Cutting Through Language

On the rhetorical figure asyndeton, and how Roland Barthes uses the word metaphorically in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
Gentle accent by Wassily Kandinsky (1934)—one way to think about the deep layering of language?


Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.

It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.

These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).

The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …

—John 10:27–28, KJV

The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:

Ho! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number, ho!

—Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 3.2.16

(These and many more examples are offered in Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech.)

The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).

Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.

Commas hold an asyndeton heap together.

A proliferation of commas, however, can signal crisp yet complex writing not comprising of homogeneous sequences. In the following example, the commas marked in bold together with their sandwiching word-pairs are due to asyndeton, while the rest serve to set off participle, adverbial, and adjectival phrases.

Sighs, groans. Shouts in the night. An old man puking up gouts of green stuff, leaning over the side of the bed, a young nurse holding his forehead. Slow, wet, coughs, like the noise of defective suction pumps ponderously labouring. In the huge, white-tiled bathrooms, little labels exhorting patients not to spit in the handbasins. Everywhere the same thick cream paint, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin.

—John Banville in Mefisto; discussed here in detail.

The asyndeton wouldn’t stand out as much, if Banville didn’t also omit all the main verbs (scesis onomaton). A conceptually related omission occurs with an appositive, where a noun is redefined by another noun phrase using a mere comma separator. For example: the bobcat, a type of lynx.

Strictly speaking, the asyndeton is a simple rhetorical tool for cutting conjunctions. Metaphorically speaking, the asyndeton could be taken to stand for any cutting of “nonessential” words, that is, words that an attentive reader could infer from the grammatical construction or—imaginativelyfrom the context. A further extension of the metaphorical sense could have the asyndeton also stand for the cutting of “nonessential” ideas. Why not?

Especially since it’s already been done.

The previous post discussed Roland Barthes’s sophisticated dissection of two reading styles: the fast, which aims to reach the anecdote without dwelling on the wordplay, and the slow, which dwells on the wordplay as part of appreciating the different layers of language and meaning. Of the latter reading style Barthes says (see previous post for fuller quote):

…it weighs, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages…

—Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller.

Barthes applies the rhetorical figure of asyndeton in writing this fragment, but more strikingly, he uses the name of the figure as a metaphorical tool which cuts the various languages. Within his context, I believe the various languages pertain to the different layers of meaning that ought to be considered when dissecting a challenging text (each layer has a “language” of its own). Separating these layers hardly requires harking back to the medieval modes of exegeses (literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical), but beyond the literal interpretation most experienced readers eventually arrive at the consideration of wordplay, metaphors, symbols, tropes, and historical context.

Whichever these languages, in Barthes’s lexicon the asyndeton becomes more than just a method for replacing conjunctions with commas, it becomes the incising-compressing-purifying figure that teases the reader to delve deeper and deeper.

In search of pleasure.

What else is there to search for in a text?
Movement I by Wassily Kandinsky (1935)—a private mode of interpretation.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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