Kickshaws and Motley
by Peter Lubin
page two of three

II. Phrases

"There is figures in all things."
--Henry V

The reader soon learns to discern Nabokov's repetitive verbal arrangements, his syntactic tics. The lovely penultimate sentence in Lolita, for example, summons up other synaesthetic three-and-four cola periods. The "all X and Y" formula is also a favorite.11 And there is that subspecies of hyperbaton (the "disorder" figure) known as tmesis.*

Tmesis in antiquity was defined as the "cutting" (from Gr. temnein, to cut) of a (compound) word by the interposition of another word. In the first example below, the noun "cerebrum" is split open; in the second, the verb opens to envelop Venus in her own cloud.

Saxo cere cominuit brum (Ennius)
Et multo nebulae circum dea fudit amictu (Virgil)

The classical definition is repeated by the English authors of the Renaissance rhetorical handbooks. Sherry in Treatise of Schemes and Tropes offers this instance:

"Hys saying was true, as here shall appeare after," for hereafter.12

As some English metricians unthinkingly employ classical terms of prosody, so some rhetoricians are timidly subservient to the ancients' classification of the figures--it makes for the same muddle. The hallowed definitions simply will not do for English. We see this with tmesis. In the first place, a language that is predominantly mono- and oligosyllabic has fewer words that can be sensibly split (than, say, Greek or Latin). Secondly, words cannot be cavalierly ordered in our anaptotic tongue.13 English dictionaries follow Sherry in illustrating tmesis with compound words.

Examples of simple tmesis in modern languages:

a lady of impeckandpeckable taste (possible advertisement)
en petit couragé (a favorite of Pushkin in his postal prose, recombining the elements of the Petersburg French phrase "petit encouragé")
Balticomore (in Ada, p. 124. The "co" stretches Maryland from the Baltic Sea to Lake Como.)

But this does not cover the case that is most common in English, and that deserves special taxonomical recognition, phrasal tmesis. An expression rather than a word is ruptured by an alien verbal insertion. The original phrase may range from adjective-plus-noun to complete sentence. "Ultimate dim Thule" qualifies as phrasal tmesis since "Ultima Thula" and its variant "ultimate Thule" are recognized expressions.

Nabokov is fond of this figure. He employs four varieties. Type I results from the simple interposition of a word or words in a fixed phrase (identical with the "ultimate..." example):

1. "I'm all enchantment and ears" (Ada, p. 71)
2. "the Old and rotting World" (Lolita, p. 85)
3. "safety gold pin" (Ada, p. 124)

1) is a happy example of both tmesis and the "all X and Y" formula mentioned above. 2) and 3) are examples of the most common subspecies. A semantic petticoat is slipped on between the naked noun and its clothing epithet. The resulting frou-frou is quite satisfying.

Type II consists in the intercalation of a word or words and a twist to either or both terminals. Thus, if "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" were to undergo tmetic transformation type II, we might describe the Wife of Bath, that foul-mouthed rixatrix, that atterling and shrew preserving her viraginity at all costs, as a "beldam sans any mercy." Or a changeling might be defined as a "lost-and-fairy-foundling." Nabokov employs type II in Ada's reply to Van, "'That's all bluff and nuns' nonsense!'" ("stuff" to "bluff"; insertion of "and nuns'").

A third type is straightforward phrasal tmesis except that the intervenient words form still another fixed expression with one of the limital elements. In Ada "the Arctic no longer vicious Circle" is a good example. The topographic phrase ("Artic Circle") is coldly severed, and the verbal interloper couples with the second segment to force the cliché "vicious circle." This tmesis may be likened to a moiré pattern or a cereal-box toy; looked at one way, it is a geographic, looked at another, a figurative expression.

Lastly, there is a type of tmesis in which the original phrase is apprehended as an idiom (and therefore fit to be split) only within its particular context. The phrase has no more significance in common speech that do "characters" in a book outside of their cultured medium. We find in Lolita "an enchanted and very tight" hunter (p. 268). By the time "enchanted hunter" is put on the chopping block it has been repeated so frequently (once even as "Ted Hunter, Cane, N.H.") as to be accepted as a full-fledged expression.14

Why does phrasal tmesis attract Nabokov? Could his use of the figure in English have something to do woth the habit of loose word order in Russian? Certainly he offers us the best opportunity for studying the individual speech-act (la parole) in relation to the system of the language (la langue), since there are two tongues and only one writer, thereby conveniently minimizing such ordinary troublesome difficulties as chronology, biography, and "poetic school."15

Or could we perhaps relate the figure to a more general technique? Nabokov manipulates, remanipulates, obmanipulates the smallest details as well as the "themes and motifs." Isn't phrasal tmesis a syntactic equivalent of those "specious lines of play" his books are filled with? Fyodor does not hold that conversation with Koncheyev, not the first time we "overhear" them, not the second. Pilgram never makes it to Andalucia or Taprobane. Humbert does not drill his dolly. Glum Van does not empty the contents of the cartridge into his skull. Tmesis similarly surprises. It is the greater deception writ small. The mind apprehends the terminal words which it expects to find juxtaposed, and then must accommodate the alien phonemes thrust between. But this is just a start at explanation. "Questions for study and discussion," to quote an old poet, still remain.

Repairing to surer ground, we should not forget that rare brand of "anticipatory" or "proleptic" tmesis which Nabokov has induced in other, earlier writers. Here a phrase is perceived as being tmetically cleaved only in retrospect, for remote reasons the original author could hardly have guessed. Thus Shakespeare commits tmesis when he has the ghost of Hamlet's father announce:

The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his ineffectual fire.
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11. Three-or-four cola synaesthetic periods: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art" (Lolita); "This is the flower whose odor evokes with timeless intensity the dusk, and the garden bench, and a house of painted wood in a distant northern land" (Pale Fire); "And someday we shall recall all this: the lindens, and the shadow on the wall, and a poodle's unclipped claws tapping over the flagstones of the night" (The Gift). An abridged version: "this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background..." (Pnin); "this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade" (The Gift); "dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss/Poems that take a thousand years to die" ("A Discovery"). The colometrist will notice the rhopalic expansion in the cola. All X and Y: "all bed and bidet" (Lolita), "Nijinsky (all thighs and fig leaves)" (Lolita), "all Adam's apple and heart" (Lolita), "Hunter Road, all dump and ditch" (Lolita), "all honey and hum" (Pnin), "all wrinkles and bawling mouth" (Speak, Memory), "all icefall and rubble" ("Lance"). All X and Y and Z: "all rocks and lavender and tufted grass" ("A Discovery").

* There are those who consider these to be figures of fun and who applaud Hugo's effusion,

Syllepse, hypallage, litote
frémirent; je montai sur la borne Aristote
et déclarai les mots égaux, libres, majeurs
but I do not.

12. Quoted in Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1966), p. 295.

13. Since Russian word order is so much freer than that of English, and since it is difficult for me to identify fixed expressions in Russian, I have avoided examples from that language. Still, there are such self-evident instances as the glittering serpentine intrusion of "Sovetskaya susal'nejšaya Rus'" ("Soviet tinsellated Russ," "Soviet pinchbecked Russ") in Stixotvoreniya, p. 35. In translating a Russian phrase there may be tmetic expansions of the original. "Pis'mo napisano v beznadežnom padeže" becomes "The letter was written in the most hopeless and heartrending of all possible cases."

14. Sometimes more than a single book may be necessary as proper backdrop for the perception of phrasal tmesis. Only the compleat reader of Nabokov will be struck by the multiple tmesis that swarms out of this unlikely bike: "A very busy though oligotropic bee (an epenthetic but not a distant northern bee)." The example, which implicates Sumarokov, Bulgarin, Delvig, and Pushkin as well as English authors, could have been held in skeptic abeyance, but as a remarkable roommate of mine once observed, "Les mots sont les abeilles pour l'esprit."

15. Rhyme in different tongues has been studied. A schoolboy knows that the Onegin stanza, with its epicene rhyme scheme, is difficult to reproduce in English, and he knows why. But there have been few comparative studies of the exploitation of tropes and figures (schemes of grammar, schemes of construction). Any such study would require a redefinition of the old terms to include the variety found most often in weakly inflected English. Polyptoton (paregmenon) or root play is rich and frequent in Russian, and when not pronominal (as in Pushkin's "Ja vas ljiubil...") usually involves suffixes: "Zvezda s zvezdoju govorit'"; Žena molchala I muž molchal." In English polyptoton is very poor. Shakespeare is fond of it, but the most he comes up with is three forms of a root word as in Sonnet 40 where "love" appears (a total of 10 times) in the singular, plural, and possessive. The play on three roots in the following example constitutes a veritable orgy of polyptoton in English: "The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength,/Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant." The type which I think deserves nomenclatorial status is "ablaut" or "apophonic" polyptoton, as in A Shropshire Lad: "I tell a tale that I heard told."

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