In a greek myth, Atalante, when merely an infant, had been left to die on a mountainside by her father, Iasos. Instead of dying, she was suckled by a bear, and became a renowned huntress. Iasos took her back, but he insisted that she marry. A woman suckled by a bear was, naturally, averse to bowing her head to a husband, so she made it a condition that she would only accept a man who beat her in a foot race. If her suitor lost, he was put to death. Hippomenes, who wanted to run that race but feared the inevitable result if he relied on his own speed, prayed to Aphrodite to help him. Aphrodite, rather offended at Atalanta’s attitude, gave her worshipper Hippomenes three golden apples, which he cleverly threw into Atalanta’s way as the race proceeded. And as she stooped to gather each apple, he increased his lead over her until he won.
A well known and worn tale, this. And of course, there are many allegories and morals that have been launched from that race. However, there is one allegory that I think has never been drawn from it, which is the allegory of punctuation. For it seems to me that writing, too, is a race. First the words race ahead of the writer, and then they race ahead of the reader. The writer, of course, wants the reader to remain behind the word until the very end – at which point the reader must burst ahead, win the race and close the book.
Punctuation is not quite words. The conventions for punctuating have come about quite slowly in the European languages, and they differ from one language to another. Punctuation corresponds to two things – sense and sound. To the race going on in the brain, and the race going on in the lungs. All races are the same in this respect – all racers race in their brains and lungs. The period, of course, being a full stop, is not like a golden apple, but is, theoretically, a pause in the entire race. But the comma, ah, the comma is a golden apple – it is thrown out by the writer, or by the writer’s substitute, the words, with the intent of slowing down the pursuer-reader. Indeed, these apples have an even greater power over the reader than Hippomenes’ apples, for it turns out that the course isn’t laid out before the race, and that the track over which the race takes place is made, in a sense, by the race. Instead of an oval in a stadium, the course goes jutting out at angles and makes inversions, and curlicues, and in general can't be said to make a figure. This is largely due to the power of the comma.
The comma, one could say, is the most powerful of all the tricks up the sleeve of the racer. That the race generally comes to the event barechested makes no difference.
Interestingly, the work that Canetti, or Viza Canetti, called the first “modern’ work of literature, Lenz, by Georg Büchner, is distinguished by its commas. The commas stand in not only for periods, but for whole phrases. Lenz, in the text, rambles madly in the mountains, until he finds an interval of peace, and then of course he’s mad again. This could be represented as madness had been represented before, with the whole panoply of descriptions furnishing our background, or our soliloquy. But Lenz’s madness is, I think, most represented by the comma. It is the commas that thrust the text ever forward, that work the lungs and puzzle the brain not with angles, but with leaps, with intervals that are simply cut out, that make this a very strange race. In fact, the reader will never win this race, because the words will simply stop, and the stopping point is not the finish line. Of course, Büchner was not the first romantic to discover the power of the fragment; Novalis was there long before him, as was Schlegel. He was, however, the first to discover that the fragment could be used against the affirming, the ever so humane, period. There is, of course, a cruelty in using commas to so abridge and so accelerate the supposed sentence. It makes our bodies, as readers, align to a different rhythm. Later, this rhythm, this amphetemined motion, will be taken up by Joyce, Faulkner, Cela, Garcia Marquez, etc.
Hippomenes forgot to properly thank Aphrodite for her gift. Aphrodite allowed Rhea to turn both runners into lions, which she yoked to her chariot. Rhea is the wife of Chronos – time itself. Reader, make your own inferences.
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