David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2012

Phenomenology of Punctuation

Raoul Hausmann, Phonetic Poem (1918)

Hello everyone and happy new years. While travelling in the last few weeks I had a conversation with the ever-acute Juliet Clark, who told me about the latest trends in editing. One piece of news is that semicolons between independent clauses are very out of fashion, even more than colons.

I was surprised, because I’ve always thought the colon was a more finicky piece of punctuation, but its more particular usage case probably has kept a place for it while the semicolon has come to seem more superfluous and easily replaced with a period. That I feel that my semicolons should not be replaced with periods (not usually, anyway) doesn’t have much bearing on the semicolon’s popularity.

I use semicolons frequently enough that they’ve taken on a particular feel for me that is at most vaguely approximated inside anyone else’s head. Even when I’m not using them, uniformity of sentence rhythm can bother me; I’ll change up sentence structure and adopt more ornate phrasing to get the feel of a semicolon’s half-pause without actually using the character itself. So for me the semicolon also has the regulative function of releasing the accumulated pressure of the monotony of seemingly repetitious sentence patterns.

(Starting sentences with conjunctions also shifts the pacing, though I never do so for the clause right after a semicolon; wouldn’t this clause seem strange starting with an “and,” stranger than if I’d used a period instead of a semicolon just now? Conjunctions need to be capitalized to look right to me when they start independent clauses.)

Reading too much of the flat, staccato American fiction of the 1980s and 1990s caused me to cling desperately to a more flowing and/or baroque style when I was growing up. It wasn’t just limited to Raymond Carver and his kin, though. I had similar negative reactions to Iris Murdoch’s prose, which seems to stick far too often to a thudding subject-verb-object windshield wiper rhythm that sets my teeth on edge. For contrast, German strictly mandate placement of parts of speech in such a way as to frequently yield free-form chaos on a word by word level, making such monotony rarer.

The vagaries of these perceptions of the flow and rhythm of punctuation are more particular than I could fully document. At least in the case of the Oxford comma, everyone knows that there’s no agreement as to how sentences with or without it should feel. But there seems to be the tacit agreement that usage of most punctuation has the same effect on speakers of the same language (well, within the same socio-economic class and dialect and geographical background and so on, but you see my point).

Which leads to the next, greater problem. Even the colon is out of fashion these days, frequently replaced by the em dash—at least when the colon’s not being given its strictest usage preceding a list or similar. And the allure of the em dash is a headache for me, because somewhere along the line I was taught that it was wrong to use an em dash just to provide a break in a sentence—like this, just now. I learned that the only proper use—and this is not a rule in Strunk and White, so it must have been a particularly insistent teacher somewhere along the line—was as a substitute for parentheses. Whichever Ancient Mariner taught me that rule was really irresponsible. Em dashes were suitable—no, required!—when using parentheses to offset an embedded clause would wrongly subordinate the clause. Parentheses were suitable for sotto voce asides or digressions, but not for crucial interjections. But I ceased to use the single, lonely em dash.

Unfortunately, the persistent sense that a single em dash was wrong-headed blinded me to the sense of it in prose over the years. Instead of having some sort of mental sense of a pause or a break, I’d just think “Whoop, casually incorrect usage” and proceed on. By never using it in my own writing, I didn’t gain any sense of how it shaped prose from the inside, and so it remained a mystery marker in others’ prose, never gaining a rightful sense of place in the lexicon of punctuation.

So now, much later on, I’m left having very little feel for how an unpaired em dash affects the flow of a sentence, or at least a feel that is vastly different from that of most people’s. When the punctuation is aberrant anyway—as in Tristram Shandy, say, or in Celine, which is probably where I first was preoccupied by the visual and phenomenological effects of punctuation on verbal pacing—it’s not such a problem, but in everyday writing, I’m left missing part of the sensus communis.

Of course this argument could be extended to all sorts of words and phrases as well….

Two Daughters: On Pilar Donoso

Normal posting should resume soon after I finally clear through  an especially bad new year crunch, but I do have a piece up at n+1 about Jose Donoso’s daughter Pilar, author of the recent memoir of her family, Drawing the Veil.

Two Daughters

Two daughters bookended my year. One is Pilar Donoso, daughter of the great Chilean writer Jose Donoso (1924–1996). Fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño called Donoso easily the greatest Chilean novelist of the century. I have long thought Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, besting the better-known novels of the Latin American Boom. It is a phantasmagoric, surreal, and narratively unstable book that combines folklore, horror, and political and familial corruption to create an allegory of artistic creation, which is embodied by the central figure of the imbunche, a troll-like monster in Chilote mythology whose body is folded in on itself, with all its orifices sewn shut.

While researching an article on Donoso, I discovered that his daughter Pilar had written a book called Correr el tupido velo (Drawing the Veil), which was published in 2009. A sort of posthumous collaboration with her father, it tells the story of his life by drawing on her own memories as well as her father’s diaries, released only after his death in 1996. A chronicle of her father’s torment, paranoia, self-hatred, and mistreatment of his family, as well as his deeply closeted homosexuality,Drawing the Veil is all the more uncanny for its echoes of the blatantly anti-realisticThe Obscene Bird of Night, in which boys try to take revenge on their fathers by writing their biographies: a central theme of the book is the conceptual and emotional prisons made for us by our parents. Donoso later wrote, “This novel, which took me about eight years to write, is one and the same in my memory with the experience of pain and disease.”

The book was not Pilar Donoso’s idea; her father asked her to be his biographer. It took her seven years to write, and after publication, her marriage fell apart and her children went with their father rather than her. Pilar Donoso said the book destroyed her family, but that writing it was a necessary catharsis. She also said that she did not consider herself a victim. In November, after I finished the article, Pilar Donoso was found dead by her own hand. The obituaries mentioned a passage late in her father’s diaries in which he sketched out a story about the daughter of a deceased writer who reads and publishes her father’s diaries and then commits suicide.

The second daughter is my own, born at the beginning of the year. The next decades of my life have now been partly written: I have and will always be this child’s father. As I’ve grown attuned to this new being who changes, inexorably, far faster than anything else around me, I’ve crossed from the Brooklyn world of professionals, artists, and hipsters into the separate but consubstantial world of parents and children. I now feel the constant presence of her and other inchoate creatures who unconsciously absorb every hidden meaning and motive of those around them.

I am writing my daughter’s life, knowing I must make room for her to do so herself when she is able—knowing I must be careful. Pilar Donoso wrote, “One should not know the intimate thoughts of anyone. Least of all those of one’s own parents.” I wonder what thoughts I may need to hide from her so that she will be able to expand out into the world and not fold up into a void. I hope I will be able to do so.

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