Thursday, December 10, 2009

Life Sentences

The other day a friend of mine called me and told me that she had a list of fifteen great opening sentences from novels, and then she named them, and I correctly identified the books that twelve of them opened. I don't think that this speaks to my outstanding knowledge of things, so much as the general fame of first sentences, last sentences, and cool sentences in general. I seem to recall reading somewhere lately that the sentence is the basic unit of any kind of meaning. This is given a relatively loose reading of the sentence (a sample of this kind of "sentence" was a weather report claiming that Tuesday's High would be 34 degrees Fahrenheit and Low 36 degrees Fahrenheit), but I think it makes sense. The reason for that is because there are dozens and dozens of sentences with which I am infatuated, and a negligent number of phrases about which I feel the same way. Even the ones that do -- James's "a second and even a more extravagant umbrella", Shakespeare's "so musical a discord" -- I actually like synecdochally, as parts representing their sentence wholes which I like even more.

I was given the task in school of writing a perfect sentence, in accordance with Donald Barthelme's perfect writing assignment that he used to give his students. The perfect sentence is one that is i) surprising, ii) in some sense true, iii) beautiful, and iv) possessed of a metaphysical dimension. His example of a sentence fulfilling only condition i, and of a sentence fulfilling only conditions one and two, are both fantastic: the former is "It has always been my desire to sleep with -- that is, to have sexual intercourse with -- the New York Review of Books." and the latter is "The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur, which breaks your heart.". His example of a perfect sentence, one that meets all four criteria, is from Kafka and goes like this: "Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand, and becomes part of the ceremony.". That is a great Kafka sentence, to be sure. Our professor in this class provided us with a selection of sentences that he had culled for their perfection, and a lot of them were good, but none of them were as good as that Kafka sentence, and I think the reason why is that the sentences culled from their homes are, while indeed building blocks of meaning, building blocks more like Legos than anything else.

When I was young, it bothered me that if I built a wall out of Legos, the top level of the wall still had rising out of it the studs that all of the blocks making up the lower strata of the wall had as well. Each block in the lower strata called out for a capping level of blocks, and each was satisfied; but those on the top level were not. It should come as no surprise that I spent a huge amount of my childhood by myself, with childish things and a furrowed brow. It should come as no further surprise that I spend a huge amount of my time currently by myself with a furrowed brow, although now I do it surrounded by words instead of Legos. Sentences, however gorgeous, if yanked from their places of residence, seem yanked: they want to be prepared for, and to work at preparing for something else (hence the mania, I suppose, for first and last sentences, which are half saturated). And so I wonder what it would be like to make a craft of just sentences. One such is Kafka's sentence-story about the leopards and the chalices, which is not yanked from anywhere, but designed simply to stand as a magnificent sentence. That sentence seems less to me like a Lego, and more like an ice cube: complete, glistening, inscrutable (ice cubes are inscrutable, right?) Somewhere, there is a sentence-smith waiting to just churn out little igloos of perfect sentences, and I cannot wait.

By the dubs, I had to actually write two sentences that attempted to meet Barthelme's criteria, and I am going to post them in the comments -- where you should too!


Matthew Schratz said...

SENTENCE ONE: He read with a stout sense of forward progress, allowing verbs and nouns and adverbs to glide perpetually before him, each discovering itself with a sense perhaps of gleaming epiphany, or, failing that, Christmas.

SENTENCE TWO: In America, to move on wheels is less a procedure by which to adjust position with respect to distance, and more the means by which one negotiates their dreams with respect to a spray of possibility hidden as place-names written in pebbled white lettering on smooth green signs.

My professor said, that I should maybe consider a different word instead of "stout" in the first one.

Miles said...

I'm distantly hoping that the opening sentence of the story I'm currently working on meets the Don's splendid criteria. It is:

"Sam was watching a commercial and the commercial was there with him."