For years, I obsessed over women’s noses. The bigness, the redness, the erratic expanse of cartilage, a ledge of spongiform or aquiline prominence, porous or pitted or plastic. One noses about and sniffs out mysteries, as plain as day (or the nose on its face).
Forget studs and septum bars: I liked what those noses left unsaid. I searched for the worst (nose in air, nose candy).
The thing is, I have a nose, too (in a book, to the grindstone).
. . .
What trained my taste for the perverse, the storied, the sullied, the scarred? As a girl, I bound Barbies’ ankles with neon potholder loops, terrorized the dolls at the claws of my little brother’s dinosaurs. I documented the torture with my mother’s camera, and so in Kodak clarity I remember the pebbly skin of the T-Rex, his particular orange, a macaroni and cheese shade one wouldn’t expect to find in nature. (Except that growing off a tree trunk down the street, like an enormous clown’s ruff, is a frilled fungus of that exact color. Who can look at such a thing without crinkling one’s nose and turning away and then turning back to reawaken the repulsion?)
. . .
(Can anyone write the doll after A.M. Homes and Margie Piercy ?) (And Moses supposes . . . not noses but toes.) Well:
Barbie has perfect feet and a boring nose.
. . .
The ellipsis is the banged-up nose of the sentence, the pugilist’s schnozz on your kooky, sloppy aunt who shows up freshly de-gauzed for Christmas. You know she’s had work. You know there was a mistake on that face, but sometimes it takes until the Yule Log’s been sliced to figure out where or what, from whence, uh, how.
They are damning or flighty, suspension points, which is how Umberto Eco and others refer to dot-dot-dots. Eco isn’t keen on this kook of punctuation, a greenhorn’s way of saying, “Don’t mind me, I’m only joking,” the mark of a “non-writer.” In “How to Use Suspension Points,” (from his chummily titled essay collection How To Travel With a Salmon & Other Essays ), Eco declares:
A writer writes for writers, a non-writer writes for his next-door neighbor or for the manager of the local bank branch, and he fears (often mistakenly) that they would not understand or, in any case, would not forgive his boldness. He uses the dots as a visa: He wants to make a revolution, but with police permission.
Eco isn’t alone in associating pointing—colons or dashes, periods or commas or eclipses (seventeenth-century-ese for our ellipsis dots)—with civil order. “Traffic signals,” Theodor Adorno writes in his essay “Punctuation Marks,” that “serve, hieroglyphically, an interplay that takes place in the interior of language, along its own pathways.”
I like that: the interior of language. I imagine a mall. And in the great mall of language, perhaps punctuation marks are the backlit directories revealing the swiftest route to the soft pretzels. (Parentheses are kiosks hawking cell phone cases or hair irons.) Ellipses are skylights, superfluous, tender, ornamental things, that are also so necessary, especially when you’re standing beneath one, caught in sun stream flooding an atrium across from The Gap.
. . .
Obvious: Men and women have different attitudes toward punctuation. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play , Jennifer DeVere Brody thinks of “punctuation as extremities, as phantom limbs . . . an intervention between utterance and inscription, speech and writing, activism/activity and apathy, body and gesture.” And Brody’s is a generous, generative consideration of the mark Adorno relegates to the “hack journalist . . . [who] must depend on typography to simulate [an infinitude of thoughts and associations]”: The ellipsis, she writes, is “a complete multiple,” three marks in one.
Only in the twentieth century did the mark declare itself one of triplets, Anne Toner writes in Ellipsis in English Literature . And this “standardization of dot, dot, dot” is reinforced for us on the daily. Chat on Gmail or send an iMessage on your iPhone, and watch the ellipsis throb like a vein in an addled forehead.
This typographical appropriation makes me sad, sort of like watching Dirty Dancing and trying to forget about Jennifer Grey’s nose, or like looking in the mirror and remembering I used to be a person who could draw: an entire possibility of matter, present and absent.
. . .
This summer, I read Anna Karenina . It’s at the top of the homebody’s bucket list, the literary equivalent of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Actually, finishing Tolstoy’s novel took me longer than it probably would have to reach the roof of Africa. For almost two months, I finished my days with Anna and Dolly, Oblonsky and Vronsky and Levin. I slept with the book under my pillow and hoped that, through osmosis, some of Tolstoy’s unaffected prose would transfer through my skull.
I envied his sentences from the get-go. I had read in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translator’s note a brief analysis from Vladimir Nabokov, who saw Tolstoy use the word “extraordinary” in consecutive sentences. “The repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy’s style,” Nabokov writes, “with its rejection of false elegancies and its readiness to admit any robust awkwardness if that is the shortest way to sense.” Every night, I found myself more in awe of the plainness of Tolstoy’s style. How rich and yet practical a sentence like, “She had seen her husband,” could be.
So I was surprised by the effulgence of Tolstoy’s ellipsis. Thirty suspension dots—that’s ten dots on one line and twenty on the next—follow Anna’s big reveal to Dolly:
“The doctor told me after my illness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Rosamund Bartlett translation of Anna Karenina , available on Google Books, uses thirteen suspension dots. (FYI: Increasing or decreasing the size of the type does not subtract or add dots.) A Spanish translation of Ana Karenina by León Tolstoi replaces the excess of dots with a line break:
–El doctor me dijo, después de mi enfermedad... –¡No puede ser! ––exclamó Dolly con los ojos desmesuradamente abiertos.
Perhaps in the 1800s this would constitute a spoiler, but today I doubt eyes will bat if I reveal that those dot-dot-dots excused Anna from articulating that she will no longer be able to have any children. Perhaps this information forces readers to put their noses in other people’s business but, then again, isn’t that the nature of reading?
Tolstoy’s suspension dots are complicated, serving typographical and rhetorical functions, if one operates with Anne Toner’s study of ellipsis. Ellipsis comes from the Greek: “to fall short” or “to leave out.” Is Anna falling short rhetorically? According to Toner, yes, since “ellipsis in the grammatical sense” is “the unmarked omission of words.”
But ellipses—the punctuation mark and not the rhetorical move—are also expressive, which is why, in Toner’s estimation, they’re the punctuation mark embraced most by novelists:
From a sign of interruption, ellipsis marks evolve into tokens of passion, interiority and complexity . . . The intrinsic difficulty of conveying a non-verbalized internal state is expressed typographically by the ellipsis and the common human struggle to communicate is communicated in an instant.
. . .
If you type “the doctor told me af” into the Google search bar, the machinations that predict search requests will presume you’ve read Anna Karenina . Swiftly, your faulty search (an ellipsis, in the rhetorical sense of the word) will be replaced with “Anna Karenina the doctor told me after my illness.”
This search elicits results from such websites as Shmoop.com.
I know Shmoop. One year when I was teaching literature, a student’s entire analysis of A Clockwork Orange was derived from this website. It seems a flashier sort of SparkNotes.
Like studying noses, catching plagiarists always gave me a thrill. I knew my students were as heinous as the rest of us, but in their desks, with their smudgy faces and foreshortened noses, they were neutral. Plagiarizing let me see their badness: It was like they’d accidentally texted me footage of their weekend hazings.
I have to give it to Shmoop: I’m impressed the site considers the ellipsis , even if it does call the punctuation “ Tolstoy's version of a bleep or blurred bar. They censor the naughty bits.” But does Shmoop really need to diss Tolstoy by claiming “if [he] were a sassier kind of author” there would’ve been descriptions of sex?
. . .
Elliptical half-rhymes with difficult. (And half rhyme is synonymous with near-rhyme, lazy rhyme, or suspended rhyme.)
When I was a child (certainly difficult), my parents told me not to backtalk—another word for sass .
(And, lest I forget: For centuries, suspension dots and dashes were used interchangeably.)
I believe I must’ve been most difficult in classrooms, when I found myself always always always raising my hand. I could look at it forever, straining my arm, trying to touch the ceiling, waiting for a teacher to see me, call on me. I looked up the plane of my nose and waved a few fingers, trying to—without words—express my correctness.
I had too many answers or too many attempts or too much something else. I knew, what I understood to be the kiddie version of, Monet’s entire biography; someone had told me Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, and so it was so. That’s the kind of errata I’d bring to a mundane conversation. It couldn’t have been much after second grade when a teacher pulled me aside and said, gently, “JoAnna, don’t be such a brownnoser.”
. . .
I love my husband. If you meet him, pencil in time for a chat. Thomas—that’s him—is a good listener and unexpectedly funny, up on news, a fearless discourser. He likes books, too, and he’s smart about them, keen his recall for things like the location of the word “dogsbody” in Ulysses , and if you ever happen to be visiting, take one of his books off our shelves and flip through, watching his workaday script pass by, checks and asterisks and words—neatly jotted phrases caught in the margins, like tiny dukes chambered in repose.
The best book to talk to him about is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest . Tell him I directed you to Wallace’s use of ellipses in dialogue, a necessary and downright sassy innovation if ever there was one . . . unless you read manga, where DFW’s representation of speechlessness is prominent.
In Jest , the first set of what I’ll call independent ellipsis is on page 31, when Hal Incandenza is meeting with a conversation therapist, revealed—as the scene unfolds, unbeknownst to Hal—to be Hal’s dad:
‘…’ ‘Son?’ ‘…’ ‘ Son? ’ . . .
According to Toner, “Punctuation becomes conspicuous mainly through aberrant practice.”
And, true, in his 1948 essay, “The Psychology of Punctuation,” E.L. Thorndike diagnoses “among many recent writers a veritable mania for ‘. . .’”
Today, mania might be a ticket to Otherness, nuance, or at least interesting deviance. Yet, like Eco and Adorno, Thorndike is quick to diminish the ellipsis. The conspicuous is showy, trying too hard, unartful: possibly unhinged. “Debased” is the word Toner would use. And maybe Thorndike’s view signifies the divide between editorial and expressive intents, an old guard and new. “The first and orthodox view of ‘. . . ’,” writes Thorndike, “was to signify the omission of letters in a word, words in a sentence, or a sentence or sentences in a paragraph. The reader probably has never used it otherwise.”
. . .
The noses of authors are like adjunct characters to the owners’ oeuvres, and Joyce Carol Oates’s nose is a cygnet. Recently, I borrowed her journals from the library. In an effort to alleviate myself from punctuation scholarship (so fascinating! so fulsome! so . . . !), I treated myself to her first entries. I’d been meaning to get the book for months and was surprised by how absorbed my evenings had become with Anna and Levin.
Oates isn’t the first writer who comes to mind when I think of the term elliptical , but she is a fantastic user of ellipses. Here she is, on January 7, 1973: “To think that we inhabit the greatest, most ingenious work in the universe . . . that is, the human brain . . . and we inhabit it gracelessly, casually, rarely aware of the phenomenon we’ve inherited.”
. . .
Your journals, too, might be spotted with ellipses. Your dialogue. Your emails. Certainly your text messages.
But what is this phenomenon we have inherited? Is it vestigial as a coccyx or as necessary as a nose? Is the ellipsis an oft-abused stab at accounting for omissions or a way of marking time, which is to say breath, which is to say life, thought? (Toner reports that Samuel Beckett meant, in dramas, for each suspension point to serve as a beat.) Or a way of performing deference, confusion, haziness, flirtation, coyness, shyness, masked confidence, perversion of mind?
Scholars of punctuation are quick to report how infrequently authors of yesteryear had much say in their pointing. Compositors added punctuation; only sometimes did authors approve the proofs. Looking at Tolstoy’s ellipsis today, one can see how something of significance (to this writer! and the Shmoops!) is replaceable with a space break (or, in older editions of the novel, a pedestrian triplicate of dots).
. . .
Adorno connects the preponderance of ellipses to Impressionism. So true: Plein air painting must’ve meant midges and gnats were gobbed to a great many canvases. (Insects as punctuation points buried beneath oil paints or dislodged with brush or palette knife.)
And now Claude Monet and Georges Seurat are displayed in the same galleries.
And, from Toner: “Ellipsis marks also serve the principle of disambiguation, making lapses in connectivity explicit for a reader.”
. . .
“We can make propositions and give them extra emotional force by failing to deliver them fully,” writes Toner. “Not saying something often says it better.”
In Thinner , a novel by Stephen King (penned under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), ellipses abound in dialogue, but they also spot the exposition, the narrator’s close-third attention to protagonist Billy Halleck. Like thunderheads, ellipses cast an ominous pall over the most banal of human activities: eating and assessing one’s body.
During his commute home on Tuesday, he pulled off the Connecticut Turnpike at Norwalk and picked up a couple of Whoppers with cheese at the Burger King there. He began eating them the way he always ate when he was driving, just working his way through them, mashing them up, swallowing them down bite by bite . . .
The punctuation reappears when Billy’s curse, his plague, his problem, has been made apparent. Like noses, ellipses can superimpose a darker story over a familiar or low-brow or masterful text. Someday, we may teach Tolstoy alongside King, who writes: “Now there were other indents in the belt: beyond the second hole . . . and the fourth . . . and the fifth . . . finally the sixth and last.”