If You Can Read This, You're Too Close

WHAT DO WE speak of when we speak of “literature”? Before beginning to “answer” that question, we must ask another question: “What do we speak of when we speak of‘What’?” This is itself a peculiarly written question, since it cannot be asked in conversation without leading to this sort of thing: “What?”

“ ‘What.’ ”



What did you say?”

“Are you saying ‘ “ What,” did you say?’ or ‘What did you say’?”

“No! I’m asking what you said.”

At this point we would be forced to clarify our remarks by wiggling our fingers—now two on each hand, to signify “quote” marks, now just one on each hand, to signify socalled “single-quote” marks, or, as the British call them,

“inverted commas.” Imagine how difficult it would be to express the statement “‘inverted commas’" (that is to say, the phrase “inverted commas” surrounded by . . ,1) by wiggling our fingers. Especially if the conversation were literally (so to speak) AngloAmerican—that is, between an Anglo on the one hand (so to speak), and an American on the other. The British, of course, use (’) to mean (”).

It was the great advance of Hercule Demincement, in his pioneer work Quoi qua ‘Quoi,' to show that even to say “Wh . . .” (“Qu . . .”) is to assume too much.2 Since then we have tended to speak of “ ‘What,’ ” for argument’s sake, as '"Quoi?” and of the work of Demincement and his followers as Quoism.3

In Quoi qua ‘Quoi’ (whose publication caused a cobblestone to be hurled at the Sorbonne, cracking a philosophe) appear the first of Demincement’s now classic imaginary dialogues involving Dominique You, Jean Lafitte’s “right-hand man.” Down in “torrid Barataria,” where the “Father of Waters laves the Delta and the Gulf,” Lafitte’s “privateers” were “a law unto themselves,” but in the “Battle of New Orleans,” “rallying behind” “Andy” Jackson, they “fit the bloody British” with grand “esprit de corps” at a “cotton-bale barricade”:

Behind it stood our little forceNone wished it to he greater; For every man was half a horse And half an alligator.4

At one time Dominique You was known to every schoolboy reader of swashbuckling tales. And yet, Demincement points out, the doughty little cannoneer must have caused consternation in the bayous when he was asked “Who’re you?” and he answered “I’m You.”

But maybe You spoke only French. Then he may have said, “Je suis You.” “You are fou,” a speaker of both languages, who assumed that You, too, was bilingual, may have replied. In print You might have cleared up the matter by writing (we’re speaking of French print now), “Pas ’you,' ‘You.”5 But You appears—in engravings of the period6— to have been illiterate.

Demincement also raises the question of “pain.” In Anglo-American print, it is unclear whether “pain” (or “’pain’”) is being italicized for emphasis or to show that it is French. For instance:

“My wife makes great pain.”

“Great pain?”


“Great pain? How do you mean she makes great pain?”

“Not pain. Pain. Homemade pain.”

Let’s return to Dominique You. Say he is at a get-together with some strictly English speakers.

“Who’re you?” one of the Englishspeakers asks You.

“You,” You replies. (He understands some English, just doesn’t speak it.)

“ ‘You’? What do you mean you’re me?”

“Pas vous, ” says You, “You. ”

“Well, pah-voo you, too,” says the English-speaker.

“Non, non, non,” says You, going for his cutlass.

The English-speaker—not knowing whom he is dealing with—bristles. “See here!” he cries. “First you say you’re me, then you say a lot of gibberish, then . ..I say! Who are you to take offense when I say the same thing you said to me back to . . . you?”

“Oui! Oui!” says You, thinking the English-speaker has at last realized who he is.

“We!?” exclaims the English-speaker, unable to imagine what this small, nasty Frog can think the two of them have in common.

There lies the crux of Quoist theory. Beyond that, there is scant agreement even as to how “Quoist" is pronounced. Some feel it rhymes with “hoist.”Another pronunciation may be inferred from a recent sardonic reference to Deminccmentas “Jesus Quoist."'

“What do we speak of when we speak of ‘literature’?” indeed.

And what if we should work our way all the way through “What”? We would still have “do” and “we” and “speak” and “of” and “when” and a second, distinct, “we" and “speak” and “of" to clear up before we got to “ ‘literature.’ “ Furthermore, in a startling paper entitled “ ‘Q . . .,"8 Cue/Queue,” a brash young Johns Hopkins Englistician named John Hopkin may well have gone beyond Demincement himself.

Experts consider it unlikely that literature, “itself,” will ever catch up. Indeed, a consensus is growing, among the toughest-minded of a new generation of Quoists, that literature—not to mention, as Demincement has put it, ”’literature,’ (quote[single quote (quote-unquote) unsingle quote unquote)” ‘" -is an illusion.

1 You know what I mean.

2. Demincemenr’s title is drolls resistant to citation, even by a Frenchman, because even in Fiance, “qua,”qua Latin, should be set in reman (not to be confused with roman) within u title reference, since it is italicized outside title references. But if you don’t italicize the middle word of a three-word title that is bardic conventionally titular-looking to begin with, then what—as Demincement might put it —do YOU have?

3. Originally “Quoiisin,’but one i(some say the left, some the light) was, as Dcmincement’s colleague AchiMc laupiniere once pur it lightly, “.soon winked.”

4. According to a popular song of the period.

5. Or. more precisely. . .Pas you “You .

6. One of the problems rigorous Quoism runs into, incidentally, is the impossibility, to date, of italicizing a period.

7. In Caesura Tax’s redeconstrticdve prose sequence, Tales Untold II.

8. Delivered by mistake but to great applause bciore the International Polymer-Polypeptide Congiess last year In Kcw.

9. My translation, his italics.