The Open Sentence: A Statement Masquerading as a Manifesto

I say this now because as I'm continuing to write my extended, in depth criticism of Atlas Shrugged, there are going to be times when the close reading will require the engagement of aesthetic rather than political or philosophical concerns. As I'm trying to show that it is the worst book ever written, it is necessary to take on not only the bad ideas in the book and the quality of the storytelling, but also the quality of the craftsmanship at the level of the language. In order that people know where I'm coming from, I figured it would be better to lay it all out here in a brief abstract rather than have to constantly re-state things about what I think makes for good and bad writing within each individual piece.

In writing, where the content is not primarily concerned with the communications of facts or criticism of some form whether it be literal or cultural—that is to say, where it is not political/philosophical treatise, some sort of non-fiction, or the interpretation of other work—I take to be primitive several statements by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among them:

"Philosophy ought to be written only as a form of poetry."

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

"What can be shewn cannot be said."

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."

"We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense conditions are ideal, but also, because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk, therefore we need friction. Back to the rough ground."

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

"In a large number of cases, though not for all, the meaning of a word is it's use in a language-game."

The first is from Zettel. The second three from the Tractatus. The last three are from Philosophical investigations. I can't give exact comment numbers or page citations because I'm quoting them from memory, having held them in my mind for days at a time turning them over and over trying to find my way through them.

They have become, as a result of this obsessive consideration, the core of my prose and poetry poetics. Put simply, what i find aesthetically valuable in the written word is the extent to which a work showss through the use of poetic device and figurative language what cannot be said plainly. As such, I believe that a good work must embrace vagueness and eschew precision. This has led me to the creation of a device in my writing that I call the open sentence.

The open sentence has five possible components:

1.) the use of deliberately fractured syntax to create vagueness in meaning.

2.) the deletion of object nouns in order to force the reader to fill in the blanks.

3.) the use of incompleteness or run-on subordinate clauses to pull at reader expectations about sentences in general.

4.) the use of prosody to suggest extragrammatical connections between words.

5.) the use or avoidance of punctuation to make the grammatical function of specific words unclear.

I generally draw the difference between poetry and prose as compositional rather than a textual distinction. Prose, for me, is composed at the level of the paragraph and sentence in order to approach primarily issues of narrative and exposition. Poetry, by contrast, is composed at the level of the sentence and the line in order to approach more abstract issues generally relating to emotions. The open sentence, as such, has uses in both realms, but I find I use it much more extensively in poetry because within a longer prose piece I have more room to create vagueness through macroscopic techniques like self-contradiction, unreliable narration, and things like character development and mood shifts which need to happen over longer periods of time that for me at least I don't like to find encapsulated in the rich and condensed language of poetry.

I point here to the open sentence because I think it serves as the most easily visible sign of what I value in writing. Take this poem of mine for examples of what open sentences look like:

HOUSEHOLD ACTIVITY NO. 26

     on a photograph of Stacie Primeaux taken by her son

Hold this end and fold the length
folds and then walk together in hair done up
and small steps lens flare; I'll grab the crease
steps fold back as in boxstep we. Then hold on toes
fold the length we walk down together curtsey
in your skirt as we sort the sheets
and I'll bow backwards steps with cloth drifts down.
Wash bed clothes white in the grass barefoot
on toes fold sheets and snap sun bleached
linen off the clothesline dancers.

Without blowing my own horn too much, this is one of my better pieces and it's the poem that I got my first pushcart nomination for. That's neither here nor there, of course, I'm just listing it here because all the sentences in it are open sentences and I hope it helps make clear what I'm talking about when I'm extolling the virtues of vagueness. I think this is important to note now because it is absolutely contrary to the wrong headed thoughts about aesthetics proposed by the Objectivist philosophy which will be coming up repeatedly in future installments of the series.

Comments

I'm not sure I can get behind

I'm not sure I can get behind this whole ambiguity is a virtue in fiction idea, especially on the sentence level. Though admittedly some works of fiction I admire are intentionally ambiguous about things, others are quite straight-forward.

there is a difference between

there is a difference between ambiguity and vagueness. show me a well written story and I will show you something that is full of vagueness and entirely unambiguous.

God damn you're an idiot!

God damn you're an idiot! LOLOL

Your conclusion: "Atlas Shrugged" is a bad book because it says something and is not vague, but your writing is great because no one can fucking make sense of it. Apply that to any other human endeavor- would you say a teacher is bad because her students understand the subject and gain knowledge from the course or would it be better for them to be befuddled when they walk out of class? Would you say a doctor is bad because he accomplishes a definite cure, rather than keep his patient in a nice, ambiguous in between state? Is an architect a failure if he erects actual walls? Should we arbitrarily leave notes out of melodies so that the listener can fill in themselves? Would the Mona Lisa be better if da Vinci left a nice bare patch under her nose? Hell, is a man a better father if he leaves his love for his children vague and lets them fill in the gap themselves? What a fool you are: your philosophical and literary role models object to definite ideas and clarity precisely because if any honest man really understood what they were advocating, that man would throw their books in the trash. You count on moral and intellectual cowardice- the feeling that "if i don't understand it it must be deep". Well, your writing is garbage, your philosophy is bankrupt, and I for one am certain enough of my own judgement to say so.

um, i never said that Atlas

um, i never said that Atlas Shrugged is bad because it says something and is not vague. Moreover, saying something and not being vague are not specifically vices. In fact, if you're using language you can't avoid being vague or saying something. It is the use of vagueness and what is left unsaid, which exist in all language, that makes for how well written something is.

all of your hypothetical situations are strawmen based on this fundamental misunderstanding of what I've said. That is unsurprising, however, given that it's the primary mode of argument that your idol favors. get thee behind me, satan.

"all of your hypothetical

"all of your hypothetical situations are strawmen based on this fundamental misunderstanding of what I've said."

Really? If I misunderstood you you should by happy about that, literarily. I would ask you to clarify your meaning but I wouldn't want to tempt you into the evil of intelligibility. Particularly when you've gone to such lengths to avoid that particular vice.

vagueness does not imply

vagueness does not imply unintelligibility nor misunderstanding. think of a blurry picture with vague outlines. you can still see what it is a picture of. imagine someone says "stand there" and gestures at the ground. do you need them to draw an X on the ground to know what the mean? no.

try again.

You say "As such, I believe

You say
"As such, I believe that a good work must embrace vagueness and eschew precision" in the article
"um, i never said that Atlas Shrugged is bad because it says something and is not vague." in the contents

Your love of vagueness appears to begin with a profound indecision about what you believe. Do you even read what you write or are you too busy sniffing glue?

if you can't see how those

if you can't see how those two comments are not contradictory, then I can't help you. I can however understand how you might think Atlas Shrugged is not trash as you are clearly incapable of grasping rather simple thoughts.

I agree that your thoughts

I agree that your thoughts are simple- but they are exceedingly contradictory. How about you explain it rather than try to pull that old trick of putting the onus on your reader to understand what you refuse to clarify? Why do you extol an aesthetic of deliberate vagueness and excoriate Atlas as 'bad writing' if you do not intend to imply that Atlas, to be a 'good' book, must be more in line with your aesthetics, i.e. should be more vague and indefinite? Why do you, in subsequent writing, criticize particular passages from the novel in such a way:

"Why is this bad? Well let's take it apart. First there is the clumsy subject, the window frame is trembling. Ok, fine, but why is it the frame and not the window? And doesn't she mean it's trembling because the train is moving at a high speed? To say that it is trembling "with the speed of the motion" is not very clear; it seems to imply that it is happening along side it but is not caused by it. And then what is "the speed of the motion?" there is a possessive noun missing in there somewhere. This first bit of trash is then compounded as she moves to describe the glass, which is "hung over empty darkness." Note it isn't in front of empty darkness, or looking out over empty darkness, but it is hung over empty darkness. Clearly there is a hole in the side of the train directly under the window. I know what she means is that it's dark outside the train and she is attempting to be poetical; the problem here is the attempt fails, as it does in the next clause "and dots of light slashed across the glass as luminous streaks" which demands the question be asked which are they, dots or streaks? Maybe dots of light streaked by or luminous streaks from lights in the distance? But dots slashed as luminous streaks? That's just bad writing. As is concluding all that mess with a comma and tagging on "once in a while" which is just straight up incorrect use of punctuation. Stay tuned for the next Worst Sentence in the Book So Far, coming in another 40 pages or so if memory serves."

Why are you taking Atlas to task for missing nouns, shaky subjects, poetic descriptions, etc. WHEN YOU HAVE SEPARATELY (ABOVE) CALLED FOR DELIBERATE OMISSIONS AND VAGUENESS AS A STYLISTIC DEVICE OF 'GOOD WRITING'?? (BTW- the answer to "dots or streaks"? is BOTH. Dots moving against glass form streaks to the eye, and is actually a very perceptive description, combining the fact- a moving dot- and the perception- a luminous streak). What you are trying to pull is to object to a style of writing you are not personally fond of in the terms of objectively 'bad'. Tell us what you admire and let us judge whether you have any taste.

Oh- If, to see the 'truth' about Atlas as you do, I have to develop a mind that operates on the principles at work in the wretched passage of yours above, I will stick with 'Atlas'. I will choose a communicator like Rand over an obfuscator like yourself any day.

the simple distinction that

the simple distinction that you're failing to grasp is the artful use of vagueness as a device which Rand—given her poorly considered philosophy of language that requires that words have a definite and precise meaning which is absolutely not the case—is completely tone deaf to is not the same thing as writing a bunch of nonsense. That is, vagueness is an element of language that must be engaged and attended to rather than taking the tactic that Rand does which is to pretend that it can be avoided altogether. Moreover, there is a definite distinction between the sort of vagueness I am advocating and the sort of confused, sloppy nonsense that one finds in Rand's prose. When something is vague in order to gesture at something that can only be shown and not said in plain language, that is a different sort of thing from fucking up a perfectly normal thing to be able to describe like the imagery of looking out the window of a moving train at night. I don't THINK that is unclear in what I've said, but frankly, I don't THINK that you're being particularly reasonable either and are attempting to construct errors where there are none by willfully misreading what I've said. Then again, since you admire Rand, I don't know why I should be surprised that your preferred form of argument is to construct straw man arguments against things I've said and then use those as a jumping off point for personal attacks against me.