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.