Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sixth note on _Witz_

6. Cohen likes long, extraordinarily long sentences. Here is what Benjamin encounters as he crosses from New Jersey into New York City via the Holland Tunnel (p. 520):

Landscaped from one of the two mouths of the tunnel, for the many tunnels of this mutated city are monstrous throats that never digest or ever waste what they swallow, without intestine or stomached gargle, how they merely gorge then regurgitate and then gorge themselves again down to the bottom of Broadway – willows groved tightly, their trunks lashed together to prevcnt from being uprooted by the tunneling wind, their boughs hung with many other objects, or forsakings, the harps of the Philharmonic, disbanded since last season’s interruption, and then with their strings, all their sections: their violins firsts and seconds, violas and violoncellos, the occasional weepy, drooping bass, their strings wilting in memory, going loose and detuned in the howl coming up from the bay – trees hung not just with bisbiglissandoing harps and with fiddles gutted and bows but with memories, too, and forgettings, pleas and supplications, signs and notes slipped and tied dire: help me find my father, one says, have you seen my partner? Another, this posted alongside a photo faced grainy from its constant reproduction, a losingly lined courtroomsketch, if so contact Sassoon & Silver LLP., cash reward for information leading to his recovery, all (succor) wanted, need, & offered […]

That’s not the end of the sentence, but let’s stop and take the census so far. We begin with a participial phrase, but have to wait a bit for the noun it modifies (“willows”) because the tunnel’s having a “mouth” triggers a short excursus on its being the maw of this Moloch of a city. The willows get an interesting nonce verb – “groved” – then turn out to be lashed together, which seems peculiar, but even more peculiarly have been festooned with the abandoned instruments of the Philharmonic, disbanded since so many its musicians died (a lot of the orchestra’s members are, indeed, Jewish, but these days the Asian musician might be able to keep it going). The surreal image of the now useless string instruments in the willows shifts suddenly as we next are presented with the kind of notes that appeared all over Manhattan after 9/11, with a striking inversion (‘tied dire”) and another noun-into-verb transformation (“photo faced grainy”). Then there’s the “losingly lined courtroomsketch” – does the hand-drawn image that Sassoon provides of Silver (or Silver of Sassoon) somehow suggest that their law practice has been infrequently victorious?

Cohen often makes use of absolute phrases – “their strings wilting,” “signs and notes slipped and tied dire,” “trees hung etc” – a classic maximalist’s device for adding detail after detail to a sentence, as we see as the catalog of objects left in memory of the dead continues:

…tins of spam dangling from giftribbons, plastic liters of generic soda, empty jars of mayo weeping ornamentally wrapped from these trees, trays of decorative cupcakes and cookies, novelty balloons; these groves nymphabandoned, lining Canal Street west to the Bowery with equity neckties, daytrader suits on hangers commoditized fresh from the drycleaners, high heels, dressy pearls’ strands – this the highest rate of return, a reversion to our natural state, a great comfort unconfined: this season, menschs let out their bellies; womenfolk smear their makeup onto the faces of streets, pink and streaks of red like rainbows trailed by snails, then pray for an innerly inclement weather, asking the cloudfall to cool their lusts, to purify their souls; their kinder pitch pennies worthless into the sewer green and gold, dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow … skyscrapers once new, abandoned to scaffolds; earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying as symbols of an emptiness within; ambition unfinished, thrusts unfulfilled; lorded over by an inutile silence and the holy stillness of cranes. (520-21)

We note the Yiddish – the novel invariably uses “mensch” for “man” or “person,” “kinder” for “children” – and the high modernist touches, the Joycean aversion to the hyphen, for example, as in what may be an allusion to Eliot’s Waste Land: “these groves nymphabandoned”. The plague has laid waste not only to symphony orchestra but to Wall Street, with homely details (drycleaned suits still on hangers) and grimly ironic puns (“highest rate of return”), an image of made-up women collapsing on the street heightened with a simile both beautiful and queasy-making (like rainbows trailed by snails). Next, we have an image of orphaned children, perhaps not long to live themselves, and abandoned dogs in a stunning string of monosyllabic words (‘dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow”) that almost sounds like a William Carlos Williams poems. Then Cohen pulls out all the stops, piling up absolute phrases that read like Whitman-out-of-Ginsberg (‘earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying”) before flipping in a wholly surprising but perfect French adjective and a final image that sounds like Li Bai until you realize it completes the picture of arrested construction.

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