The Virtues of Incomplete Works

2020-11-26 @Literature

Let’s discuss the concept of the incomplete. I have a certain infatuation for the so called unfinished literature works, although it also extends to other art forms.

An unfinished work might comprise any of the following:

Nothing demands that a solid work of literature be complete; that it contain the ingredients of a complete narrative.

I’ve read and enjoyed plenty that exhibited one or more of the above problems. And many of such works represent my favourites in literature.

More interestingly, the more I’ve accustomed myself to the said imperfections, the less I tend to even to notice them. Do we not frequently see that in our lives? It often demands the note of such detail in an accompanying text to even grab my attention at the issue.

Now, what renders the great incomplete works great is usually the abundance of rhetorical and literature elements to compensate for the otherwise lack of completion. I’d alluded to this as micro-reading elements of literature. It is the reading of each successive micro element for it’s own sake and it’s own independent pleasure.

Examples are easily encountered.

Let’s take a subset of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays. These are such that don’t neatly fit in any of the three formal categories of the Comedies, the Histories and the Tragedies.

Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, for instance, contains a galore of lose threads and severe time gaps. Many of the individual fragments also present detail at an incredibly superficial level.

Something similar occurs in The Winter’s Tale, with a major time gap between the tragic and the comedic sections of the play. So much of the inexplicable transpires in course that, while the personified Time strives to fill the void by means of a choral interlude, I make a strong case for incompleteness.

But that doesn’t inhibit the two plays in the emphatic display of lyricism, keenness, and many a lavishing literature element. Each segment independently allures.

Now Bernard Shaw’s plays actually bear notoriety for the incompleteness. Shaw’s predecessor (and arguably mentor figure) Henrik Ibsen is said to have initiated the tradition.

I’ve only read a handful of Shaw’s plays. Yet each one does seem to manifest certain incompleteness to varying extent.

I’ll only mention Pygmalion, which particularly leaves little doubt to the issue. The cast reaches some notion of an ‘equilibrium’ (such wording Shaw applied in the postface), suggestive of one of a handful of cliché closures that should proceed. But there the play abruptly ends, without so much as even a lyrical closure.

Shaw, however, appends a postface relating the ensuing events, in prose, and these entirely contrasting to what the audience might normally expect.

Such a postface might seem an attempt at rendering the work complete. However, one, the format feels notably discordant with the preceding. Two, I actually agree with the playwright’s own remark: it’s a reluctant effort to appease the unimaginative readership.

And whatever an incomplete work that it be, it features some of the wittiest dialogue I’d encountered. Along with his other plays I’d read, it paints the scenario at an impeccable level of detail; the characters as painstakingly realistic as I could conceive right in front. It makes for a marvel to read, and at reaching the culminating lines, I’ve not so much as cared for any lack of closure.

Of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I’ll emphasize two cases.

The Squire’s Tale evinces the unused-props effect I’d alluded to. It presents enough characters and props for a grand epic, but then abruptly terminates at the exploitation of just a small handful.

As often the case, Chaucer overextended his ambition with what he intended a mere tale. But who cares? And as for the void? It appeals to imagination. I welcome and embrace unused props, and don’t feel shortchanged in the slightest.

(For a contemporary example of unused props, read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The author describes a world of colossal breadth. Yet myriads of props and potential threads are left unexploited. The author even plays with the notion in course of a meta dialogue. Many didn’t embrace the work for the said reason. As for me, it’s one of my favourites of his.)

Chaucer’s The Shipman’s Tale I consider incomplete because it departs at an awkward moment that feels fragile: one of those endings you encounter and cringe; doubtful that it hold water without an imminent tragedy.

And yet it does precisely that with impunity. I could also argue that it might owe to the period. A situation that a contemporary reader might construe incomplete or unlikely, would very much satisfy the then readership. I can only leave detail at that without spoiling the narrative.

Where was I going with this? Well, at risk of perpetuating a cliché, it is Chaucer, one of those immortal middle-age poets of charming narrative verse, full of philosophy, historical reference, pathos and enticing storytelling. I haven’t complained at signs of incompleteness.

Concerning poets, the same I can say of Alexander Pushkin. Numerous poems, dramatic compositions and fairy tales (in verse) he left incomplete. Some of those are adaptations of fragments of grander works. Others the poet simply never completed.

And be that as it may, they still exhibit Pushkin’s verse and lyricism. And perhaps I’ve fallen victim to the Slavic cultural brainwashing; to marvel over Pushkin’s every line of verse like the pinnacle of scripture. In that case, consider me irredeemably lost.

Dostoevsky intended a continuation to Brothers Karamazov. He actually mentions this in the preface, although I’d all but forgotten of the fact at arriving at the end of the thousand-page ‘first part’ (the work we know today). It feels sufficiently tractable if you ask me. But Dostoevsky had something else in mind.

Virgil intended additional books to the Aeneid. Does that make the epic incomplete?

Franz Kafka left his grand novels The Trial or The Castle unfinished, both of which leave little doubt at the incompletion.

Granted, those novels don’t cater to every taste out there. But they do to mine. In fact, I initially thought the incompletion was by design, the works sounding formidable as they stood. But then I learned otherwise.

Kafka is said to have intended the novels burned, along with just about everything the Bohemian author had written. But fate didn’t conform. This too, we see quiet often.

Questions, comments? Connect.