"Here were encyclopedic sentences that left subject and predicate completely out of shouting distance. Parenthetic elements were unexplainably inserted inside other parenthetic elements, equally unexplainably inserted into sentences whose relevance to the preceding sentences in the reader's mind was dead and buried and decayed long before the arrival of the period." (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
I reread these sentences four or five times. The first time I read them, I didn't really notice what I was reading until I got to the end of the statement -- then the words, "long before the arrival of the period" caught my attention, so I went back and read them more closely, then again, and then again. Wow! What a great description of something that is poorly written!
Pirsig has a way of using high-faluting words right next to base language, and the juxtaposition of the two not only brings an element of intrigue to the statement, but also lends a comedic tone to what he's writing. In these sentences, he was describing a doctoral committee chairman's writing (a man he did not like). There is no doubt that the chairman liked his own writing -- anything that can be identified as "encyclopedic" denotes a sense of ego in whatever he chronicled. He wanted everyone to know just how smart he was. Pirsig's choice of words to criticize the chairman's style just kills me! He doesn't use just "dead and buried," but goes all the way to "decayed" in describing the reader's attitude. That has to be one of the nastiest descriptions possible.....and funniest (especially if you picture some decrepit ancient mouldering away, holding forth at the pen all the while.)
I love the way Pirsig personifies the period. I can imagine the periods that the chairman wrangled down onto the page with a flourish of great satisfaction after a string of said parenthetical elements -- periods that fought like wild horses against being forever corralled onto the page. Maybe that's why his sentences were so lengthy -- he just couldn't get ahold of those elusive periods. Or maybe not. Maybe the periods were only too glad to finally have a place to call home. These periods had hung in the air, ready to mark his finished thought; only to be shooed away a time or two or three or four while the chairman added and added and added unnecessary information. Poor things were exhausted.
There are times when I think my writing is a little like this description -- I tend to put a lot of parenthetical statements into my descriptions of things, but I think my subjects and verbs have a closer relationship than those being described. Leaving them "out of shouting distance" is just plain wrong when it comes to writing. Now and then when I edit what I have written before posting it, I reevaluate some of my parenthetical statements. Sometimes I change them, making them into new sentences so they don't interrupt the flow of thought..... and so my subjects and verbs can communicate with each other. Other times I leave them alone so the tempo of my thoughts is readable (at least somewhat.... my mind runs at a rate beyond my typing ability) -- after all, this is a blog, not a book!
I do love a well-written sentence. Maybe that's why I am in a phase of reading some of the classics and Pulitzer Prize winners that I have neglected over the years. Oftentimes, modern writers opt for cookie-cutter, assembly-line sentences and structures instead of pouring over just the right word or laboring over some complexity in thought-development that will (in the long run) say much more than a "subject/verb/object/prepositional phrase" repetition. The second sentence that I quoted from Pirsig is one such sentence. Read it a few times. Look at it. Study the tempo and the flow and the quality of it. It's exquisite. And it only has one comma in it!
Oh, to write with such wit, efficiency, and humor! Well done, Pirsig.