Category Archives: joyce

Ode to Sentences

Why are we so averse to long sentences? Is there some inherent property rendering them anathema to our natural mode of communication? There is certainly no grammatical rule excluding their use. In fact, some of the most gorgeous sentences in all of English prose are those which might be labeled run-on! Consider the following lead sentence from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!:

“From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”

Or the following from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake:

(To say nothing of course of the ends of either Wake or Ulysses, which descend into language completely lacking in punctuation.)

“His husband, poor old A’Hara (Okaroff?) crestfallen by things and down at heels at the time, they squeak, accepted the (Zassnoch!) ardree’s shilling at the conclusion of the Crimean war and, having flown his wild geese, alohned in crowds to warnder on like Shuley Luney, enlisted in Tyrone’s horse, the Irish whites, and soldiered a bit with Wolsey under the assumed name of Blanco Fusilovna Bucklovitch (spurious) after which the cawer and marble halls of Pump Court Columbarium, the home of the old seakings, looked upon each other and queth their haven ever more for it transpires that on the other side of the water it came about that on the field of Vasileff’s Cornix inauspiciously with his unit he perished, suying, this papal leafless to old chap give, rawl chawclates for mouther-in-louth.”

The former is perhaps a bit more intelligible at first blush than the latter, but both prove a point. Long sentences allow for a different kind of expressive hue.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the existence of (semi) meaningful long sentences serves another purpose: they speak to one goal of Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar.

In brief, linguistics prior to Chomsky was a taxonomic science, sure in the descriptive quality of its program to catalog the “corpus” of a language: all the phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (combinations of sounds). Amongst several issues Chomsky raised with this system was the fact that there are an infinite number of possible sentences, making any attempt to index them an impossible task, and generally pointing to the inadequacy of such a strategy. Beyond this, however, Chomsky was interested in exposing some sort of mentally internalized grammar, some system at work in each of us when we compose sentences.

The standard example cited to demonstrate that there are unending possibilities for sentence construction is an example of some iterative procedure such as: “The man whose house had a roof that sagged at the point where the ladder had fallen when the repairman lost his balance while looking at the woman who was passing because…” In my opinion, these examples don’t really go far towards characterizing such a lumenous system for building sentences because we do not use anything like them in speaking or writing. Though we are clearly capable of deducing the meaning of the instance cited above, the fact that we don’t employ them also speaks to the nature of whatever subconscious lingual machinery we’ve got.

I suppose I’ve not clarified the question of sentential length, but what I have tried to do is point to the fact that sentence length is somehow reflective of the possible modes of expression that one can achieve as defined by our personal grammars. Perhaps we will find that as we evolve, the need for ever more subtle communications will lead to long dense sentences like those above. Another possibility is that such objects will remain in their traditional home of stylized prose. In any case, none of us should be afraid of the dreaded run on.


Metempsychosis is a philosophical term from the Greek referring to transubstantiation: the changing of the substance of life from the material in to the spiritual, and vice-versa. I am named after James Joyce. For some, these two sentences might be enough to deduce the rest; before I BEGAN (not yet completed) reading Ulysses, I would have had no idea. Metempsychosis is pronounced by Molly Bloom as: “met him pike hoses,” which I simply delighted in. In the novel, the word stands for change (and Molly) in general. It is in opposition to Parallax which is a metaphor for constancy. As Ulysses is primarily a novel about human consciousness, for ME at least, both of these terms are about, respectively, the maliability and fixedness of conscious awareness (and indeed of all aspects of life). I wanted to choose one of these two, and I simply figured that the M-word-won-with-the-more-fun-pun.

Since I’m on the subject, I’ve been reading The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, by Harry Blamires. An excellent text for those of us who are not completely (but maybe partially) literature obsessed, and thus might need some help in understanding the very worth while details expounded in Ulysses. It gives reasonably simple explanations of each chapter in the book, touching on major themes and not getting too bogged down on any particular point. Specifically I turned to the capitulation of the “Scylla & Charybdis” (read: the 9th) chapter. I am not as familiar with Shakespeare as I’d like to be, and the chapter itself consists largely of Stephen Dedalus, and some other more ossified characters, discussing such matters in detail in a library. I must say I am really not sure of the validity of the literary claims made about Shakespeare here, but I found the result of the characters’ conversation stimulating. A point Steven makes that struck me with particular force was: the idea that life can only be understood post-hoc. This is specifically manifested in Stephen’s thesis that one can only understand the emotional effects of Shakespeare’s seduction at the hands of Anne Hathaway (she the older woman to his naive inexperience) by examining their reconciliation (in the form of his treatment of female characters in the later plays). I wasn’t even aware that Shakespeare’s plays had such an arc through them, that female leads and/or heroines change substantially over the course of his writings. I’m interested in validating that specific literary claim about Shakespeare with my arbiter: dad, but I really am entranced by the concept that emotional damage can only be understood through it’s reparation. This fits into the larger themes mentioned above: metempsychosis and parallax.

The metempsychotic change is Shakespeare’s shift: starting from a self influcted matrimonial alienation (spending most of his professional life living in London), and (again apparently) making his female leads into strong, somewhat conniving women such as in Hamlet, MacBeth, or the poem Venus and Adonis transforming into retiree gone back to wife at Stratford, and his representation of women differently in his later works (a suggested example here would be appreciated for reasons already alluded to). The very concept of reconciliation and being able to understand the changes that have occurred in one’s life requires that there is a continuous identity which we retain through of such life-events. Otherwise it would make no sense to consider the later Shakespeare related to the earlier. Thus the parallax, the parts of himself that are unchanging cast onto a background of shifting emotions. I often have this feeling of unreality, not understanding the experiences I am accruing until well after they have happened. This is nothing new of course, the thing I like about the example presented in Ulysses is that it is a general method for knowing when ones understanding will come, or at least knowing what is required to achieve such catharsis. I did not understand the relationship between my mind-body link and exercise/diet until I reformed the latter. I will not understand my seeming inability to have a long term relationship with a woman until I fall in love. Or to be less grandiose: I won’t be able to hit a really nice, lofty pitch shot until I do it right once and know what it feels like, I’ll always fall short to a scary looking gambit in a game of chess unless I win against it and see where the holes in it are.

My enthusiasm for this interpretation prompted me to re-analyse some other recent mental stimuli: (1) My pal Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ article in Harper’s about a small library in San Francisco, (2) John Updike’s piece in The New York Review of Books on Richard Serra’s show at MoMA. As this post is getting a little unwieldy, I’ll give you the briefly lensed version of each.



GLK’s piece is about a pair of librarians who want keep small personal libraries alive in the face of massive digital archives and private stacks. One strong motivation for this pair is to reform the way that information is arranged. They have their own idiosyncratic way of organizing the books into categories which is ostensibly to facilitate accidental discovery. What the article prompted for me was an understanding of the way the organization of data effects the structure of our thoughts. I had taken for granted that the way of cataloguing books in libraries was essentially a method to keep it’s effects on how we find our way through the information to a minimum. Clearly this is a bit naive. The path that we take from book to book, what passes through our hands on the way through, is the specific knowledge that we’re exposed to while looking for “what we need.” I think this is also a reflection of the general theme above in that in order to understand our own way of thinking, our own way of organizing our thoughts, exposing ourselves to other ways of doing so is paramount. This makes such libraries with adamant organizational purpose extremely valuable because they facilitate our understanding of the world and ourselves in a new way.

(One of Richard Serra’s myriad works)


The latter piece by Updike really frames Serra’s main theme nicely: to break down a viewer’s traditional “object hierarchies” or relationships to an object (specifically sculpture) through the manipulation of spatial relationships to the objects. If you’ve never seen Richard Serra’s work, click on that name, I cannot possibly hope to give a thorough enough description. The relationship to M(etempsychosis)&P(arallax) is that Serra challenges us to comprehend our understanding of those hierarchies, and of space in general, by providing us with a coherent means to interact with objects and experience space in nascent ways. It’s the same melody I’ve been whistling all day: by projecting ourselves against the scrim of his works, we are able to confront, and better understand by reconciling that clash, our individual assumptions about objects and form.