Bad Ideas 6

The Dismembered Body

{Chapter 4}

There was an entire portion of this chapter that focused on the dismembered body as a reconsideration of the romantic fragment. This topic was simply too expansive and ultimately too familiar – not the romantic fragment again! – and as I gradually worked on the material I came to see an altogether different concern: not with the problems of dismembership (as social, personal, literary fragmentation) but with the problem of the cavity or hollow. It was a way of thinking through the investment in the book as itself something hollow and of course a gesture towards the shallowness of the rising culture of entertainment under which literature was increasingly being produced and sold. Some of the body stuff was tied to a growing obsession of mine with teeth in literature, which really took off after I started reading tales about biting in Stith Thompson’s Index to Folklore and then came across Odilon Redon’s famous image to Poe’s “Berenice.” Luckily, I was able to sublimate this obsession in a separate article: “Korpus. Brentano, das Buch und die Mobilisierung eines literarischen und politischen Körpers.” Textbewegungen 1800/1900. Hg. Matthias Buschmeier u. Till Dembeck (Würzburg 2007) 266-286.
To Share (OE. scearu, cutting, division [recorded in the senses ‘tonsure’ and ‘division or fork of the body’,] OHG. scara, troop, multitude, OTeut. *skar-, *sker-, to cut, divide: see Shear)

In this chapter I want to explore the question of sharedness/shearedness that was at the core of the romantic miscellany, a sharedness understood not just as the divisibility of ownership, but also as the divisibility of content as well. A culture of sharing was also by necessity a culture of the fragment, as the act of transmission (to share) implied an act of division (to shear). As the etymology of “share” suggested, where the body forked or divided was also where the body interacted with other bodies. The romantic fascination with the fragment that was perhaps nowhere more forcefully bibliographically on display than in the format of the miscellany was thus integrally related to a romantic concern with the possibility of sharing (versus owning) literary property. Reformulating literature in parts was a way not of capturing some larger social sense of modern alienation, but a necessary precondition of incubating a culture of intellectual commonality and interactivity.


Such promotion of the part and a literature aligned with the part would of course become one of the hallmarks of romantic writing more generally. Whether it was Goethe’s tale of the man of fifty who lost his front tooth and then lost his lover (“The Man of Fifty”), Poe’s narrator obsessed with his cousin’s teeth in the short fiction, “Berenice” (“The teeth! – the teeth! – they were here, and there, and every where, and visibly and palpably before me”), Brentano’s novella of decapitation and biting (“Geschichte vom braven Kasperl und dem schönen Annerl”), Irving’s headless horseman (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), Hoffmann’s titling of his short-prose collections Fantasiestücke or Nachtstücke, or Gogol’s story of the anthropomorphized body part (“The Nose”), one could observe a thematic and generic overlap in the romantic fascination with “the piecemeal” (Ferris) and the “miniature” (Stewart), a trajectory that arguably reached its apotheosis in the twentieth century with Robert Walser’s “micrograms” – literary fragments written in miniature script. Far from the grotesque body of the baroque with its elongations and its openings, and far from the graceful body of classicism with its proportionality and fluidity, the romantic body more properly just fell apart – and in the process lived a vibrant life. The growing bibliographic reality of books in parts thus corresponded to a poetic attention to representing body parts and the body in parts within a variety of short or partial narrative forms. As Goethe would say in one of his aphorisms included in the Travels, “Literature is the fragment of fragments.”