This essay examines the notion of the fragment in Balzac’s canonical Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, a cardinal text in 19th and 20th Romantic artistic theory. Balzac’s story of the failure of his protagonist Frenhofer to realize the work of art of the future has been taken as a cautionary tale about the deleterious relation of theory to practice. This rests on an unequivocal reading of the denouement, where the castigating judgment of Frenhofer’s masterpiece by Poussin and Porbus is taken as authoritative. The essay puts this judgment in question, returning to aesthetics of the fragment in romantic theory and shows how the ending might be read against itself. Drawing on the work of Paul de Man the essay examines how questions of judgment and authority are progressively undermined in the text and the way the ending opens onto conflicting and irreconcilable forms of interpretation. As such it offers a new and original interpretation of a canonical text and serves to explain how later artists could continue to see the aesthetic theory of Frenhofer, elaborated and disparaged in the text, as a viable aesthetic strategy
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