Thinking about Intervals and Nature

Posted by @ 5:29 pm on January 12th, 2010

As the new year and decade begin, I’m thinking about intervals. Most instantly, a year seems to be a more natural interval than a decade. Roughly the same things happen each year. There will be a shortest and a longest day and the air will grow warm and then cool again. The arbitrary part of a year is in its stopping/starting point. Nothing is magical so far as I can see about where we choose to end one year and begin the next. If anything, I’d prefer to wait until mid-February or so to conclude all of last year’s business and begin anew.

A decade in the natural world seems to mean not much. But what about in a lifetime? Age 0-10, age 10-20, age 20-30, and so–these seem a bit more adequate as era-markers. Even in the 1800s decades were given sobriquets. There were the Hungry Forties (think potato famine) and the Gay Nineties (aka the Naughty Nineties; aka the Mauve Decade). But not before that; what about modernity made the decade seem like a definable, describable, identifiable interval?

Day is perhaps the truest time-interval. The sun will rise and set. While a year is a real thing, a felt thing, it is usually too drawn out and diffuse to pinpoint or summarize in a word.  If you say that 2003 was a good year, I will know that it took the space of time for you to make that judgment.  Mid-year, there is no telling.  But a day has a character and a shape detectable even as it passes.  It is defined by its largest moment. It can be remade no more than once, and the next day may be something else entirely. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

These are time intervals. Modern space intervals mean very little (inch, mile, pint) and exist only for the purpose of standardization, ratio.

Then there are language intervals.

I teach my comp students that a paragraph develops one idea. Unity of purpose. How long is an idea? Of how much does an idea consist, and how many words ought be expended to develop it? Paragraphing, the gerund, is a kind of lie I must tell them. The same goes for the sentence, otherwise known as a complete thought. So a paragraph is one idea, a sentence is a complete thought. “It was” being a grammatically complete thought; “The chocolate Labrador retriever who took showers with my grandmother after her husband died and who in old age gnawed off my fingertip” being incomplete (but true).

So paragraphs and sentences can be different lengths, can have more or less content or even almost none. And then words. These strings of phonemes (single sound units) and morphemes (single meaning units). English is analytic compared to German, but still we smoosh several morphemes together. Notwithstanding. Unbreakable. I like the way E.E. Cummings rejiggers morphemes, splices them and splits them. I don’t like the way academics do it, as in (Re)vision and Herstory.

Still words seem not too artificial as intervals; they can contain a lot or a little, but so can days. In fact this is nicer, perhaps, truer to the subjectivity of time and passage, wholeness and cycle.

If you look at sheet music, you see marked units–measures, lines–but more pertinently there are phrases; these you can really hear. A measure has a certain number of beats, but a phrase has a shape.

I wouldn’t know what lies to tell students about the interval of the poetic line.

You can count lines or words or pages. I remember an old version of Microsoft Word would tell you at what grade level you wrote based on syllables per word and words per sentence, because of course the higher the ratio the smarter the writer. I don’t think MSWord does that anymore but it is still hard to disabuse my students of the notion that twistier, chewier prose sounds smarter. The syllable, this is based on sound, but it is also a lie. What about breath.

It occurs to me that I’m using the word interval rather diffusely. In language, interval refers more to the spaces between words/lines/paragraphs, whereas an interval of time has substance, is not just a pause. But if a day is an interval, it seems that really a sentence is an interval. They are both blanks to fill. The line, the word is a unit of measurement. I’m thinking about how to measure language, how to schematize its dimensions. How not to, how to resist demarcating language, this fragile, this skewed architecture, this fun-house mirror that both invites and defies boundary-making.

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