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.