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What Is the Best Punctuation for the Self?
Finally an Attempt at an Answer

[An unsigned bulletin by Eli Siegel]

There are some editors and a few other people who think that punctuation is important. However that may be, we have found that punctuation is important as to the greatest of all questions: What is the self? what is my self? and what does it have to do with things that don’t seem to be myself—near and ever so far?

     Having arisen from a careful study of Eli Siegel’s poem “One Question,” which has been called the shortest poem in the world,


we were impelled to relate punctuation to the self. First, we thought of I, which is the grammatical term for myself, without any punctuation following whatever. This way:


The I seemed to be, without punctuation, in an unlimited land of unknownness and difference. If you do not punctuate any word, you leave it at the mercy of what went on before and what may be later. The I, then, without punctuation, is accompanied by anonymous, unending territory.

Period, and More

And then you can put a period after the I. This way:


You then feel that the I has been stopped, maybe in a manner that it didn’t want. The peace that comes to the I with the period after it, is certainly an offset to the unbounded anonymity present with no punctuation—still, the self doesn’t want to be summed up by a period.

     Now we come to what scholars call the comma situation. The comma situation, as you might surmise by now, is I accompanied by a comma. This is the way:


This makes the I displeasingly tentative, kind of shiftless.  It seems to be lost on the road between a bank and a restaurant, or between itself and another person or another thing.  So this isn't all that I wants either.

     A tremendous dignity is given to the I when it is followed by a colon. This way:


You feel it has something to say and has import. It is addressing other things and other things may be listening, or should be listening. Still, an I with a colon, while putting on an impressive show, doesn’t seem entirely happy.

     Nor is it happy followed by a semicolon; the semicolon is insulting; it has the shiftlessness of the comma with more pretense. It looks this way:


There is too much semi in the I already, and it doesn’t want more semi with the semicolon.

     Drama and some comfort are added to the I followed by a question mark:


Not knowing who you are is better than having the answers with the answers cold and displeasing. However, no question mark brought all happiness; question marks are good for questioning unhappiness and lessening unhappiness, but they bring no fully satisfying internal harvest on their own.

     And there is no doubt that I can be followed by an exclamation mark. If we are not astonishing to ourselves and occasionally to others, forces have not been just to us. At least this looks interesting:


But the success does not last. The pungency and surprise in the exclamation mark grow less and fade somewhat.

There Are These

To have the I followed by a dash is insulting and a little frightening:


The I topples, even without punctuation, so why should it present itself as toppling through a dash accompanying it? The dash has some use, but it takes away from the firmness, the confident verticality, of the I as such.

     The most insulting punctuation mark you can give to the I is two marks of parenthesis. This way:


To have the I, which wants to insist on its own being, made an afterthought or a transitional incident by being in a parenthesis is galling, and even, perhaps, inaccurate.

     Brackets serve the same insulting purpose, with the addition of confining the I. The I looks as if it weren’t wholly invited to exist when within brackets. How sad our only self looks this way:


The Best Answer

So what to do? The best answer we have come to may not be immediately gratifying to many. In keeping, however, with the principle of opposites, there is this, which looks a bit like a mathematical symbol. The I is in parenthesis, giving it tentativeness, enclosure, and specificity; however, within the parenthesis is also a question mark. This makes for what used to be called tension. The parenthesis and the interrogation mark are in a true battle. The parenthesis hugs the I while the question mark asks what it means. In this way, the self as security and the self as seeking are both honored.

     We recommend, then, the following punctuation for the I:


At least we have given the matter thought.


Copyright © 1966, by Eli Siegel; 2004 and 2006, by Aesthetic Realism Foundation

NOTE: "What Is the Best Punctuation for the Self: Finally an Attempt at an Answer" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to be Known, Number 1616, June 16, 2004.

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