Saturday, September 8, 2012

In Parentheses

Back in the long ago, probably in the 1950s, I read a strange book entitled In Parenthesis. It was written by David Jones, published in 1937, but it dealt with Jones’ experience of World War I, a period of such collective horror and disorder for participants that Jones thought of it as a suspended period of his existence, between parentheses. Jones was a painter and engraver not a writer, hence perhaps his use of the singular. But it’s obvious how he used the word. I didn’t know his background at the time of reading—nor did I have sufficient background to understand his mythic or literary allusions. What struck me then was the reality of war—and the originality of Jones’ conception—that isolation of something unspeakable, its separation by parentheses from the rest of experience.

Sometimes only the “idea” of a work remains in my memory—but is deeply embedded there and surfaces like a reminder. For the participants, wars belong there. A while back now I mentioned W.G. Sebald’s book, Air War and Literature (link); in that book he attempts to answer critics of German post-war literature who berate the Germans for not writing about the war. Sebald’s book itself provides the reason why; the more remembered, the more repressed. Placed between parentheses.

Now of course it is almost ridiculous to liken great violent upheavals like world wars to the recurring phenomenon of national elections; the more fitting reference in the latter case is to circuses. But yet for me the phrase, in parentheses, recurs right on time every election year, just about this time in the cycle; it comes in the form of a reminder: put all this aside, ignore it. It is a kind of collective madness, really. And if it has the smell of war and of insanity, it is because elections are exactly that: wars. They are sublimated wars—but real; why else would I recall In Parenthesis each time, and each time with a little shudder.


  1. Oh, this is a very interesting idea. There is a sort of "time out" feel to it all during an election year. Have you felt this parentheses during election years for more than the last, say... six or seven elections? Just curious if it's gotten worse or if it has more to do with my paying more attention.

  2. It seems to me that this weirdness has much to do with television, and most importantly with cable television. The first televised debates were in 1960, Kennedy-Nixon. CNN was founded in 1980. Perhaps the best dating might be the election of 1984 and beyond -- the growth of cable news, perpetual coverage, and the rise of money. Back in the 1960s, what with black and white TV, and the conventions only on the radio, the election fervor could be more or less ignored. Tellingly, the first usage of "sound bite," later "sound byte" appeared in 1980s, first in print (Washington Post). Since then thanks to these three influences -- television, money, and abbreviation -- coherence has been thinning ever more, discussion of genuine issues has disappeared, and elections are a series of crises and triumphs all turning on ephemera.

  3. I think you've dated it very well... mid 1980s. And it has been growing since then, this disconnect between the political "debate" and reality. What I mostly sense when I–ever so rarely now–watch cable "news" is people playing a game of whose more clever than the other in presenting things to benefit his or her side. It feels like a game with lots of emotion and excitement... which is probably why your earlier analogy with war feels largely correct. Hummn...