COMMA FUCKING

The whole morning I corrected a text, in the end to delete only one single comma. In the afternoon I put it back in again.

Oscar Wilde

_________________

In elementary school my best friend was a gifted violin player. So young, yet he could no longer enjoy a concert. Even listening to a recording he was waiting for the ‘difficult passages’. Obsessed by technique, he could not listen with delight to the violin music.

Meanwhile I understand his fixation better.

 

A translator, an acquaintance of mine, was kind enough to read through my bundle of little essays called Tropical North – that is, the version already published. I was looking forward to some substantive criticism. Apart from a few comments however, I was seriously reprimanded for an overdose of commas. In the process of reading he seemed to have become comatose. On every single page a swarm of these inverted points were crossed out with red ink.

Now, was he the comma fucker – or was I?

 

It turned out to be me. When I went through the volume again, it became black for my eyes. Far too many of those textual fleas, this at most unhappy moments and in sentences that indeed did loose their readability. No doubt about it, I had become a comma nut.

The Dutch translator of Quevedo’s Dreams and Discourses makes a note of the writer’s inscrutable punctuation. Unfortunately – so she comments – his stories had to be correct on this point, the mortal sin for any translator according to herself. Could Quevedo’s inimitable punctuation have been the outcome of his long stay in dreamland, or is it rather part of the sort of madness that pervades his entire oeuvre?

I could not but think again of my college days when, after yet another paper sprinkled with added little texts, both fellow students and professors nicknamed me The Footnote Idiot. At home my intellectual father, a professor himself, had taught me to always inform the reader of the fact that you borrowed something from another source. Which is what I did. Obviously then, I did not merely administer an overdose of footnotes to my professors, but now also had become guilty of an overkill with commas.

On the rebound, spurred by his criticism, I removed all commas from my next book, French Fragments – yet unpublished. After the receipt of these little essays my coauthor announced that he could not understand one sentence. Comma-poor they were.

Completely stunned by the criticism of the translator-friend, I had obviously developed a mania, somewhat similar to the one of my friend the violinist. Whatever book was opened, I began to obsessively check the author on his use, more particularly his abuse of commas. One comma wrong, it was underlined with red ink on the spot. Like it was an execution. My reading pace – being a dyslectic not my forte anyway – slowed down to a precarious minimum.

Reading the Dutch translation of Beckford’s Portuguese Diary I almost got sick as the result of all the little Portuguese flies which the translator lets loose between the words – those irritating, fierce little creatures that in a hot country like Portugal could obviously never let a writer in peace. An incomprehensible punctuation it is. Or could it be the Dutch rendition that committed such sin?

Instead of obstructing, eccentric punctuation may occasionally contribute to a text’s readability. Emily Dickinson, in virtually all of her very short verse, entered her famous or if you like infamous dashes.

‘Speech’ – is a prank of Parliament –
‘Tears’ – a trick of the nerve –
But the Heart with the heaviest freight on –
Does not – always – move –

Even the very last verse bloody well ends with a dash.

A few publishers considered this not done, so in some editions of Dickinson’s poetry the dashes were simply thrown out of court and, believe it or not, replaced by commas. Luckily the editor of the anthology in my possession corrected this godforsaken rape of that great poetess. Sure enough, these dashes give her short lines a cadence of sorts!

Perhaps, I simply need to replace all my commas with dashes.

Sierksma

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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