Punctuation Diary : An Essay by Ricky Garni
published in Volume 4, Issue 1 on September 4th, 1997 I didn't have a question in my head
when I, quite by accident, considered the question mark:
It of course starts off round. You
could draw a million conclusions from that and of course
you could consider what round implies. It could imply a
million things but I believe it only suggests one, due to
both its specific curvesiousness and its finitude: the
raceway. It is a race course round. And then it head for
the straight away, or the runway, or the straightaway
perhaps. This is the point at which you gain certainty.
And in this so far it resembles an exclamation, but
that's where the resemblance ends. That's where it picks
up speed. The straight away or runway is more open to
interpretation. On interpretation: Cocteau once reported,
years ago, that a woman, when noting a cathedral painted
by Monet, said to her husband:
"Look, darling, it
looks like melting ice cream."
Well, she was right. There was no
question of it, at least for her, for a true
interpretation leaves no questions in the mind of the
interpreter. But it's also true that, should you continue
to follow the question mark, as she didn't (you don't
have to, but let's say you do) and you eventually must
jump off the runway.
There is significant space to travel.
That is simply fine and there is no problem with that.
And if you do, as you must, you might reach the round
(and to my mind) beautiful sanctuary. There is less space
to travel here but it is certainly a more comfortable
place to rest. And it's a more complete round that the
runway and it seems whole to me and it seems as though it
is quite content in and of itself. Its shape, which could
be interpreted in a million ways, and, as a place of
travel, most interestingly, at least geographically,
there is no escape.
comma: a slight pause
Koptein, is in fact, to cut off. The
comma, in literature, is the province of those writers
who are enjoying the sentence: they wish that it could
never end. I am thinking of course, of Henry James and
Virginia Woolf. I am also thinking, in part, of Johann
Sebastian Bach, as I listen to his suite for Cello no 6
in D major. It is truly cold outside. It is necessarily
warmer inside, and the cello is an instrument of great
warmth. As a punctuation mark, the comma, I fear, is not
Of course no one wants to die. That is
in part what I am certain drew writers such as Henry
James and Virginia Woolf to the comma, that fear of
death, which is the end of the sentence. I propose this
theory based upon an anecdote. A man was once held up at
gunpoint. He said to himself: as long as I am talking, I
am not dead. And so he talked and talked, handing over
his watch and wallet and one very attractive lizard skin
belt too. "Drop upon drop the silence falls..."
he probably thought to himself, after Virginia Woolf.
Meanwhile, the desperado found his behavior very curious.
The important thing to remember, though, is this: he did
not die, and he continued talking all the while. He was
There are at least two other comma
theories which I would like to share.
The first is that the sentence is a
canvas that must be filled with paint of various hues and
shades like the work of abstract expressionists or simply
must be filled like Durer's woodcut The Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse. What better way to enrich it than with
length? And the comma gives us pause. Therefore, we can
propose that those writers who use the comma in abundance
either love the sentence more than other writers do or
perhaps feel a greater sense of responsibility to the
filling of their canvas, or at least, and at best,
imagine that they do; in fact, I'm certain that what ever
the motivation might be, that it is sincere.
No less sincere than the theory of the
sentence as canvas is the more human-based theory of the
interior world of thought. Of course this theory is based
upon the secret lives of people. That is, there is so
much to think about in the world, and so little time to
think about it, that we must take time in our busy day to
enter the world of thought. This is the world where
nothing tangible happens and nothing really matters but
nevertheless is a time of great activity and bridge
building. It is, arguably, critical to the health and
well being of all those things that we don't understand.
What kind of world would this be if we didn't know that
we had these things? To contemplate them in this manner
is as important as eating, breathing, making love, and
It is not that, by contemplation, we
are any better suited with those things that we do not
understand, it is simply that we become better acquainted
with them. The writer takes advantage of the opportunity
of the pause engendered by the comma to do just that. I
would suggest without fear of contradiction that the last
thing that any author is considering as they inscribe the
delicately feminine comma upon the page is virtually
anything to do with the book that they're writing. It is
a time of mere contemplation if contemplation can ever
truly be mere. In addition, the reader forgets everything
to do with the book as he or she finds him or herself
resting at the monument known as the comma. It is at this
time and at no other time that the writer and the reader
share their greatest commonality of purpose: in the vast
terrain of the comma. It is, happily, a holy place, and
not a meager object. No less than the lilac, the bicycle,
or Shakespeare, the comma allows us to breathe, to
contemplate, to reside in the greatest space of the cloud
and be happy to do so. Does this divine task make the
comma the single greatest symbol in the language of man?
The period could be considered a
particle of speech, that is how I would like to consider
it perhaps as a historical artifact. Is it true that
there are ghosts? Yes. Visit the parthenon or the
Propylaea, how about Eipaurus c. 350 BC, or even now? Or
even the Strand Theatre in Miami Beach, Florida. What,
you might ask, does it signify? Certainly, nothing could
be further apart in conception from the ghost than the
period, for the period arrests, contains, limits, and
finishes. Ghosts, on the other hand, elicit continuation,
bipolar reasoning and even negative capability in a way.
If you stare into a ghost (let's say the Strand Theatre,
for instance) you see a series of periods in an
undulating ribbon that stretch out into the heavens, the
earth and oceans. The period loses its meaning. Wait.
That's not true. Nothing loses its meaning.
In Greece there's a portrait head of a
youth from Delos produced in approximately 80 BC. His two
pupils are like periods made from Bronze, in the Bronze
Era. Which leads me to another question regarding the
grouping of periods: if one ceases, and three, when
placed together, signify not cessation but an eternity of
possibilities (much in the same way that ghosts might):
Last night I thought about the period
and confessed to myself that it was my least favorite
particle of speech. I tried and tried to think of
something positive to say about it. I tried to imagine
the period dressed up in a olive-green london fog
topcoat, simple, classic, beckoning. I imagined that it
I drank some lindenflower tea and it
Asleep, I imagined in my dreams a
terrific wrestling match between an American and a
Brazilian man, in Brazil. Both men were slick with sweat
and massage oils as they prepared for their final match.
Their bodies were covered in ceremonial inks.
The American was a heavy favorite, and
he showed a great deal of confidence in his bearing. I
knew, the next day, having read THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF
EVERYDAY LIFE, that the "American" must indeed
be the "period."
Suddenly, his masseur massages his neck
no more. Feigning an attempt to loosen the muscles, he
pulls firmly at the neck's base. He pulls and pulls and
pulls, stretching the tendons and muscles until they
snap. I can travel into his neck, and along the course of
their path. I watch the muscles, delicate and white,
snap. They look just like chicken meat. They're gone.
One period was a dream. Dreams are,
conversely, designed to stop periods.
Three periods are enchanting, but, with
a world of possibilities, ungrounded and not particularly
practical at best. At worst, it can be terrifying (it
When I think of two periods, though, I
imagine something between eternity and economy. I might
have noticed it first only recently, and then only in the
busts of Delos, but after that, I could see it almost
anywhere. I could see it as anything between, in living
or ghostly. I could see it in almost anyone's eyes.