Last week I attended a Proustian writing workshop, be still my beating brain, and the entire six hours was devoted to writing the longest sentence possible. What a joy in French, what a taboo in English. I learned a few new French words, mostly nautical, quite pretty, délover and faseyer and noir de Mars, a black with a little red in it. When you delove it’s nothing to do with a breakup but rather unwinding a rope and faseyer, well that is what we are all doing, our sails floating, rippling in the wind. It’s a technical term that comes from the Dutch but the word that I learned that I want to know so much more about, and which seems to have an English equivalent, is ipseity – ipséité – Jemeinigkeit – ipseidad. Pretty exciting stuff!

ipso facto – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
ipso facto – the best lover of my best lover is my prince/ss charming

Yes, ipseity comes from the Latin ipso but since I only got as far as my ancilla (servant) in my villam est in my six months of conversational Latin, I can’t tell you much about ipso. Conversational Latin you ask? Some random French experiment I participated in many years ago. (I’m beginning to be a little embarrassed at the amount of completely useless intellectual endeavors I have enjoyed). The brilliant writing workshop leader explained that for her ipseity is a return to the self, a consciousness of the work that has already been accomplished. We have been working on this project, this life, for a long time, and we know some things. Another headstand, another deep breath while helping a child with homework, another tentative reaching out to people we want to see more of, these are things that we have done in the past and can keep doing now. Ipseizing the day.

What can make our small selves big?

We were looking for the ipseity in our sentences and tried to expand them by bringing in explanations, descriptions, synonyms, internal monologue, parentheses. Basically by puffing up and extending our one sentence we were looking for the ’self‘ of the sentence. This is so contrary to what we teach in high school English in the US with our abject horror of the run on sentence and the linking comma. But I adore it! The French language with its specific relative pronouns, distaste for the overly direct, addiction to litotes, and shifty, often extramarital, relationships between subject and object loves to open up wide and just put in more and more words. The other participants in the workshop were brilliant, their longer and longer sentences full of word play, cultural references, mental tension and many mentions of a nicely chilled white Burgundy. Because every good Proustian sentence has a lovely drink hidden in it whether it be lightly perfumed tea or the beer your neighbor is pouring into a glass right now.

I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom and doing some of these exercises with my students. How can you make your sentence bigger? Now is the time to add the descriptions, the random references to your cultural compendium, the little hint about your terrors, or the restating over and over, but in different words, of the fabric of your reality.

This is one half of my Proustian sentence. It includes a bathtub, Godard and some reflection on 1960s apartment buildings. Just like my life.

All these years I have been practicing yoga, I have suspected that the second half of my life would be an exploration of an inner vastness, a world that needs some quiet and time to reveal itself. It’s like the Arab baths in Seville, warm, deep under the street, very dark and so relaxing. My version has no lighting so far but come on in, the water is delightful.

4 thoughts on “Ipseity”

  1. “What a joy in French, what a taboo in English.”

    How true!
    Yet, should you need to relish such in a master of English, George Elliot is the one. I remember reading one heroic, ultra-descriptive sentence that roved to the length of a paragraph—it was perfection!


  2. Obviously I am way behind in my reading your blog, as it is just today I got to this….though I do skip around a bit and have read later pieces.

    Over the past 14-16 months I have had the opportunity to work for some folks that moved here (Mendocino) from Berkeley. He is “the lichen expert”, the person everyone goes to when they think of those tiny things growing on rocks and bark and under most other objects.

    But it is the “she” of this couple that has me writing to you, as she is the recently retired Head of the French Philosophy Department at UC Berkeley. (Who knew there was even such a thing!)

    She has just finished her latest book (I believe her eleventh??) and it was to be published just a few months back. The book is about “Proust and Photography” and that is exactly how much I will attempt to describe her work as, even though she was kind enough to take the time to explain to me the basis of the work, I will admit the depth is beyond me. She had been scheduled to go to London for three months to lecture and “defend” her work (All expenses paid of course…) this June but….virus. It is yet unknown if she will make the trip now or later.

    What fascinates me is the depth to which humans go to think. Just think. Not do, just think.

    Susan, The retired French Philosophy professor, not only decides to write sever hundreds of pages about some enormous work of Proust but to concentrate that work on the photography within that work! Not only that but this is not the first work of it’s kind!

    A good deal of the time I got to spend working at her place was working around her little writing studio and I must admit those snippets of conversation were a delight. Watching her work (Really just glances through the big window) I realized I was watching a person totally absorbed in “thought”. Dogged!

    J.D. Salinger aside, I am not a fan of lengthy sentences…..


    1. I love this! Yes, thinking is one of the great, great pleasures of human existence and even though sexism has kept some doors shut for me, I am so thankful that I got to have a life with lots of good thinking. Proust keeps popping up these days in my life. And yes, the photography angle has been done, but why not more? Thank you so much for reading! I hope you are well.


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