Commas

Both Haweis and Mina were among the very earliest to be interested in the work of Gertrude Stein. Haweis had been fascinated with what he had read in manuscript of The Making of Americans. He did however plead for commas. Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath. However, as she liked Haweis very much and he had given her a delightful painting for a fan, she gave him two commas. It must however be added that on rereading the manuscript she took the commas out.

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. It is a fascinating little window into the lives of the painters and writers who were hanging out in Paris in the early 20th Century. It is written in a very conversational style, like you have just sat down with Miss Toklas and she is telling you the story of her life (or maybe more accurately the story of Gertrude Stein’s life through her eyes (or maybe even more accurately, through her eyes as Gertrude Stein thinks Toklas sees it, as it is, after all, written by Miss Stein)) in a somewhat disjointed and haphazard sort of way (much like that last parenthetical remark).

I think it’s probably pretty clear from my few posts on this blog that, like Haweis, I am one who pleads for commas. I’ve never met an Oxford comma that I didn’t like, and there is no end to my delight when I come across a well-crafted relative clause. I have definitely been a member of the camp that holds that commas are a sign that one should pause and take breath. It has been my philosophy that writing is modeled on speech, and therefore we need signs representing the pauses as much as we need the words between the pauses. Even though I disagree (or so far in my life have disagreed) with Stein in this matter, I still prefer a person who has strong opinions about commas to one who has none at all. I was very much pleased to come across this little comma treatise, and I have given it a fair amount of thought over the last several days, assessing and reassessing my own opinions and the nature and purpose of writing in its different forms.

I think Gertrude Stein’s careful use of commas points to a belief that books should be read aloud rather than in one’s head. I say this because I find that her statement above holds true more when one reads aloud than when one reads in one’s head. When you read her sentences out loud, you hear the conversational tone and flow, and you naturally pause where you are meant to pause. You put the “commas” in because otherwise you’d be reading rather monotonously and it would neither make much sense nor be very pleasant to listen to. I think we need punctuation more when we are reading silently because it is harder for us to hear all the sounds and flow the words are meant to have. Maybe it’s a question of laziness. When we read silently, we are taking more of a backseat, being more of a passive observer, and so we need all those little marks to tell us exactly what is going on and what we are supposed to think. When we read out loud, we are in a way joining with the book, becoming its voice, having to make decisions about how something is supposed to sound.

So maybe that is what Miss Stein is doing. She is forcing us to once more become active participants in our books. But also, I think she and her contemporaries were focusing on bringing poetry and lyricism into their prose. And poetry is meant to be read out loud. In The Autobiography, there are a handful of references to Gertrude Stein’s love of well-crafted sentences. I get the impression that she spent a lot of time creating direct and simple and at the same time clever and poetic sentences. One passage that really interested me says, “She also liked then to set a sentence for herself as a sort of tuning fork and metronome and then write to that time and tune.” This comparison of the sentence to music says a lot about what she was trying to accomplish with her writing, or at least the attitude she had when approaching her writing.

I mentioned her contemporaries. On the one hand, I had in mind Fitzgerald. When I read Tender is the Night a couple years ago, I remember not being particularly interested or moved by the story itself, but being quite impressed by the writing, the images, the words, the lyricism. Some of the descriptions really were striking and beautifully done. On the other hand, I do not have much experience with Joyce, but I read this interesting little article the other day about how he influenced Cormac McCarthy to be a punctuation minimalist as well. So, this playing around with punctuation was part of the movement at the time (also thinking about e.e. cummings), but maybe each writer had his or her own reasons for doing the experiments they did. I don’t know. I think I have said enough for now on Gertrude Stein’s commas.

One more little anecdote that came to mind while I was mulling over these things comes from The Confessions of St. Augustine:

When he [Ambrose] was not with them, and this was but a little while, he either refreshed his body with needed food or his mind with reading. When he read, his eyes moved down the pages and his heart sought out their meaning, while his voice and tongue remained silent. Often when we were present — for no one was forbidden to entry, and it was not his custom to have whoever came announced to him — we saw him reading to himself, and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence — who would dare to annoy a man so occupied? — we would go away. We thought that in that short time which he obtained for refreshing his mind, free from the din of other men’s problems, he did not want to be summoned to some other matter. We thought too that perhaps he was afraid, if the author he was reading had expressed things in an obscure manner, then it would be necessary to explain it for some perplexed but eager listener, or to discuss some more difficult questions, and if his time were used up in such tasks, he would be able to read fewer books than he wished to. However, need to save his voice, which easily grew hoarse, was perhaps the more correct reason why he read to himself. But with whatever intention he did it, that man did it for a good purpose.

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