that "Collage is a hypersensitive and rigorously exact instrument, a seismograph capable of registering the exact potentialities of human welfare in every epoch". In relation to poetry, David Antin remarked "for better or worse, 'modern' poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset".

The rich mesh of association may well predominate over any particular fragment or pair of fragments. With collage in particular, use is made of the difference between the source/material of the fragment and the meaning in the context of the whole - the observer is expected to bob up and down between surface and depth. Poetry as compared with prose tends to foreground the media (i.e. it's more collage than montage). Forms have evolved which optimally use sound to disrupt syntax - "Verse is a mechanism by which we can create interpretative illusions suggesting profoundities of response and understanding which far exceed the engagement or research of the writer" (John Constable, PN Review 159).

Breaking up is hard to do

Whether by design or not, readers will seek connections. Juxtaposition happens in all texts. On a small scale juxtaposing can happen on a line and can be read as an implicit (though perhaps surreal) simile. "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, "Statutes of Liberty"). If there is doubt, something novel may appear in this gap. Eliot and Pound spoke of "emotion" in this context, but more likely some surreal image or blend may appear.

Juxtaposed items may be similar in some ways (shared subject matter) and different in others (register, point-of-view). Sections and sentences can come alternately from 2 fields - in Henry Reed's 'The Naming of Parts' for example, the reported speech and internal thought alternate. 'Moby Dick' and 'USA' (Dos Passos) contain inserted non-fictional fragments. Found text can be inserted randomly into a poem, or fragments of different kinds of poems (rhymed and free-form) can be interspliced using a variation of Burroughs' cut-ups technique. Bakhtin's carnival and polyphony can come into play too.

In disrupted works there may be some narrative or an advertised hierarchical structure, but it's provisional and may exist more to aid the initial reading phase than to model the underlying conceptual structure. It may even be there to distract attention from where the real power resides ("The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him", T.S. Eliot). Connections between parts may be more to do with surface than meaning - leitmotifs without a plot. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" there's a common theme. In "The Waste Land" the links are more tenuous. In other works fragments are only related in that they each mention a red dress, or an accordian, or have someone shouting "Damn". These latter relationships can seem gratuitious, leading to "washing line" pieces (where the only point of the connection is to have somewhere to hang the pieces from) but this is to devalue the surface, which in collage is more relevant than usual. Without narrative impetus or suspense "thematic interplay" can become the poor man's "conflict and dynamism", a "compare and contrast" task that requires too much from the reader and masks the authorial persona.

Getting together again

When given 2 phrases or parts, the assumptions readers might make to connect the parts (and fill in gaps) include

  • Temporal continuity. In
       "Goodbye", he said, rinsing his cup before putting it in the sink.
       The roads were busy that evening

    readers can fill the gap in (the character left the house and drove off?).
  • Causal connection. In
       "Does Dave like porridge?"
       "All Scots like porridge!"

    we can easily deduce that Dave is Scottish.
  • Common subject. The parts might belong to a group (a description for example) where order isn't especially important. Fragments might be interpreted as an incomplete whole; the Gestalt might easily be completed. Just as in a painting some standard details might be left unfinished or unpainted, so in a "show don't tell" narrative the reader might easily fill in the unspoken detail.

When we come to a fracture in a longer text (between paragraphs, chapters, etc) we still try to make a connection between the parts. The way we do this will vary according to the type of text we're reading, but typically I suspect we first assume that the text is jumping ahead in time or place, leaving a gap that will be filled in later. Then perhaps we might think it's a flashback, or a parallel storyline that will be revisited. Only as a last resort do we concede that there may be no causal connection or character continuity.

The nature and amount of continuity between juxtaposed items affects the dynamics of reading

  • Narrative continuity (but other types of continuity too) provides forward motion
  • Juxtaposition produces a suspension, saving the current detail (which can't yet be processed or interpreted) so it can be used later, inducing formal tension: "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'" (Lodge, "The Art of Fiction"); "Modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" ( Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature")
  • Grouping implies a pause to gather and integrate descriptive detail (to look around). Unlike juxtaposition, the material in the group can be summarised - as a mood perhaps, or object; the raw components needn't be retained.


Here are some examples of contested continuity, showing the different levels at which disruption can occur, and how different types of continuity might cover the cracks.

  • A good woman
    This morning, as I gaze down from the window into the courtyard garden, the sight of the sprouting crocuses and fat daffodil shoots makes me long for the country. I pull on my boots and jacket and head for the Luxenbourg Garden. Hardly the country, but at least there will be the flowers I am so good at naming.

    On the way I pause at a travel agent's and look at posters. A cheetah lopes through long grass. A lion yawns regally, balancing himself on a tree-trunk. Masai-Mara, the pictures announce. Sunsets in Siam, reads the script above a group of men raking rice as white as snow in a peaceful paddy field. Golden beaches.

    By Lisa Appignanesi. An extract from a mainstream novel. It's a narrative, but there's little movement: two descriptions (during which the narrator is still and passively perceiving) are separated by brief action - it's almost a slide-show - Paris vs Africa.

  • Passing
    Down Dove Street, the silence is growing in the air like crystals; the foxes hate it, and they're straining their huge kite ears, but there's no sound at all but the slow, slow breathing of the city, and the feet and the drip and pat of raining. They bear left at the joke shop, where a reeking litter bin marks the corner. There's a dropped five pound note lying in a puddle, folded in the wet like cloth

    By Padrika Tarrant. An extract from a short story where continuity overrides fragmentation. The narrative is clear but not overwhelming. Take it away and you don't quite have a "sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" (Lautreamont), but crystals, foxes, kites, rain, a joke shop, and a five pound note are forced into unnatural proximity. Metaphors, jokes and lists are other ways to bring disparate element together in prose, the narrative a stealth mechanism. In prose the interruptions can be naturally introduced by a person interrupting a stream-of-consciousness.

  • A Visit to Aunt Flo
    Kate is a red geranium and Mary Jo a marigold. But you are the stuff of which thistledown is made. Light and silky. Here and gone.

    You have a name, same as the others do. Only it doesn't stick so well. It gets dispersed. It gets blown away onto the rag-doll and takes root there. Ellen Jane is hugged to suffocation and then discarded in the toy-box. Her legs over her head, a consignment of brick dumped on her back.

    'Ellen, put your coat on'. Mumma holds it wide, its lining smooth as silk, a paler brown than the outer shell.

    You saw the coalman framed in the kitchen window carrying a sack. You saw the way his face looked. You picked up the pillow and you were the coalman carrying the sack.

    By Jane Woods (Writing Women 10/3). The start of some episodic prose. There's a mimetic interruption between paragraphs 2 and 3, then an interruption caused by a change of scene between 3 and 4. There's continuity within paragraph so perhaps readers will assume continuity between them. The text supports this reading, so the fragmentation shouldn't pose a problem for traditional readers.

  • Pisgah
    How a fox ran under my horse's legs one day out on the Ranges and I didn't dare shout View Halloo. I watched it run through the grass and away till my cousin Erica saw it and shouted.

    The father's photographs of his parents, dead in the year I was born, high on the wall above a shelf in the breakfast room.

    The changing light over the watercress beds at Sherrington.

    How I was ill and broke a fruit bowl, and when I confessed to my mother she smiled and soothed and I confessed some more and she still smiled and I went on confessing.

    By Simon Burt (New Writing 3) - There's fracture between paragraphs in this extract from several pages of similar prose. It's a montage (slide-show) of conventional stills and short narratives. The lack of over-arching narrative will trouble some readers.

  • Pirates appear only at transitional moments
    "Have you been jumping in & out
    of the dressing-up box?" asked
    Alice. Stereotyping doesn't help
    but talking about the actual
    experience usually does the trick.
    Under the placid surface of her
    life there was a dark undercurrent
    of fear. Have you ever used your
    mouth to make a percussive sound?

    By Steve Spense (Tears in the Fence 51) - There's fracture between sentences. This is the 1st stanza of a poem. As far as I can see, the line-breaks are procrustian (Procrustes would force his guests to fit into the beds he gave them) but they don't disrupt because they're so easily ignored. Sentences are intact, and could easily come from 4 different domains, but there are connections - pirates and dressing-up; therapy and exercises.

  • Inserting the Mirror
    To explore the nature of rain I opened the door because inside the workings of language clear vision is impossible. You think you see, but are only running your finger through public hair. The rain was heavy enough to fall into this narrow street and pull shreds of cloud down with it. I expected the drops to strike my skin like a keyboard. But I only got wet. When there is no resonance, are you more likely to catch a cold? Maybe it was the uniform appearance of the drops which made their application to philosophy so difficult even though the street was full of reflection.

    By Rosmarie Waldrop. There's fracture between phrases. This is part of a prose poem where the sentences are correct grammatically, but have semantic shifts. There's a continuity of theme, and even a progressive argument. Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to 'flash fiction') is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it, and my main tool for it is collage"

  • Finnegans Wake
    That the fright of his light in tribalbalbutience hides aback in the doom of the balk of the deaf but that the height of his life from a bride's eye stammpunct is when a man that means a mountain barring his distance wades a lymph that plays the lazy winning she likes yet that pride that bogs the party begs the glory of a wake while the scheme is like your rumba round me garden, allatheses, with perhelps the prop of a prompt to them, was now or never in Etheria Deserta, as in Grander Suburbia, with Finnfannfawners, ruric or cospolite, for much or moment indispute.

    By James Joyce - There's fracture between letters though there's stylistic continuity. This is part of a novel where there may be an underlying (albeit dream) narrative.

  • Rich in Vitamin C
    Under her brow the snowy wing-case
          delivers truly the surprise
    of days which slide under sunlight
              past loose glass in the door
          into the reflection of honour spread
    through the incomplete, the trusted. So
          darkly the stain skips as a livery
    of your pause like an apple pip,
          the baltic loved one who sleeps.

    By J.H. Prynne - The start of a poem. Procrustian, ignorable line-breaks and indentation, but now the sematics are vulnerable. A "wing-case" (of a lady-bird for example) could be eyelid-shaped. A glance could surprise, or a blink could be the result of a surprise, but the syntactic sugar doesn't mend the semantic rupture for me.


But perhaps some fragments should remain disconnected, at least for a while

  • "At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding ... are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart's rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment", Breton
  • "[Forrest-Thompson's] concept of suspended naturalisation - the resistance to that urge to 'reduce the strangeness' - undoubtedly owes its origins to Keats's concept of negative capability, 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason'".

Perhaps some fragments need to remain alien

  • "Just as an alien body falling into a supersaturated solution causes the precipitation of crystals, i.e., reveals the true structure of the dissolved substance, the "alien word" [citations, etc] by its incompatibility with the structure of the text activates that structure", Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text", Ardis, 1976, p.109

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