Punc­tu­a­tion

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Wayne Koesten­baum

1.

Th­ese cold spring days, I’ve been ru­mi­nat­ing about punc­tu­a­tion. Eva­sion of facts? Flight into for­mal­ism? Cul­pa­ble im­ma­tu­rity? Should I stop pay­ing at­ten­tion to in­ter­rup­tions? Start fo­cus­ing in­stead on his­tory?

Han­nah Arendt gives me pause. A solid, eth­i­cal writer, she uses dashes to set off par­en­thet­i­cal ex­pres­sions. Lis­ten: “And the ac­cep­tance of priv­i­leged cat­e­gories—ger­man Jews as against Pol­ish Jews, war veter­ans and dec­o­rated Jews as against or­di­nary Jews, fam­i­lies whose an­ces­tors were Ger­man-born as against re­cently nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zens, etc.—had been the be­gin­ning of the moral col­lapse of re­spectable Jewish so­ci­ety.” A dash of­fers a place for hold­ing your breath, while the weight of par­en­thet­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, sub­or­di­nate yet ur­gent, lands on top of your body.

2. I have a prob­lem with paus­ing. I cat­a­pult into ir­re­spon­si­ble acts. As a school­child, never rais­ing my hand be­fore speak­ing, I bat­tered the class­room air with ques­tions. For that ten­dency, I ac­quired a nick­name: Ques­tion Bomb.

Wal­ter Ben­jamin, a fel­low Ques­tion Bomb, tried to an­swer some of the ques­tions he posed. I’m not sure he an­swered them to the sat­is­fac­tion of his strin­gent lands­man Theodor Adorno, who be­rated Wal­ter for in­suf­fi­ciently di­alec­ti­cal think­ing. Here is one of the cul­pa­ble ques­tions Ben­jamin posed: “Was ist Aura?” He in­scribed this riddle on a strange piece of sta­tionery (la­beled Man­u­script No. 221, in his archive); the page is crowned with an ad­ver­tis­ing im­age of a San Pel­le­grino wa­ter bot­tle. Per­haps Ben­jamin is ad­dress­ing his open-ended ques­tion— Was ist Aura?— to the bot­tle it­self. What is your aura, San Pel­le­grino, pa­tron saint of wan­der­ers?

3. My hap­pi­est mo­ments as writer and reader oc­cur in the space around the pe­riod. Retroac­tive fix­ity sud­denly en­shrouds the sen­tence, as we

look back on it; we can un­der­stand what it tried to mean, what it failed to say. We can for­give its in­co­her­ences.

Short sen­tences put me in a good mood. So does self-lac­er­a­tion, when art­ful. Two short sen­tences from E.M. Cio­ran suf­fice to re­mind me that brevity is a call­ing: “Cristina Eb­ner lived from 1277 to 1355. The Mid­dle Ages were preg­nant with God.” Christina dreamt that she gave birth to Je­sus Christ. Re­cently, I used the word “epidu­ral” to de­scribe the mo­ment when ner­vous cer­e­bra­tion was forced to stop.

4. Mar­guerite Duras was full of man­ner­ism but also wished to de­tach her­self from pos­ing. Her sen­tences tear them­selves apart be­fore they can achieve assem­bly. In an in­ter­view, she con­fesses a de­sire “to tear what has gone be­fore to pieces.” She de­scribes one of her books, De­stroy, She Said, as de­void of sen­tences: “I don’t think there are any sen­tences left in it.” We de­stroy sen­tences to ban­ish style’s en­cum­brances. As a reader, I seek sen­tences that re­veal—in their method, not merely in their mean­ing—a core of self-de­struc­tive­ness.

5. An­nie Er­naux, like Duras, prefers the piece­meal. And though Er­naux be­gins her aut­ofic­tion Shame with an ar­rest­ing sen­tence that seems to an­nounce a trau­matic cause, she de­votes her short book to tan­gling cat­a­lyst and con­se­quence so that events no longer leave re­li­able foot­prints. Her open­ing sen­tence: “My fa­ther tried to kill my mother one Sun­day in June, in the early af­ter­noon.” A short sen­tence, the kind I like. We’re never too far from the pe­riod. We can see it com­ing. Each of us is loaded, like a gun, with bul­lets like this sen­tence, bul­lets we’ll never fire. I went through a phase, as writer, when I could give in­for­ma­tion only la­con­i­cally. I made the mis­take of con­sid­er­ing my un­emo­tional re­mote­ness a style, and there­fore se­duc­tive. I’ve of­ten fallen into the trap of con­sid­er­ing my self-ad­min­is­tered epidu­rals (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing) to be pow­er­ful se­duc­tion tools. I’ll wipe out all feel­ing from my voice, in the hope of lur­ing you to fall in love with me.

6. Be­ing spell­bind­able is my fate. This mes­mer­ized state is one that Denis Diderot con­sid­ered ideal for view­ers of paint­ings. In fact, it was a paint­ing’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to spell­bind its viewer, ac­cord­ing to Michael Fried, who para­phrases Diderot’s credo as fol­lows: “A paint­ing, it was claimed, had first to at­tract ( at­tirer, ap­peller) and then to ar­rest ( ar­rêter) and

fi­nally to en­thrall ( at­tacher) the beholder, that is, a paint­ing had to call some­one, bring him to a halt in front of it­self, and hold him there as if spell­bound and un­able to move.” Af­ter the word “beholder,” Fried uses a comma, but I’d pre­fer a semi­colon.

Sit­u­a­tions of ex­treme jeal­ousy cause me to freeze—to be­come spell­bound. In the early 1970s, a teacher tem­po­rar­ily con­sid­ered me her fa­vorite student. But then an­other student—call him Moses—be­came her pet. Dur­ing re­cess, I saw this teacher and her new pro­tégé en­meshed in a con­ver­sa­tion I tried to join. The teacher said, “Moses and I need to be alone; we’re hav­ing a pri­vate talk.” Her words ar­rested me. I heard them as a call—a sum­mons to be­come ice. I hugged the spell­bound sen­sa­tion to my­self, as a new, strange pos­ses­sion—a ca­pac­ity to be­come cold.

7. Daniel, a dash­ing young man who works at my neigh­bor­hood’s art sup­ply store, sent me an email. His last words in the mes­sage were “Later homes.” “Later homes” was a com­plete sen­tence, though it baf­fled me. I looked up “homes” in a slang dic­tionary. “Homes” means friend or ac­quain­tance. “Later” means “see you later.” Ide­ally, Daniel would have put a comma af­ter “Later.” Later comma homes. His open­ing words, in the email, were “What’s up dude.” “Dude” spell­binds me; the word calls me straight, pre­sumes me a fel­low dude, friend to Daniel, who is prob­a­bly straight, though his wish to have a drink with me gives me hope that he is com­pli­cated. To tell you this story with­out de­scrib­ing Daniel’s face is to com­mit a sac­ri­lege against the gods of nar­ra­tive, who de­cree that ev­ery mean­ing—ev­ery em­blem—must be com­posed of an im­age and its cap­tion. Daniel can func­tion as an al­le­gory only if I de­scribe his face. Oth­er­wise he is merely a cap­tion.

Mil­ton Avery’s paint­ings ar­rive with­out cap­tions and with­out the wish for a cap­tion. Cle­ment Green­berg, in Art and Cul­ture, does a man­ful job of cap­tur­ing what makes Avery’s art so spell­bind­ing—its ex­act­ness. Ex­act with­out be­ing fussy or bossy. Ex­ac­ti­tude with­out tears, as John­son & John­son Baby Sham­poo fa­mously promised, in an ad cam­paign that in­ter­fused it­self with my ear­li­est ven­tures in nude bathing, which took place, nat­u­rally, in my child­hood home’s bath­tub, un­der the watch­ful eye of my fa­ther, who ad­min­is­tered the po­tion with what I would like to re­mem­ber as a lib­eral hand. Lis­ten to Cle­ment Green­berg salute Avery’s un­mod­ish ex­ac­ti­tude: “The ques­tion has to do with ex­actly how Avery locks his flat, lam­bent planes to­gether; with the ex­act dosage of light in

his col­ors (all of which seem to have some ad­mix­ture of white); with ex­actly how he man­ages to keep his pic­tures cool in key even when us­ing the warm­est hues; with ex­actly how he in­flects planes into depths with­out shad­ing, and so on.” Green­berg ital­i­cizes the re­peated words ex­act and ex­actly. Ex­ac­ti­tude sticks out from the page. Ex­ac­ti­tude con­sists in a de­ci­sive par­si­mo­nious­ness: not serv­ing the viewer too much food; not over­pour­ing the drink. Green­berg hides his heat within cranky sen­tences. I won’t call them bar­ren, be­cause they con­tain thorns, and a thorn prom­ises, even­tu­ally, a rose. Be­hold Green­berg’s thorn: “I still quar­rel with Avery’s fig­ure pieces, or at least with most of them. Too of­ten their de­sign fails to be to­tal . . .”

8. To fail at to­tal­ity! I went through a phase, a few years ago, of read­ing phi­los­o­phy. I didn’t make it very far, how­ever, through Hegel’s Phenomenol­ogy of Spirit. I stopped af­ter fin­ish­ing the pref­ace, sub­ti­tled “On Sci­en­tific Cog­ni­tion.” My time for read­ing Hegel will come. “Cog­ni­tion,” af­ter all, is one of my fa­vorite words. And was not the spell­bound state that I de­scribed ear­lier an ex­am­ple of sub­la­tion, whereby de­pleted re­sources rein­ter­pret them­selves as power, and rise up to de­clare the right of frost— the right to be seized by frost and to de­clare frost a higher form of ar­dor? Hegel: “Start­ing from the Sub­ject as though this were a per­ma­nent ground, it finds that, since the Pred­i­cate is re­ally the Sub­stance, the Sub­ject has passed over into the Pred­i­cate, and by this very fact, has been sub­lated; and, since in this way what seems to be the Pred­i­cate has be­come the whole and the in­de­pen­dent mass, think­ing can­not roam at will, but is im­peded by this weight.” I can pic­ture the Sub­ject pass­ing over into the Pred­i­cate. I imag­ine the Sub­ject as a night wan­derer, like the hero­ine of Char­lotte Brontë’s Vil­lette, in a som­nam­bu­lis­tic trance, prowl­ing through Brus­sels. Once, I be­haved like Hegel’s Sub­ject. On a camp­ing trip in sixth grade, I sleep­walked into an ad­ja­cent camp­site and en­tered the sleep­ing bag of a boy I didn’t know; I told him, “Get out of my sleep­ing bag!” With th­ese magic words of ex­ile, I woke up.

9. Re­cently I made a paint­ing based on the pe­nis of my friend Brian, an art critic. My tech­nique was to drag a pen­cil through a layer of dry­ing but still wet gesso, as if the pen­cil were a carv­ing tool, and the gesso were mar­ble. On Twit­ter, Brian cir­cu­lated a pho­to­graph of my paint­ing, which he called, in his tweet, “a paint­ing of my d.” D was low­er­case. My d. Low­er­case “d” sounds less sex­ual than the word “dick.” Low­er­case “d” de-mon­u­men­tal­izes the dick. Af­ter the “d,” Brian put no pe­riod.

A sen­tence with­out a comma is of­ten a glo­ri­ous thing. Washington Irv­ing be­gins the fi­nal para­graph of his es­say “The Art of Book­mak­ing” with such a sen­tence, comma-less and there­fore at lib­erty to please any vis­i­tor, how­ever para­noid: “The li­brar­ian now stepped up to me and de­manded whether I had a card of ad­mis­sion.” Though I have no card of ad­mis­sion to the palace of art, I drag my pen­cil through dry­ing gesso; I like the re­sis­tance of­fered by gesso, en route to mar­mo­re­al­iza­tion.

10. Jane Ja­cobs, in her clas­sic The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Ci­ties, speaks in fa­vor not of the mar­mo­real but of the var­i­ous. Va­ri­ety, she ar­gues, makes for safety. In a list, its noun phrases sep­a­rated by com­mas, Ja­cobs lays out the floor plan of throng con­scious­ness, of heim­lich con­vivi­al­ity: “The floor of the build­ing in which this book is be­ing writ­ten is oc­cu­pied also by a health club with a gym, a firm of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal dec­o­ra­tors, an in­sur­gent Demo­cratic party re­form club, a Lib­eral party po­lit­i­cal club, a mu­sic so­ci­ety, an ac­cor­dion­ists’ as­so­ci­a­tion, a re­tired im­porter who sells maté by mail, a man who sells paper and who also takes care of ship­ping the maté, a den­tal lab­o­ra­tory, a stu­dio for wa­ter­color lessons, and a maker of cos­tume jew­elry.” I am most in­ter­ested in the maté, a caf­feinated bev­er­age I’ve never tasted; call it the un­heard melody of Ja­cobs’s build­ing. The maté is where I lis­ten most keenly, be­cause I can’t hear maté, can’t taste it, can’t re­mem­ber it, can’t pic­ture it. “Maté” is the most con­spic­u­ously for­eign el­e­ment in Ja­cobs’s sen­tence. Maté, to which Ja­cobs gives the un­re­quired ben­e­fit of an acute ac­cent, en­livens any com­mu­nity, lin­guis­tic or so­cial, in which it dwells. To be­come the maté in some­one else’s sen­tence—to be­come the sub­stance that cir­cu­lates through an uniden­ti­fied build­ing—to be­come, as it were, the kif of a so­cial the­o­rist’s con­scious­ness: is this my new­est as­pi­ra­tion? Or am I con­tent to be a painter of “d,” a writer who drags his pen­cil through gesso? Gesso’s fumes, the in­ter­net as­sures me, aren’t poi­sonous, though they as­sault my nos­trils with a sting I as­so­ciate with the am­mo­nia that porn em­po­ria use to clean spunk off their floors.

11. Did Kandin­sky ever no­tice the color of his spunk? From Con­cern­ing the Spir­i­tual in Art: “An at­tempt to make yel­low colder pro­duces a green tint and checks both the hor­i­zon­tal and ec­cen­tric move­ment. The color be­comes sickly and un­real. The blue by its contrary move­ment acts as a brake on the yel­low, and is hin­dered in its own move­ment, till the two to­gether be­come sta­tion­ary, and the re­sult is green.” Do you be­lieve him? Thinkers who make ab­so­lute state­ments—whether about yel­low,

green, comma, or pe­riod—of­ten al­low a pe­jo­ra­tive, di­ag­nos­tic tone to in­fect their sen­tences. I don’t trust a per­son who calls a color sickly. And yet I think Kandin­sky was try­ing to de­scribe an ex­pe­ri­ence he’d fre­quently had—an ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing col­ors wig­gle, rush, com­bine, slow down. He re­sponded to this ex­pe­ri­ence by gen­er­al­iz­ing, by try­ing to lay down laws. Laws, how­ever, don’t help new ex­pe­ri­ences come into be­ing; I’d rather that Kandin­sky had told me ex­actly where he was stand­ing or sit­ting when he most re­cently saw blue act as a brake on yel­low.

12. “The best way to de­fend one­self against the in­va­sion of bur­den­some mem­o­ries is to im­pede their en­try, to ex­tend a cor­don san­i­taire.” Primo Levi orig­i­nally wrote that sen­tence in Ital­ian. Per­haps he in­cluded the French phrase “cor­don san­i­taire,” or per­haps his English trans­la­tor, Ray­mond Rosen­thal, gave it to him. Cor­don san­i­taire is a phrase I of­ten use. It es­tab­lishes dis­tance from a sub­ject, while en­dow­ing the avoided topic with an at­mos­phere of Gal­lic re­fine­ment. Freud was fa­mil­iar with such moves. He fell into French when­ever pos­si­ble, to avoid be­smirch­ment. Those who the­o­rize be­smirch­ment aren’t nec­es­sar­ily in love with the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing dirty hands. We use lan­guage to keep away from the sub­jects that first drove us into lan­guage.

13. Time to opt for plain­ness. Pack the in­for­ma­tion sar­dine-tight. Kip­per the truth, in the briny man­ner of Friederike Mayröcker, who con­denses lan­guage even while lib­er­at­ing it to flow. First thing to go are cap­i­tal let­ters. In her book with each clouded peak, as trans­lated from the Ger­man by Ros­marie Wal­drop and Har­ri­ett Watts, the sen­tences, if they are sen­tences, come mostly with­out capitals. Kip­per the truth by un­cap­i­tal­iz­ing. In a chap­ter called “in­di­ca­tions,” Mayröcker be­gins, “the power plant glit­ter­ing he said, quite contrary to.” Quite contrary to what? In the vicin­ity of a glit­ter­ing power plant there isn’t time to ask stupid ques­tions; you should be wor­ried about ra­dioac­tive fall­out, not punc­tu­a­tion or syn­tax. The pe­riod, ar­riv­ing per­plex­ingly af­ter “quite contrary to,” and cut­ting off the noun that would be the prepo­si­tion’s des­tined ob­ject, un­der­scores anx­i­ety while calm­ing it. When a sen­tence pre­ma­turely ends, an emer­gency gov­ern­ment takes over. Quite contrary to the usual regime of glit­ter, the false con­scious­ness of­fered by shini­ness, I re­ceived from Mayröcker’s in­ter­rupted sen­tence the ex­treme unc­tion of Full Stop.

14. The nec­tar of in­ter­rupted con­scious­ness I sip through trans­lated sen­tences. Ni­et­zsche, me­di­ated by trans­la­tor Wal­ter Kauf­mann, di­ag­noses an in­ca­pac­ity that per­mits a contrary flour­ish­ing, as if against the glit­ter of worka­day power plants spew­ing their filth along the city’s river­bank. Ni­et­zsche, The Gay Sci­ence: “We are some­thing dif­fer­ent from schol­ars, al­though it is un­avoid­able for us to be also, among other things, schol­arly. We have dif­fer­ent needs, grow dif­fer­ently, and also have a dif­fer­ent di­ges­tion: we need more, we also need less.” May I, too, de­clare a dif­fer­ent di­ges­tion? I need im­mense lib­erty, though af­ter steal­ing a wide pas­ture, I ex­pe­ri­ence it as a ter­ri­ble con­fine­ment. In the midst of a di­gres­sive jour­ney­ing I elected, my writ­ing body feels pierced— punc­tu­ated?—on all sides. When, in lan­guage, I seem most free, I still feel chained—prod­ded and pinched by a de­mand that ev­ery sen­sa­tion and in­tu­ition must pass through a lin­guis­tic sieve. Func­tion­ing within lan­guage—even free func­tion­ing, a writ­ing that seems lu­bri­ciously at ease—de­mands a cor­don san­i­taire, a tight cinc­ture. The cinc­ture is the sen­tence, whose cor­ri­dors are barbed. And if I could es­cape the sen­tence, would I want an­other home? Would I be hap­pier in a land of per­ma­nent in­ter­rup­tion, quite contrary to?

15. “The Jew de­liv­ered the co­caine the same day, and promptly van­ished.” So says Ge­orge Or­well, in Down and Out in Paris and Lon­don. In­side the front cover of this old pa­per­back, I found the flat­tened car­cass of a dead in­sect. I’ll call it a gnat, though I’d like to dig­nify the in­ter­loper with the Ger­man word that Kafka used to de­scribe his sad Gregor— Ungeziefer, which de­scends from a Mid­dle High Ger­man word mean­ing “un­clean beast not suited for sacri­fice.” Or­well lit­tered his sen­tence with a bless­edly un­nec­es­sary comma: “The Jew de­liv­ered the co­caine the same day, and promptly van­ished.” The comma al­lows us to feel an in­ter­lude of time elapse—the in­ter­val of de­liv­ery—be­fore the fi­nal van­ish­ing oc­curs. The comma is the co­caine.

16. I am not puz­zled by aura. I find it ev­ery­where. The stu­dents of lit­er­ary critic Mar­jorie Perloff, how­ever, ap­par­ently stum­ble in the unau­ratic dark. In her mem­oir, The Vi­enna Para­dox, she ad­mits, “I have fre­quently taught Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s es­says and find that stu­dents to­day are puz­zled by the con­cept of aura.” That sen­tence is graced by the ab­sence of a comma. Some­times life can bring you pleasure with­out com­mas, with­out un­due self-cas­ti­ga­tion. You don’t need com­mas to per­ceive aura.

You need sim­ply to re­move ob­struc­tions from your vi­sion. A comma is not nec­es­sar­ily an ob­struc­tion. My true sub­ject, any­way, isn’t punc­tu­a­tion; punc­tu­a­tion gives me an ap­pa­ra­tus with which to claim near­ness to gen­uine sur­prise. Punc­tu­a­tion, to­day, al­lows me oc­ca­sional—fleet­ing—prox­im­ity to sud­den­ness. Sud­den­ness is how I rec­og­nize aura: its quick ar­rival. And so I am al­ways try­ing to lis­ten closely to the timings of ar­rivals and ex­its. When in­for­ma­tion leaves and in­vades a sen­tence— when a sen­tence sub­mits to in­ter­rup­tions or for­bids them and pro­ceeds with­out pause—for th­ese du­ra­tional is­sues, which im­pinge on aura and elu­ci­date it, we thank and blame punc­tu­a­tion.

17. “si tu t’imag­ines / si tu t’imag­ines / fil­lette fil­lette / si tu t’imag­ines . . .” Juli­ette Greco sang this song, com­posed in Paris by Hun­gar­ian-jewish émi­gré Joseph Kosma, to a poem by Ray­mond Que­neau, who put no punc­tu­a­tion be­tween rep­e­ti­tions of the phrase “si tu t’imag­ines.” Kosma sculpted the melody to ar­tic­u­late the gaps that Que­neau didn’t bother to write. Greco’s tim­bre be­friends the void the words ward off—the abyss of squan­dered time. We, lis­ten­ing, are the “fil­lette”— one trans­la­tor ren­ders the phrase in English as “baby doll”—who needs to learn the les­son that bod­ies don’t last. As a child, I bor­rowed from my mother’s shelf a pa­per­back copy of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’s Baby Doll and never re­turned it. I de­creed—with­out say­ing so—that I was the right­ful, des­tined owner of Baby Doll. If each book has a fil­lette to whom it ad­dresses its sul­try carpe diem, then I was the fil­lette-lecteur, hyp­o­crit­i­cal and slim, of Baby Doll, a ve­hi­cle that epit­o­mized Wil­liams’s drink-soaked path to ruin.

18. My body is a prob­lem for me. If I were a woman, would my body be more of a prob­lem? Adri­enne Rich thinks so, and I usu­ally agree with her pro­nounce­ments and lita­nies be­cause they are voiced lyri­cally, gemmed with specifics, and paced de­lib­er­ately, with abun­dant com­mas, like wis­te­ria vines, or like a clema­tis learn­ing to open for the first time. In Of Woman Born, Rich ob­serves: “I know no woman—vir­gin, mother, les­bian, mar­ried, celi­bate—whether she earns her keep as a housewife, a cock­tail wait­ress, or a scan­ner of brain waves—for whom her body is not a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem: its clouded mean­ing, its fer­til­ity, its de­sire, its so-called frigid­ity, its bloody speech, its si­lences, its changes and mu­ti­la­tions, its rapes and ripen­ings.” We re­ceive from Rich a cor­nu­copia of stop­pages and pauses; her sen­tence’s clair­voy­ant can­dor, like a Cas­san­dra who’d grad­u­ated to the pul­pit, ex­tends its Solomonic ca­dences to­ward me, as if I were the fil­lette ac­cept­ing her vi­sion­ary call.

To sur­round my de­scrip­tion of Rich’s sen­tence with ironic trap­pings should not ob­scure my “bot­tom na­ture” ad­mi­ra­tion—nay, wor­ship—for its tempo and its truth­ful­ness.

19. The phrase “bot­tom na­ture” is Gertrude Stein’s; I use it all the time. I like “bot­tom na­ture” be­cause it lightly touches the fun­da­ment with­out dirty­ing it­self by ac­tu­ally men­tion­ing but­tocks. The phrase “bot­tom na­ture” has a Hegelian vast­ness. “Bot­tom na­ture” im­plies a philo­sophic eye look­ing deep into his­tory’s cy­cles and ex­er­cis­ing a knack for gyres. A sen­tence from Stein’s The Mak­ing of Amer­i­cans: “It hap­pens very of­ten that a man has it in him, that a man does some­thing, that he does it very of­ten, that he does many things, when he is a young one and an older one and an old one.” By man, maybe Stein means woman. Stein didn’t like com­mas, but she used sev­eral here. It hap­pens very of­ten that Stein wants to help the reader per­ceive the pause, which cap­tures in­drawn breath, ris­ing and fall­ing pitch, and the pa­tience of a speak­ing voice for­giv­ing its puerile Amer­i­can read­ers for their in­abil­ity to hear the words ac­tu­ally be­ing spo­ken to them. Stein’s “man,” through pa­tient procla­ma­tion, gives the reader a model for how to dwell solidly—think­ing through the bot­tom—within the sen­tence whose land­locked cu­bits are our tem­po­rary por­tion.

20. Stein’s Cantabridgean pre­de­ces­sor in the fine art of mea­sure­ment, Henry David Thoreau, also be­lieved in think­ing through the bot­tom; bot­tom-na­ture think­ing, when it takes root in writ­ing, can en­joy the ben­e­fits of self-in­ter­rup­tion as well as sto­p­less un­furl­ing. Thoreau preaches the virtue of “short im­pulses,” or of long jour­neys bro­ken into brief in­ter­vals. From Walden: “When the sur­face is con­sid­er­ably ag­i­tated there are no skaters nor wa­ter-bugs on it, but ap­par­ently, in calm days, they leave their havens and ad­ven­tur­ously glide forth from the shore by short im­pulses till they com­pletely cover it.” Thoreau praises the wa­ter­bugs and the skaters for their quick, short surges of move­ment—sprints based in a bot­tom-na­ture “im­pulse” that may not have its source in a be­lief or an in­ten­tion. An im­pulse need not be the con­se­quence of a wish or a de­ci­sion. Thoreau’s sen­tences, like Emer­son’s, are mas­ter­fully ter­mi­nal. When they end, they truly end, and don’t wait around for the next one to start. Fre­quent and solid divi­sion of thought into dosed in­cre­ments—the tempo of the dosage an­nounc­ing it­self through punc­tu­a­tion—re­flects Thoreau’s pref­er­ence for im­pulses that don’t dis­tort them­selves through un­due pro­lon­ga­tion.

21. Not end­ing has its joys. Not end­ing, but dra­mat­i­cally point­ing to­ward on­ward­ness with­out ac­tu­ally ven­tur­ing there . . . El­lipses—dot dot dot— open onto death’s pa­tio. Like a tease, Giuseppe Un­garetti, in the tiny poem “Statue,” fin­gers the abyss with the three-dot salute: “Pet­ri­fied youth, / O statue, O statue of the hu­man abyss . . .” Un­garetti’s sen­tence isn’t go­ing any­where. It takes pride in verb­less pet­ri­fac­tion. Iden­ti­fy­ing with a kouros is a glam­orous—ide­al­ized—way of be­ing mis­er­able. Lit­er­a­ture spe­cial­izes in stop­ping the mo­ment, killing it, stag­ing its blight and its bloom. The woman who long ago gave me a vol­ume of Un­garetti—un­trans­lated—van­ished from my life, and I van­ished from hers; I think she re­sented me for be­ing ap­par­ently well-ad­justed. She looked like Jeanne Moreau; for a few days, in her pres­ence, I pre­tended to be straight. Af­ter vis­it­ing her fam­ily for Christ­mas, she came back and told me this story: her fa­ther—a drunk?—had slapped her face, though she was al­ready an adult. Trau­ma­tized, she vowed never again to visit him. I have a pet­ri­fied re­la­tion to the tale I’m now re­peat­ing: my voice’s emo­tional miser­li­ness and lin­guis­tic mea­ger­ness re­flect a stone’s in­abil­ity to feel em­pa­thy with other stones.

22. Be­cause we are, at heart, a stone, or un­der­stand that our short im­pulses have un­yield­ing stoni­ness as their ca­reer’s end, we try to fill our days with as many im­ped­i­ments as pos­si­ble. “Very dif­fi­cult, very dif­fi­cult,” Vin­cent Van Gogh re­peated, in a let­ter to his brother Theo. Vin­cent was in the last year of his life; fresh from the asy­lum, he bus­ied him­self with fore­casts. “There are lovely au­tumn ef­fects to do; the olive trees are very char­ac­ter­is­tic, and I am strug­gling to catch them. They are old sil­ver, some­times nearer blue, some­times green­ish, bronzed, whitening over a soil which is yel­low, rose, vi­o­let-tinted or or­ange, to dull red ochre. Very dif­fi­cult, very dif­fi­cult.” Is he brag­ging about the dif­fi­culty? Wor­ried about it? Dif­fi­cult for him, be­cause of his ad­dic­tion to in­fe­lic­ity, or dif­fi­cult for any­one, even the most con­ven­tion­ally skilled? Did he un­der­stand that this dif­fi­culty would be­come, in a decade or two, moder­nity’s brag­gart sig­na­ture? And are we wrong, or hasty, or ten­den­tious, to point out an affin­ity be­tween dif­fi­culty and a sen­tence’s tempo (at least in English), its rep­e­ti­tions and comma-marked stag­ger­ing? It’s ten­den­tious, per­haps, to cling to any sys­tem, in­clud­ing the pro­to­cols I em­ploy to inch for­ward my lan­guage, as if I feared that lan­guage’s deeper wish (its bot­tom na­ture) were to cease, and as if I were (as writer) al­ways in the po­si­tion of goos­ing lan­guage to keep it go­ing. Dreams, in Freud’s view, might have been a sys­tem to keep wishes go­ing; dream

codes (con­den­sa­tion, dis­place­ment, and other forms of sym­bol­iza­tion) served not to ex­press wishes but to pro­duce them, and then to pre­tend that the wishes came first.

23. “The odor of rot had be­come so gen­eral that he no longer smelled it,” writes Richard Wright in his story “The Man Who Lived Un­der­ground.” I don’t live un­der­ground; nor, pre­cisely, did Wright, though he lived within a sys­tem of racism and ac­tual bod­ily peril that gave him li­cense to use the metaphor. How I gen­er­al­ize, and why I gen­er­al­ize, and if I have the right to gen­er­al­ize, are the ques­tions pre­oc­cu­py­ing me now. Rot has be­come gen­eral; I don’t want to be com­plicit—or to ad­mit my com­plic­ity—with its spread. (If, in this es­say, I have an un­stated, im­pos­si­ble sub­ject, it might be eco­cide and its em­bed­ded­ness within lin­guis­tic inat­ten­tive­ness—call it the rot of the world’s speak­ing mouth or the world’s lis­ten­ing ear.) If we care­lessly lump con­cepts to­gether, or if we think too rigidly within a sys­tem of con­cepts, we may suc­cumb to false cer­tainty, and to tones of voice that can speciously ar­gue for any­thing, and that can ma­lignly side with a cul­tural sys­tem for­bid­ding slow dis­cern­ment.

24. Greek com­poser Ian­nis Xe­nakis, who lived un­der­ground, at least for a time (he es­caped from a prison camp and lived se­cretly in an apart­ment), and who lost his left eye to shrap­nel in 1945, had a com­plex re­la­tion to sys­tems. Was his re­la­tion am­a­tive or sus­pi­cious? (Al­though he is cel­e­brated for his use of com­put­ers in mu­sic, a move­ment known as musique stochas­tique, I imag­ine that he re­garded sys­tems with a mix­ture of fear and love.) In an es­say en­ti­tled “The Cri­sis of Se­rial Mu­sic,” he writes: “Lin­ear polyphony de­stroys it­self by its very com­plex­ity; what one hears is in re­al­ity noth­ing but a mass of notes in var­i­ous reg­is­ters.” I hear the semi­colon di­vid­ing his sen­tence in two. The text’s orig­i­nal is in French, though pub­lished in a Ger­man jour­nal; Xe­nakis was born in Ro­ma­nia to Greek par­ents. Did he ex­pe­ri­ence this abun­dance of lan­guages as a de­struc­tive polyphony? Please note that “sto­chas­tic” comes from a Greek word mean­ing aim.

25. My aim? I fear that aim­ing is vi­o­lent. To tend— sto­chas­tic mu­sic re­lies on prob­a­bil­ity, not on iron­clad will—is gen­tler than to aim. Poets rarely aim; es­say­ists some­times aim. (Maybe Homer aimed. Homer wrote the book about shrap­nel.) John Yau, an art critic as well as poet, com­posed

a poem (“830 Fire­place Road”) that con­sists of vari­a­tions on a sen­tence by Jack­son Pol­lock, who pi­o­neered a meta­phoric re­la­tion be­tween uri­na­tion and paint­ing, and whose works seem gov­erned by wish rather than in­ten­tion, and by ten­dency rather than de­ci­sion. “When I am in my paint­ing, I’m not aware of what I’m do­ing”: that’s Pol­lock’s line. One vari­a­tion, coined by Yau, is “When I am my paint­ing, I’m not aware of what I am.” “I” is an aim; I don’t need to aim my “I,” which comes equipped with mem­o­ries, pat­terns, and habits. To mute the pos­si­ble vi­o­lence of an aimed “I,” we punc­tu­ate our im­pulses, lest our im­pulses take re­venge by punc­tu­at­ing us. Pol­lock didn’t aim at the tree his car hit.

26. We have reached the end of our jour­ney. On Oc­to­ber 19, 1970, Unica Zürn, a Sur­re­al­ist artist and writer, killed her­self by jump­ing out the sixth-floor bal­cony of pho­tog­ra­pher Hans Bellmer’s apart­ment, in Paris. Her novel, Dark Spring, writ­ten in 1967, ends with the sui­cide of a twelve-year-old girl. “‘It’s over,’ she says qui­etly, and feels dead al­ready, even be­fore her feet leave the win­dowsill. She falls on her head and breaks her neck. Strangely con­torted, her small body lies in the grass. The first one to find her is the dog. He sticks his head be­tween her legs and be­gins licking her.” Th­ese last two sen­tences have no com­mas. Speed­i­ness and mat­ter-of-fact­ness and pause­less­ness un­der­score their ob­scen­ity, their lack of af­fect. Who sees the dog lick the dead girl? The writer sees. Unica Zürn sees, and writes it down, and wants us to see it, too. Dark Spring was writ­ten orig­i­nally in Ger­man. “He sticks his head be­tween her legs and be­gins licking her” might have com­mas in Ger­man. “The first one to find her is the dog” might have com­mas in Ger­man. I don’t know why it mat­ters whether or not th­ese two sen­tences have com­mas; I came to the scene of this es­say, the one I’m now end­ing, to get as­sis­tance in fig­ur­ing out why it mat­ters whether or not there were com­mas in the Ger­man orig­i­nal of the death scene. It would be ten­den­tious to point out that Paul Ce­lan killed him­self, also in Paris, in April 1970, al­most ex­actly six months be­fore Unica Zürn leapt to her death. It would be mis­lead­ing, it would be melo­dra­matic, to say that six months punc­tu­ated the two sui­cides.

Pho­to­graph by Ja­son Le­ung on Un­splash

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