Last fall, in a class on the postwar novel, Harvard professor James Wood commented on Cormac McCarthy’s use of parataxis in The Road. Para-what? I wondered. I’m a bona fide English major, but I’d never heard of parataxis. I understood from the lecture that parataxis had something to do with biblical rhythms. Uh-oh. I’ve never read the Bible. Snippets maybe, but never enough to master it as a literary text.
More recently, I’ve been ruminating about rhythm. In my writing classes with journalists in Harvard’s Nieman and Loeb fellowship programs, I wanted to explore techniques leading to rhythmically masterful prose. It was time to find out more about parataxis.
So I started with my standard source for all words unknown to me, the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. The big book defined parataxis as “the juxtaposition of clauses or phrases without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions as It was cold; the snows came.” OK. I get that.
That definition was echoed by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “the placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives.” Helpfully, Merriam-Webster’s also told me that parataxis comes from New Latin and from Greek, for “the act of placing side by side.” It gave the date of coinage as circa 1842.
The lack of conjunctions thing was starting to seem like a key, but what was confusing was that the paragraph in which Wood noted parataxis was filled with the conjunction and:
Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
Now I was beyond curious. More like confused. As it turns out, Wikipedia spills a bit of ink on the subject, defining parataxis as a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors short, simple sentences, without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions. It can be contrasted with hypotaxis.”
The plot thickens. Now I have to sort out not just parataxis, but hypotaxis.
Back to Merriam-Webster. “Syntactic subordination (as by a conjunction),” the dictionary says, letting me know that hypotaxis emerged as a term in 1883, long after parataxis, and that it, too, comes from New Latin and Greek.
Critic Stanley Fish says the Oxford English Dictionary defines parataxis as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.” By contrast, hypotaxis refers to “the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward.”
(Fish brought up these devices while commenting on President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address.)
Fish offers this helpful analogy: “One kind of prose is additive—here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.”
I like that explanation. But I have to admit that right now I’m looking for a developmental arc in a linguistic “museum” of my own making.
Back to Wikipedia. Parataxis, announces the encyclopedia-for-everyone, is also “a technique in poetry in which two images or fragments, usually starkly dissimilar images or fragments, are juxtaposed without a clear connection. Readers are then left to make their own connections implied by the paratactic syntax.”
(Think Ezra Pound, who borrowed from Chinese and Japanese poetry the stark juxtaposition of images. His “In a Station of the Metro” uses parataxis: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals, on a wet, black bough.”)
Wikipedia notes that the concept has expanded since its original, and that a number of definitions have emerged, often conflicting.
Try these very conflicting examples of parataxis:
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”) (cited by Wikipedia)
Joan Didion, in “Goodbye to All That,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later…. (cited by About.com)
Toni Morrison, in Sula:
Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t know who or what he was . . . with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do . . . he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. (Cited by About.com)
Ernest Hemingway in “Hills Like White Elephants”:
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.
‘No, you wouldn’t have.’
‘I might have,’ the man said. ‘Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.’ (From a paper I wrote in college)
Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast:
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. (From the blog of Amardeep Singh, a prof at Lehigh University)
I am now thoroughly confused. I kinda see the connection between Caesar and Morrison, but Caesar and Didion? Or for that matter, the Hemingway in “Hills like White Elephants” and the Hemingway in A Moveable Feast?
Maybe some examples of hypotaxis will unmuddy the waters. Here’s Oliver Wendell Holmes in “The Soldier’s Faith”:
If you have advanced in line and have seen ahead of you the spot you must pass where the rifle bullets are striking; if you have ridden at night at a walk toward the blue line of fire at the dead angle of Spottsylvania, where for twenty-four hours the soldiers were fighting on the two sides of an earthwork, and in the morning the dead and dying lay piled in a row six deep, and as you rode you heard the bullets splashing in the mud and earth about you; if you have been in the picket-line at night in a black and unknown wood, have heard the splat of the bullets upon the trees, and as you moved have felt your foot slip upon a dead man’s body; if you have had a blind fierce gallop against the enemy, with your blood up and a pace that left no time for fear—if, in short, as some, I hope many, who hear me, have known, you have known the vicissitudes of terror and triumph in war; you know that there is such a thing as the faith I spoke of.”
When you see sentences so full of ifs and wheres, you know you are encountering subordination. When you see subordination, you know you are encountering hypotaxis.
While Holmes using hypotaxis to build a complex chain of ideas that culminates in a final point, others use it in terser arguments. Although we think of E. B. White as a master of clear, simple sentences, really he is a master of hypotaxis, as in these sentences from “The Ring of Time”:
After the lions had returned to their cages, creeping angrily through the chutes, a little bunch of us drifted away and into an open doorway nearby, where we stood for a while in semi-darkness watching a big brown circus horse go harumphing around the practice ring.”
Are we closing in on the difference?
I didn’t think so. I came to this whole question when Professor Wood compared passages of The Road compared with the King James Bible. So perhaps a source on the Bible might help. On a Web site devoted to the study of the Old Testament, parataxis and hypotaxis are seen as two different ways to express relationships between successive ideas. (Parataxis, though, is more common.) “In parataxis, the main elements are placed in a sequence of simple phrases, linked together by the conjunction and (or variations such as but),” the site’s editors write. “In hypotaxis, relations are specified as subordinate clauses joined by temporal or relational links such as when, although, after, etc.” Many modern translations use hypotaxis, as it is seen by modern readers as providing “more interest and variety,” but that alters the narrative pace.
Just to show you how carried away I’m getting, I want to tell you that I found an essay written by Bob Perelman in 1993 called “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice.” Perelman writes that parataxis “is the dominant mode of postindustrial experience.” We’ve all been experiencing parataxis our whole lives! “It is difficult to escape from atomized subject areas, projects and errands into longer, connected stretches of subjectively meaningful narrative—not to mention life,” he continues. And you thought it was ADHD!
As examples of “intense, continual bursts of narrative” Perelman cites that twenty seconds of heart-jerk in a life insurance ad, the blockbuster mini-series that continues for ten nights, and AT&T ads where “fast cuts from all ‘walks of life’ demonstrate the ubiquity and omniscience of AT&T.” Oh, and if you want another confusing term for what you’re already experiencing, Perelman’s contemporary Ron Silliman (note the last name) calls it the “new sentence.” And you didn’t even know you were experiencing one ordinary sentences that “gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance”!
It’s time to end this essay. I’m going to have to take a stab at my own definition.
Here goes: Parataxis holds disparate ideas into a kind of equilibrium. Sometimes parataxis bluntly juxtaposes them. It might use punctuation—commas, semi-colons, full-stops—to force the juxtaposition. Sometimes parataxis elegantly runs one into another by using coordinate conjunctions. Parataxis might also use and and but and or to smoothen the jump from one idea to the next. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, puts disparate ideas into a kind of hierarchy, often using subordinate conjunctions to underscore this hierarchy. If parataxis links phrases or clauses with short pauses, creating a steady drum of ideas, and sometimes a seamless flow of one idea into the other, hypotaxis creates stronger pauses, letting subordinate conjunctions put twists and turns into a sentence, allowing not just juxtapostion but transition, from one group of ideas to another.
Did you notice what I just did?
But what does this tell us about rhythm, which is why I started this quest in the first place? Parataxis may yield a staccato rhythm (“Veni, vidi, vinci.”), or it may establish one that is sinuous and fluid (“I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume…”).
Some say that parataxis creates the immediacy of thought; putting ideas side by side without pauses or full-stops startles the reader. On her Web site, Writerly Life, Blair Hurley says that parataxis is flat and declarative, spare and uncompromised; in Hemingway, it is effective for showing shocking scenes of war and allowing us to distance ourselves.” Hmmm. But that’s only one side of Hemingway.
Others argue that hypotaxis ranks ideas, or builds observations from mere evidence to transformative conclusion. Phillip Lopate, in The Art of the Personal Essay, says that James Baldwin “perfected a unique style of maximum tension which yoked together two opposites, tenderness and ferocity.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not we can define parataxis, as long as we can craft prose full of tenderness and ferocity.