On Unfinished Business
Updated: Sep 30
Unfinished things have their own special qualities, a certain melancholy that probably emanates from the way in which they point to life's transient nature, and a touch of mystery. The incomplete state of some novels and short stories by Franz Kafka contributes to the strangeness that is an essential element in the works of that strange author (albeit one that Kafka would not have intended his audience to know, and for which we have Max Brod to thank for ignoring his instructions to destroy his writings. Having just read Elias Canetti's Kafka's Other Trial I am freshly aware of how remarkably strange he was).
There is much speculation as to why Franz Schubert never completed his Symphony no. 8 in B minor. Perhaps it was due to his having contracted syphilis, though he lived for another six years after writing the first two movements and part of the third, and he wrote and completed several other works after having left it aside. Whatever the reason, its unfinished state has become its identity. Illness or other misfortune can prevent the completion of a work, though sometimes an incomplete object may still be on the road to completion, and the fact that we see it in an incomplete state can be due to the short span of a human life. The La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, with its cranes towering over the imperceptibly rising spires and seeming indeed to be as much a part of the architecture as the stone, has become something of an icon for the unfinished, but in all fairness, cathedrals have traditionally been buildings that took decades and even centuries to complete.
Unfinished art often appeals to us precisely for being unfinished. Things not brought to completion sometimes have a value that the very fact of their incomplete state has rendered. Works like Michelangelo’s Manchester Madonna enable us to see the creative process to a degree that no finished work does. Pliny the Elder understood this when he wrote about Greek and Roman artists:
"It is also a very unusual and memorable fact that the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures such as the Iris of Aristides, the Tyndarus' Children of Nicomachus, the Medea of Timomachus and the Aphrodite of Apelles... are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval’s beguilement we feel regret that the artist’s hand while engaged in the work was removed by death."*
An artist's illness or death might end an oeuvre of work, but some consolation may be found in how an unfinished work can teach us about the creative process. The twelfth century fortress of Jacob's Ford, sometimes referred to as Chastellet, does precisely that. In October 1178 its construction commenced on a low hill above the upper Jordan River. Jacob's Ford (in Latin Vadum Iacob) was named for the adjacent crossing, the strategic importance of which was obvious to both the Templars who were building it and to the chief adversary of the Franks, the Ayyubid leader, Saladin. This strategic importance was the cause of the dispute that led to the castle's besiegement, fall and destruction in August 1179.
A number of remarkable aspects of this fortress were exposed in several seasons of excavations directed by Professor Ronnie Ellenblum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, not least being the evidence for a dramatic tectonic event that tore apart the by then ruined and abandoned castle in 1202.** But it is certainly the evidence of its unfinished state that makes Jacob's Ford so important to the student of medieval castles. Many castles contain incomplete sections, works underway at the time of the castle's fall, but Vadum Iacob is the only known large fortress that was and remained entirely incomplete. It was a building site, with all that a building site entails: unfinished elements, temporary constructions, ramps, tools, piles of building material etc. Within the period of eleven months the progress in its construction had been remarkable. The outer walls had been raised to a considerable height, the wooden gates had been put in place, a tower had been added to the south-east corner and construction had begun on the internal structures. These included an inner wall running adjacent to the outer one (seen in the illustration above) which had only been partly constructed. Above part of these two walls several metres of the barrel-vaulting had been raised. At least three remarkable installations had been completed and were already functioning: a large bakery oven, a bathhouse and a broad and deep stone-lined well (the last as yet undiscovered, but presumably also located in the more-or-less completed part of the castle in the south-west).
The most remarkable evidence for its incomplete state, and the most informative of the building process, was uncovered when a section was cut through the debris piled up against the outer wall in the north. Layers of sloping soil dumped from within, then levelled and then dumped again and levelled again in an ever repeating process, showed how, lacking in timber for scaffolding the builders had made use of what they had in abundance - soil. They had raised two or three courses of stone, piled soil against the wall face and levelled off the soil in order to from there repeat the process of raising more courses of stone. By this means they were able to lift the huge and weighty limestone ashlars into place with the use of simple manual cranes. At the end of the process all of this dumped soil would have had to be removed so as to expose the wall to its full height. To our good fortune that stage was never reached, and this unfinished work is thus able to tell the story of castle building technology better than any completed fortress.
*Pliny the Elder, Natural History, vol. 9, Book 35, Loeb Classics, Cambridge Massachusetts, London, 1961, p. 367.
**On the excavation project see http://vadumiacob.huji.ac.il/