Rarely has a book been so dizzyingly impenetrable while being, at the same time, so eminently readable. Les Unités perdus (The lost unities), a book from 2004 by the French poet Henri Lefebvre — to be distinguished from the sociologist and philosopher of the same name, manages to both live up to this paradox and flourish within its idiosyncratic ramparts. In many ways, naming or labeling Lefebvre’s work a book, or even a poem, might amount to shrinking from what constitutes its strangeness. Uncategorizable as a literary product, it is rather like something halfway between an elegiac poem and a breathless exercise in the itemization of things that are at once actual and entirely beyond grasp: things that, though indeed real in a sense, are nonetheless — as the title declares — perdu, lost, missing, or destroyed. This literary game of giving back to lost or dead things their reality in the form of the written word is a kindred spirit of a line from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. In that novel the narrator, drawing up a list of his possessions, regardless of whether they are intact, among his things, abandoned, or ruined, muses, “But even lost they will have their place, in the inventory of my goods and possessions.”
Semiotext(e) recently put out an English translation of Les Unités perdus as part of a reading series on the occasion of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The translation’s title, The Missing Pieces, constitutes something of a shift in meaning from the French original. Whereas the French “unités” aspires to a wider conceptual generality, the English “pieces” attests more explicitly to particularities, the pieces or art objects destined, in one way or another (assembly, storage, display), for the museum. The title — and so, by extension, the book — is thus made to speak more directly to the concept of the museum, and precisely at its point of greatest instability or vulnerability: its cracks, caesuras, and blind spots; the crevices through which have slipped works we’re only anecdotally acquainted with; the works that have been lost, destroyed, or only ever conceived of but never actually completed — indeed, never even begun. These “missing pieces” are spun out in Lefebvre’s book, each dryly cataloged in about the space of a sentence, nestled contiguously, one after the other, altogether forming an incessant, exhaustive chain without pause save for the bullet marks (•) that sets each one off from the next.
All varieties of culprit — natural, moral, accidental, criminal, juridical — are responsible for the missing status of the pieces that mark Lefebvre’s pages. For instance, time: “Sophocles apparently authored one hundred and twenty-three plays; only seven have survived”; caprice: “As a student, Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet every day and destroyed all three hundred and sixty-five poems at the end of the year”; theft: “Stolen and unrecovered, the main body of Japanese painter Morio Matsui’s collection”; negligence: “Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote a scenario for Pitigrilli’s novel Cocaine that was never filmed”; even the exhausting, sometimes crippling demand imposed on the artist by the artwork itself: “On May 26, 1924, Virginia Woolf notes in her journal: ‘My thoughts are completely occupied by The Hours;’ the novel would never be written.”
Fire and war figure all too prominently as the causes for destruction or disfigurement of works of art, as well as the decimation of the edifices that harbor them — from museums (the Louvre, 1871) to libraries (that of Sarajevo, in the war of the early 1990s), storage depots (those of the Harper publishing firm, in the fall of 1853), personal archives (Aretha Franklin’s, in a fire at her home in Detroit), and even artists’ places of birth, such as Wagner’s and Goethe’s, both destroyed in the Second World War.
Indeed, the focus of Lefebvre’s book, somewhat contrary to the implication of the English translation’s title, doesn’t restrict itself to the literal art object. Rather, in a ticklish, sometimes humorous way, Lefebvre punctuates his text with inclusions as trifling as Sophie Calle’s childhood bed (“burned up in a fire”); as immaterial as the circumstances of François Villon’s death (“we know neither where, when, nor how…”); and as bizarre or macabre as missing artists, lost eyesight, or the messy restitution of bodily organs: “In 1899, the Spanish demand Goya’s remains, dead and buried in Bordeaux in 1828; the body, without the head, is returned to Spain.” Shot through with these curiosities and fortuities, the book manages to wriggle within the confines of its ordering criteria (lost art) and its uniform presentation (essentially that of a list).
Fortuity as a theme is essential to the truth of Lefebvre’s text as a whole. Reading The Missing Pieces, with each page one grows more and more aware of the contingency fundamental not only to the creation of an artwork (its process, its inspiration, its distractions, and the various contaminations it undergoes), but also, when finished and whole, its perseverance through time. The book brings to our attention not only the accident and incident that have claimed this or that potential masterpiece or minor work, but also the boundless risk that artworks — and more importantly, artists — face in light of authoritarian regimes, their agents, and whatever else seeks to mutilate the free, creative act in the spirit of domination.
Lefebvre’s text forms a swirling, vertiginous inferno of the destruction that is interminably staked out around creation, in all its aspects. Its wry, deadpan presentation of concretized bits of info, anecdote, and lore recalls something of a post-Wikipedia poetics, of a neutral informational assemblage that nonetheless manages to coalesce into a demonic constellation of lost, damaged, and possible pasts.
It is, on the other hand, also an ironic paean to the destruction enacted in or by the artwork itself, as formally constitutive or as a motivating source: “A woman spreads her fingers around an object that no longer exists: The Invisible Object, a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti” • “Christian Boltanski creates an installation, The Missing House, on the lot of a missing (bombarded) house between two buildings on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, Hamburg” • “The Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth took an inventory of her losses in The Scribe of Lost Objects” …
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