Fragmented Readings

“Manifesto mutilatum” (Bergk); “of course not a fragment”.

(Wilamowitz); Page (1981), 295.
Anne Carson
Saverio Campanini
Universita di Bologna

It is well known that, in 1950, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno attributed to Walter Benjamin the project of writing a book made of quotations only, as if, one is tempted to add, anything else would be feasible.

We are so familiar with the post-modern idea that fragments of a supposed original are the only given form of experience that this general presupposition of any cultural consumption or encounter with art or religion does seem to be intemporal.

The idea, is of course, Platonic, but the reversion of the concept that the fragment anticipates the whole, instead of merely pointing to a lost wholeness is much more recent.

The inaugural moment for this new sight of the fragments as constituting a living subject endowed with autonomy can be dated with fairly accurate precision.

In the second issue of the magazine «Athenaeum», published in 1798, a series of anonymous aphorisms, aptly entitled Fragmente, Friedrich Schlegel or his brother August Wilhelm, set the tone for a novel apprehension of the fragment as a project, calling the individual, subjective and original project in which it entails the characters of complete objectivity, physical and moral necessity with the curious name of “fragments from the future” (Fragmente aus der Zukunft).

Walter Benjamin

According to the sensitive reading of this famous fragment by Peter Szondi, the openness of this idea of fragment to the future implies the dimension of anticipation, the promise (die Vorwegnahme, das Versprechen).

It is thus not by any chance that the first signs of sustained interest and attention for the fragments of Hebrew manuscripts dismembered and recycled as bindings and binding waste date back to the Romantic age at the end of the 18th century.

There had been earlier quite accidental or marginal instances of scholars, such as Konrad Pellikan as early as in the 15th century, or notaries in the 16th-17th centuries, who noticed that some books or registers had been bound with inscribed parchment and that the exotic inscriptions were in Hebrew: what was missing for a systematic search on this involuntary or wrecked library preserved by its very destruction, was what the Schlegels called the “sense for the fragments” (Sinn für Fragmente). 

Niccolò Perotti, Cornucopiae linguae latinae, Milano 1498, Triv. Inc. A 110

I am convinced that the growing awareness for the fragments, developing from episodes or the flaring up of a fashion trend, such as in the case of the brief episode of the numerous dissertations dedicated to the binding fragments containing biblical texts examined in search of relevant variants in the wake of the monumental efforts towards establishing a critical edition of the Bible offered by Benjamin Kennicott and Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi, to a systematic and coordinated effort towards an inventory and a catalogue of all the fragments preserved in libraries, archives or even, why not, surfacing, sometimes for a short time only, on blogs, or antiquarian and commercial sites, only becomes possible in our age, for which fragments are at the core of our perception and, so it seems, the only form to which we naturally or culturally connect.

The siblings Schlegel had pointed out very clearly that the only difference between the regressive or nostalgic cult of the fragment with which we identify romanticism and the constructive, progressive, anticipatory dimension of the project is a very subtle one, concerning the mere vectorial direction of the process: mourning the lost whole or building the future book are two opposed ways of traveling along one and the same line, both delving into fragments.

It is our doubtful privilege of having developed, due to historical determinations, to the spirit of our epoch no less than to the perception of coming after an unprecedented deflagration of centuries of Jewish life in the Shoah, a peculiar sensitivity for fragments, no matter how scattered or tiny, awaiting for their tiqqun (restoration or redemption).

Some understand that as a mission, with religious overtones, but all participants to the “Books within Books” project practice the search and study of the Hebrew fragments as a promising scientific activity.

Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, *IC5 P8304 Ei560d

The two directions of our endeavour can be epitomized by two quotations, one by the already mentioned T. W. Adorno: „Suffering is the true beauty in books; without it, beauty is corrupt, a mere perfomance.

Permanence, self asserted immortality, cancels itself out“, so much to the bibiliophilic stance and its denial of history, in which undamaged quality should guarantee for the value of bookish artifacts.

The other one, found as a book within a book, in Maurice Blanchot’s The Book to come (Le livre à venir), is René Char: 

Dans l’éclatement de l’univers que nous éprouvons, prodige! Les morceaux qui s’abattent sont vivants.

[In the explosion of the universe that we are experiencing, a miracle ! The fragments that are coming down are alive].

Saverio Campanini


  • Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost, Princeton University Press, Princeton (Mass.) 2019.
  • Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, Charakteristik Walter Benjamins, in «Neue Rundschau» 61 (1950), pp. 571-584; then in Id., Prismen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1955; and in Id., Über Walter Benjamin, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1970, p. 26. 
  • Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. II Charakteristiken und Kritiken I (1796-1801), Hrsg. von H. Eichner, Schoeningh, Paderborn 1967, p. 168.
  •  Peter Szondi, Schriften II, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1978, p. 20. 
  • Saverio Campanini, Carta pecudina literis Hebraicis scripta. The Awareness of the Binding Hebrew Fragments in History. An Overview and a Plaidoyer, in A. Lehnardt – J. Olszowy-Schlanger (edd.), Books Within Books. New Discoveries in Old Book Bindings, Brill, Leiden – Boston 2014, pp. 11-29.
  • Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, Bibliographische Grillen, in Noten zur Literatur 3, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1965; Notes to Literature, vol. II, Columbia University Press, New York 1992, p. 29. 
  • Maurice Blanchot, Le livre à venir, Gallimard, Paris 1959; Id., The Book to Come, Stanford University Press, Stanford (Ca) 2003, p. 251. 

Cite this blog post
BwB magazine (2021, February 22). Fragmented Readings. Books within Books. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search