Writing the endless oral sentence

by Terence MacNamee

Patrick Stewart is a Vancouver architect who is noted for his use of Native Canadian architectural motifs and techniques. He himself is a Nisga’a. He has recently written a thesis on native elements in architecture to qualify for a Ph.D. at UBC. This was reported in the newspapers, as he insisted on writing the text in an unusual way: almost without any punctuation, and not in a standard academic style.

Stewart’s dissertation, as he said himself, is “one long, run-on sentence, from cover to cover”, the aim being to recall the oral tradition from which he comes, and at the same time to try to “decolonize” the language. Now obviously the proper way to achieve that was to write the text in Nisga’a, which does have a written as well as a spoken form. It seems he did this, but the professors wouldn’t let him present the thesis except in English; so what he has done is the next best thing.

This writing approach reminded me of Das Kalkwerk, a novel by Thomas Bernhard which caused a minor sensation when it was published in Austria in 1970. The text consists of an oral report of the events that make up the novel, and it consists of one sentence that goes on for the whole book. In fact, as I recall, it begins with three dots and ends with three dots, so readers are given the impression that they are getting to listen in on a conversation that has already started and having to move on before the speaker is really finished.

It also made me think of the French philosopher Deleuze and his idea of bégayer sa langue (“stammering your language”). Deleuze thought that writers from minority groups, if they don’t write in their minority language, do peculiar things with the majority language. They write it like a foreigner. He thought that majority-culture writers would do well to imitate this – to write like foreigners. This was what he called “stammering your language”, and the examples he gave, from Beckett and others, involved breaking the patterns of the language up and repeating them ad infinitum.

Getting back to Stewart’s dissertation, some people find it an intriguing novelty while others think it is a silly contradiction. If he wants to reach the academic reader, or even the general reader (the critics object), why doesn’t he just address them in a normal, informative manner? If he doesn’t want to do this, he shouldn’t bother writing a Ph.D. thesis. On the other hand, a more favourable judgement would be that he is signalling his own unique voice and perspective by doing something to lift himself out of what George Steiner, himself a university man, has called “the grey morass of academic writing”.