Parataxis

24 April 2012

At Bookforum, a review by Wayne Koestenbaum of Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait begins:

Parataxis is Édouard Levé’s best friend. Parataxis—also John Ashbery’s best friend—concerns the placement, side by side, of two sentences whose meanings don’t transparently connect. Parataxis, however, as concept, has leached its glories onto the landscape at large; any reader of contemporary culture is contaminated by paratactic energies, a stylistic phenomenon that Levé defends in his penultimate book, a work of unrepentantly naked yet stylistically errant autobiography, Autoportrait. He writes: “Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.”

This paw-swiping gesture is nice: “any reader of contemporary culture is contaminated by paratactic energies.” Parataxis is, too, a good word for rendering the anonymous, deadpan syntactical purity of the Harper’s “Findings” section. (Of Harper’s two dominant flavors, the one I like best is not the prolix old-school progressive-polemical [Thomas Frank’s “Easy Chair” columns, Rick MacArthur’s distrust of the internet] but the hyper-distilled literary-bizarre [“Readings,” the Weekly Review, Jim Shepard short stories]).

Last night I read this May’s delicious, oblique history of Byzantium by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (subhead: “Their ears were uncircumcised”); a part of it is excerpted on the website. Imagine behind its paratactic compression a fanatically precise series of copyediting stress tests, a paragraph of fact-checking appended in pencil to every modifier . . . It reminds me, a little bit, of Calasso, but it’s funnier:

What were the laws and practices of the lawgivers? The Great Code of Theodosius forbade the impersonation of nuns by female mimes and the trampling of Jews by gentiles; the edicts of Leo VI permitted eunuchs to adopt; the Orthodox patriarchs anathematized the Manichaeans’ belief that all things fermented are alive.

The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act. Sometimes cruelty was intended beyond the enucleation itself, as when the emperor Diogenes Romanus was deposed and “they permitted some unpracticed Jew to proceed in blinding the eyes” and “he lived several days in pain and exuding a bad odor.” In 797 the empress regnant Irene blinded her son Constantine VI and caused an eclipse that lasted seventeen days. Basil II blinded fifteen thousand Bulgarian soldiers, and every hundredth man he left with one eye to lead another ninety-nine, and when these men returned home to their king Samuel he looked upon them and died. Michael V blinded his uncle John the Master of Orphans. The iconoclasts blinded the eyes of the icons.

It was said that the city would fall when ships sailed by over dry land.

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