Sick in bed and unable to sustain concentration from behind a fog, I spend a day rereading Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, a short text I have read my way through several times before. Rereading books is my preferred activity when I can’t take in something new, the pleasure similar to watching super hero movies on Netflix during a hangover, where it’s easy enough to move forward and let the textures of the thing envelope me. I enjoy that it works against my constant need to read more, to take new words in.
Lefebvre’s text, translated by David L. Sweet and released by Semiotext(e), lists works of art that have either been lost to time or that were never seen to completion. The conceit of the project is consistent, the catalogue presented in an unyielding block of prose, although the sense of what can qualify as a missing piece is open. “The Villa Diodati, which overlooks Lake Geneva and where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1816, was sold at auction on September 30, 1996” gains entry, as do some deaths from the destruction of libraries and concert halls. The majority, however, remain more closely tied to the loss of a particular work. “We know only two landscapes by Edgar Degas, the photographer: two prints removed from a long, lost series.” “Lessing abandons writing a play on the suicide of Seneca.” “The love letters of Arthur Rimbaud to Paul Verlaine.”
There are several reasons I find so much pleasure in this particular book. One is that I love lists, as many writers seem to, and Lefebvre is a master at arrangement, suggestion, meter, and winks within the list form. More than that, however, I find a perverse joy in reading of works of art and literature that are no more. Certainly, were I given the love letters of Arthur Rimbaud to Paul Verlaine, miraculously recovered, I would be unable to do anything else until I had read them. This would be thrilling. But there’s another thrill in just naming a project, in refusing its actuality, or maybe refusing the right of the reader to access it. It’s a thrill that runs counter to so much of what we believe about art and writing in the contemporary world, where production becomes ultimate, where we say you have to go to the desk every day and we place so much worth in publishing. To lie in bed and think of Cy Twombly’s massive dark canvas Panorama, of Hans Christian Andersen’s singing voice before it was lost, of the many works that Meret Oppenheim destroyed—finding such aesthetic fulfillment in this list feels like I have found a way to cheat the system, to refuse production in favor of something dreamy and degenerate.
“At Franzensbad, where Elsa Triolet was being treated, the hotel burns down, taking the manuscript of her novel Camouflage along with it.” “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wasted the last two years of his life by not painting.” “Ten thousand five hundred films made with nitrate film before 1950 in the United States have self-destructed.” It would be ridiculous to make any totalizing claims over the catalogued losses, to describe them all as indicative of one thing or another. Some losses are tragedies, some joyful acts of destruction on the artist’s part, some probably more powerful as ideas than they ever would have been as actual works. By listing as it does, however, The Missing Pieces allows this field of absence to be its own work. It redirects our attention as readers and writers away from the finished products and back toward the space of imagination and uncertainty, that place where the greatest work is always born anyway. It reminds us that the reader has as much at stake as the writer, that the listener should be every bit as involved as the composer. Everything we write begins as a missing piece, begins in the company of works like those Lefebvre lists, and everything we write will end there, one day, too.