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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 warm.

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 robbed, though.

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 drinking, especially.

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?

No.

The Period.

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): whither two?

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 was foggy.

I drank some lindenflower tea and it was raining.

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. Period.

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 was!)

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.

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