Beneath the footsteps of commas

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Sally Thomason's puzzling comma-spotting reminds me of Louis Aragon's ambiguous invitation to his readers:

Je demande à ce que mes livres soient critiqués avec la dernière rigueur, par des gens qui s'y connaissent, et qui sachant la grammaire et la logique, chercheront sous le pas de mes virgules les poux de ma pensée dans la tête de mon style.

Or as translated in the Columbia dictionary of quotations:

I demand that my books be judged with utmost severity, by knowledgeable people who know the rules of grammar and logic, and who will seek beneath the footsteps of my commas the lice of my thought in the head of my style.

This sentence comes from his 1928 Traité du style ("Treatise on Style"), written before what Martin Gardner cleverly dubbed Aragon's "transition from Snarxism to Marxism" (The Annotated Snark, p. 92).

Aragon's words have often been a comfort to me as I tried to extract some especially sparse and tenacious nits of thought from the especially hairy style of certain other writers.

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32 Comments »

  1. Nathan said,

    May 13, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    I have precious little French, but doesn't demander mean "ask"?

    [(myl) Yes, "ask" would be a better translation, and there are other flaws as well -- too bad there's no easy way to inform the author of the translation that the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations used..]

  2. John O'Toole said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 12:51 am

    Indeed, "demander" is usually translated as "to ask"; "exiger" has the sense of "to demand." And "pas" is singular in the original: "…beneath the step of my commas."

    Is it just me or do other readers find the mixed metaphor–looking beneath a footstep for the head with its pedicular thoughts–a real head-scratcher indeed? Was Aragon trying consciously, deliberately, even perversely for a kind of unexpected melange in a surrealist vein, or just being a bad writer? Probably the former, but either way, does the result work for other readers? Not for me. Supplementary question: if thoughts are lice, what are the nits that Mr. Liberman mentions? New unhatched thoughts? Thoughts aborning? The lousy thought of nitwits? Is it by chance that Aragon yields "a groan" anagrammatically?

  3. Geraint Jennings said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    Since "pas" also means pace, and "poux" and "pouls" are homophones, would I be the only one to sense a play on "pace" and "pulse", no doubt influenced by the rhythm and the repeated "p" sounds?

  4. William Berry said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 4:49 am

    "Is it by chance that Aragon yields "a groan" anagrammatically?"

    Probably.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    Je demande in this context could be translated as "I request".

    As for the mixed metaphors, which are especially startling when translated:

    I think that sous le pas de here does not refer to a "(foot)step" but to the rhythm punctuated by the commas, so something like "as my commas march along"(commas being much more frequent in classical French – as opposed to English-influenced French – than in English).

    The reference to lice is from a well-known expression chercher des poux dans la tête de quelqu'un "to look for the slightest pretext for quarrelling with someone" (lit. to search for the lice on someone's head).

  6. Nigel Greenwood said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 6:25 am

    @ marie-lucie: Je demande in this context could be translated as "I request".

    As a matter of interest, what exact nuance in conveyed by Je demande à ce que as opposed to the simpler Je demande que? It sounds like a slightly gentler, more formal request to me.

    The reference to lice is from a well-known expression chercher des poux dans la tête de quelqu'un "to look for the slightest pretext for quarrelling with someone" (lit. to search for the lice on someone's head).

    "Nit-picking" might be the closest idiomatic expression.

  7. jimroberts said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 7:05 am

    > Aragon's "transition from Snarxism to Marxism" (The Annotated Snark, p. 92).

    Page 98 in my copy (Penguin 1974).

  8. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    NG, I was a little surprised by je demande \ ce que … myself. demander can be linked to a following clause by different means, depending on whether it means "to ask (a question)" or "to request (that something should be done)". Here is is the latter. If the subject of the subordinate clause is the same as that of the main clause, it is a + infinitive, as in Je demande \ parler en premier "I ask to be the first to speak". If not, a as a preposition cannot be followed directly by que, so the pronoun ce is introduced as a noun-phrase equivalent which can be followed by que and the subordinate clause.

    Both à ce que (more literary) and que sound a little strange to me, probably because I would be more likely to use a different verb than demander in this context (for instance J'exige que or Je voudrais que. I don't think that à ce que indicates a gentler request, but plain que might be an innovation on the model of other verbs followed by que.

    "Nit-picking": that is the general idea, but in my understanding "nit-picking" means 'overly meticulous' in general, without the hostile intention conveyed by chercher les poux dans la tête de quelqu'un.

  9. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    p.s. sorry about "\" for à above: since I have to change fonts for the accented letters, I first write in one set of fonts and change the letters later, and I forgot some of them. My examples were Je demande à ce que… and Je demande à parler en premier.

  10. Laurent C said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    Marie-lucie, "demander à ce que [quelque chose soit fait]" is quite natural to me. Likewise, you may find "s'attendre à ce que [quelque chose soit fait]". Both may be googled, and give several examples.

  11. Jim Roberts said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    "Is it just me or do other readers find the mixed metaphor–looking beneath a footstep for the head with its pedicular thoughts–a real head-scratcher indeed?"

    Beneath a footstep, yes, peculiar. Beneath a foot, I'd read it as a fairly clever reference to the idea of "feet" as a measure of rhythm in prose. I'm not familiar with Aragon's writing, but it's possible this might also be a reference to the Biblical passage about the Messiah crushing Satan's head under his foot.

  12. John O'Toole said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    "I'd read it as a fairly clever reference to the idea of "feet" as a measure of rhythm in prose." That would be a bit of a stretch in French (Marie-Lucie and Laurent C can confirm or correct this) since normally in prosody / versification it is "pieds," never "pas"–and even the term "pieds" was criticized when I was at university in Geneva, Switzerland. We were supposed to speak of "syllabes," or syllables, when talking about scansion in French verse. Ditto for the "pas" = > "poux" => "pouls" reading suggested by Geraint above. The alliteration on p from "pas" to "poux" to "pensee" was clearly at work in Aragon's mind, probably along with the "chercher des poux dans la tete de quelqu'un," but "poux" is plural, "pouls" singular of course, and no other punning or hidden allusions seem to exist to push the reading in that direction. Something like pulling "tradition" or "legacy" out of "splitting hairs (heirs)" in English if there is no other hint of that notion in nearby words and phrases. The phrase probably owes more to Lautreamont's "beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine a coudre et d'un parapluie," which the surrealists were going all gaga about in those years.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    In the 19th century a Secretary of State Translator is supposed to have translated "La France demande une réponse" as "France demands an answer" and nearly caused a war. Mind you the story may well be apocryphal.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    Laurent C: "demander à ce que [quelque chose soit fait]" is quite natural to me. Likewise, you may find "s'attendre à ce que [quelque chose soit fait]".

    I recognized the construction, and I am glad that you confirm that it is indeed still in use, but my hesitation could be because I don't read much French these days. I have no problem with s'attendre à ce que ("to expect that") which I would use without having to think about it. I think that demander que would be either an imitation of exiger, réclamer que or possibly the influence of English "ask that".

    JR: a fairly clever reference to "feet" as a measure of rhythm in prose.

    No. As John O'Toole says, pied is the equivalent of "foot" for prosody, which in French is syllable-based, not stress-based as in Latin, Greek or English. This equivalence "foot = syllable" may be the reason for the Swiss scholars' reluctance to use such a plebeian word as pied and only use syllabe.

    this might also be a reference to the Biblical passage about the Messiah crushing Satan's head under his foot.

    No. le pas can never refer to a foot, whether the body part or the unit of prosody. It means not only "step" but "act, length, tempo, rhythm and/or other characteristic way of walking", for instance if you hear someone walk up to your house, you probably recognize which family member it is just from the kind and pace of the noise they make as they walk. Note also that pas is the origin of English pace, which has a narrower meaning.

    GJ, JOT: poux/pouls: I can't follow you there at all. There is quite enough of mixed metaphor in Aragon's sentence without adding this very far-fetched one. Even if chercher des poux was not a common metaphor and had to be taken literally, nobody would look for "pulses" in someone's head.

  15. Andrew said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    I think the applicable phrase is "too clever by half." Probably no amount of careful re-translation will spruce up an originally clunky sentence.

  16. [links] Link salad heads down the rabbithole | jlake.com said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    [...] Beneath the footsteps of commas — Language Log on Louis Aragon on literary style. A must read for writers and critics. [...]

  17. John O'Toole said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Oh, not just Swiss scholars, Marie-Lucie, and nothing to do with a supposedly plebeian word choice. Jean Mazaleyrat, professeur à l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, in "Eléments de métrique française" (published way back in 1974) writes this (see especially pp 34-35): "Appliquer le terme de pied à la syllable, comme on l’a fait, comme on le fait souvent encore dans notre tradition pédagogique, lexicographique et critique, ce n’est pas seulement mêler les techniques et confondre les notions. C’est méconnaître le caractère accentuel et rythmique du vers français." Etc. Les profs du francais were very clear on this score. General usage, eh bien, that's another matter. Anyway, "pas" would never evoke "pied/mesure prosodique" in this instance. And I trust your "you" in "I can't follow you there" is singular, addressed to GJ only. JOT was merely explaining why such a reading was unlikely.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    JOT, sorry if I seemed to lump you with a wrong reading. I apologize for any embarrassment I may have caused you.

    About pied vs syllabe, I may plead that my education in the subject took place somewhat farther back than 1974, and not at the university level. There was among classicists an awareness that their pied was not the same as the French one, but for practical purposes in an all-French context (eg in high school) an alexandrin was defined as un vers de douze pieds, for example. Perhaps the standard, official description for the teaching of French versification in school has changed in the meantime.

  19. Craig said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    So incorporating marie-lucie's correction for the lice metaphor, this looks like:

    I request that my books be judged with utmost severity, by people who are conversant with them and who knowing grammar and logic will look within the pace of my commas for the slightest pretext for quarrelling with my style.

    And I suspect this would be better rendered as:

    I request that my books be judged with utmost severity, by people who are conversant with them and who knowing grammar and logic will look at where my commas fall for the slightest pretext for quarrelling with my style.

    [(myl) You certainly deserve this month's prize for rationalizing surrealism.]

  20. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    Craig: des gens qui s'y connaissent does mean "people who are knowledgeable", it does not necessarily refer to knowledge of the author's work but (given the context) who are knowledgeable enough to offer critical opinions. Of course, given the ironic tone of the rest of the quotation, the knowledgeability of those people may be subjective.

  21. Jan Schreuder said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:34 am

    This not à propos but was the 14th a Language Log holiday? I missed my daily fix of languagiana.

  22. Jan Schreuder said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    Correction; I dropped a verb:

    This is not à propos but was the 14th a Language Log holiday? I missed my daily fix of languagiana.

  23. misterfricative said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:01 am

    It may just be a coincidence, but there's another connection between 'pas' and 'poux': the louse's binomial species name is Pediculus humanus, which is a reference to the stumpy legs by means of which this unlovely parasite hauls itself around and engages in copulation.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    misterfricative: the connection is not with pas (Latin passus) "step, etc" but with pied (Latin pes, pedis) "foot", hence the diminutive pediculus "little foot".

  25. Craig said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    @marie-lucie: Point taken. So, then, continuing in my folly (hat tip to myl):

    I request that my books be judged with utmost severity, by knowledgeable people who, knowing grammar and logic, will look at where my commas fall for the slightest pretext for quarrelling with my style.

    @myl: You're right, that does sound too rational, almost like the original had been written by someone looking for people who might quarrel with his style. ;)

  26. John O'Toole said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Curious, not at all cognate with pedicare, pedicatum… I mean, given the enculage de mouches we've all been happily engaging in. True, mouches and poux are quite separate things.

    A rag on Aragon! What an amusing maieutic thread this has been! Hats off to all the contributors.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Craig: that is sarcasm on Aragon's part, not a serious request.

  28. misterfricative said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    @marie-lucie: Sorry, I should have read the whole thread before posting. I see now that you'd made that point before.

    Of course, feet and steps are quite closely related (as indeed are feet and legs: in naming the louse, I think 'pediculus' is actually used as a metonym for 'little leg') but together with your other point about chercher des poux being an idiomatic expression, I was obviously clambering up entirely the wrong tree here.

    And John O'Toole: Thank you for introducing me to enculage de mouches. Hairsplitting will never be the same again!

  29. marie-lucie said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    pediculus: Even admitting that "leg" and "foot" are a meaningful distinction in the case of a louse, Latin pes/pedis in the case of animals can refer to the entire leg or its extremity, like French une patte, which means "animal leg or paw" (and can be used for human hands too in a jocular or derogatory context, like "paw"). The meaning of patte is actually more comprehensive than that of "paw" which cannot be used for all animals (eg I don't think an elephant can be said to have "paws"). So the meaning of pediculus must be petite patte rather than petit pied.

    An example of the use of patte is the phrase montrer patte blanche, lit. "to show (one's) white paw" which refers to the old story of the goat and the wolf: the mother goat instructs her children not to admit anyone in her absence, unless they show a white paw (and she is the only white animal); the wolf arrives, shows his dark paw and is refused entry, so he goes and dips his paw in flour to make it white. The sentence Il faut montrer patte blanche is often used to mean that one is not entitled to get access to a place or event without showing the proper credentials.

  30. Nigel Greenwood said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    @ marie-lucie: Both à ce que (more literary) and que sound a little strange to me, probably because I would be more likely to use a different verb than demander in this context (for instance J'exige que or Je voudrais que.

    … or even perhaps Je souhaite que. Real subjunctive-junkies might have preferred J'aurais souhaité que mes livres fussent critiqués …

  31. marie-lucie said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    NG: J'aurais souhaité que mes livres fussent critiqués …

    You are excruciatingly correct, but this sounds wistful, the author regretting that his books have not been criticized the right way, rather than proactive: je demande ….

  32. Nicole Solis » Blog Archive » Language Log » Beneath the footsteps of commas said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    [...] Language Log » Beneath the footsteps of commas. [...]

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