Christian Morgenstern/Sirish Rao/ Rathna Ramanathan, In The Land of Punctuation

The art is probably the best thing about this book, so I recommend Rathna Ramanathan’s post about her work here.

From last weekend’s column:

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Recently the webcomic xkcd drew many people’s attention to a minor storm brewing on the internet as Wikipedia users hotly debated whether or not the first letter of the third word of the forthcoming Star Trek film Star Trek Into Darkness should be capitalized. Was it Star Trek: Into Darkness? Star Trek into Darkness? A number of people saw one or the other side of this debate as something genuinely worth fighting for, a fact which could either seem heartening or a little scary.

It can be surprising, and a bit alarming, how passionate and how inflexible people can get about punctuation. Wars have raged over the Oxford comma for years: does it bring much-needed clarity to a statement (as in the famous “we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example) or obscure it? Punctuation is important; it can change meaning drastically. Most pragmatists will just go with what is least likely to cause confusion.

Perhaps the most abused form of punctuation there is is the poor semicolon. Most people do not seem quite sure how to use it and so this useful mark is often neglected or replaced, incorrectly, with dashes or commas. Its most frequent use, I suspect, is in the manufacture of winking smiley faces  [;)]. Semicolons have been on the decline for a while now, but it seems unlikely that someone writing a century or so ago could have predicted this ignominy.

But in 1905, the German poet Christian Morganstern published “Im Reich Der Interpunktionen”, or “In the Land of Punctuation”. My copy of the poem is a translation by Sirish Rao, in a beautiful hardback edition published by Tara Books with illustrations by Rathna Ramanathan. Set in a world inhabited by punctuation marks, Morganstern’s poem tells the story of how the other marks declare war upon the semicolons. It’s a war fable that is eerily prophetic of the violence that would follow in Morganstern’s own country within a few decades.

The semicolons are declared “parasites” and slaughtered by the other punctuation marks – all but the cowardly question marks, who manage to escape. The commas, who had been among the first to condemn the semicolons, find themselves the new targets. The nation now devoid of comma-like objects (apostrophes appear not to exist) all that is left is to bury the dead with a brief sermon.

Rathna Ramanathan’s illustrations for the book are in ominous black, red and white, and are made up entirely of punctuation marks. The first spread shows a comparatively peaceful scene, with buildings made of hyphens and slashes and trees of question marks. But “The Peaceful land of Punctuation / is filled with tension overnight” and from then on all is violence. “And then the captured creatures freeze / imprisoned by parentheses / The dreaded minus sign arrives / and – slash! – ends the captives’ lives”. One spread has the black dashes charging against the red commas, the two meeting in a mingled black-and-red diamond at the crease. It’s a reminder in part that for all their significance to meaning, punctuation marks are fundamentally just shapes.

Morganstern too reminds us of this, when he has the dashes slice through the commas so that, in Rao’s translation, “[they] cut across the commas’ necks / so that the beheaded wrecks / (the dashes delight in gore) / as semicolons hit the floor”. This is brilliantly done; the revelation that a “beheaded” comma actually would look a bit like a semicolon, but also an underlying sense of the grotesque, frankensteinian perversion inherent in butchering one thing to make it look like another. It’s a moment that is characteristic of the book as a whole. It’s all very clever and darkly humorous, but there’s an undercurrent of repulsion to it. There’s something horribly bleak about that last couplet:

“Then through their comma-form free nation
They all march home: dash dot dash dot”

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