Powers of Three: On the Tricolonic Title

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Various explanations could be offered for the runaway success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. One could note its deft blend of personal recovery narrative with the pleasures of travel literature; its post-New Age grappling with spiritual questions; and its feel-good empowerment message for divorced first-worlders. But a more technical detail should not be overlooked: namely, the book’s perfect deployment of the tripartite title form.

Eat, Pray, Love is a classic instance of the rhetorical figure of the isocolon, first defined by the Greek sophist Georgias — along with other such figures, some familiar (antithesis), some now less so (homoeoteleuton) — as part of his system of rhetorical composition. Greek for “of equal number of clauses,” isocolon is a rhetorical device that produces a sense of order by balancing parallel elements that are similar in structure and length within a sentence. An isocolon need not have three elements, but the requirement of parallel and balance means that it often takes a tripartite shape, technically called a tricolon. The most famous examples of tricolons are probably “veni, vidi, vici,” from Julius Caesar’s letter to the Roman Senate after achieving a quick victory in the Battle of Zela in 46 B.C., and the national motto of France, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Caesar’s statement produces a sense of inevitable progress, and Eat, Pray, Love also achieves some of this effect, with Elizabeth Gilbert in the triumphant Caesar role: I ate, I prayed, I found love. And with Italy, India and Indonesia in the subtitle, Gilbert achieved tricolonic apotheosis.

The tricolonic title form has long been a staple of pop songs — “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” (Stevie Wonder); “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly); “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” (Journey) — and of movies: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; Sex, Lies, and Videotape. (A strict definition of the isocolon would exclude the latter as imbalanced, but Mark Forsyth opines in The Elements of Eloquence that “tricolons sound great if the third thing is longer,” as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). The human mind obviously enjoys lists, and the well-deployed tricolonic title can constitute a powerfully compressed narrative that raises questions only answerable by consuming the cultural object in question. What do the sex and lies have to do with the videotape? Do squeezin’ and touchin’ require lovin’, or are all three actions independent of one another?

One classic version of the tricolonic book title takes the form of a brief list of names, as in Jacques Barzun’s 1941 Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, or Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In these instances, what may appear to be simple lists in fact offer a hint of irony or paradox in a less-than-obvious grouping: a question is raised (what does Johann Sebastian Bach have to do with the other two?) that the book will go on to answer.

But a new kind of tricolonic title emerged in the 1970s, I would suggest, as a signature form of the new discourse of Theory. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida both made notable use of the tricolon: see Barthes’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976) and Image, Music, Text (1977), and Derrida’s landmark post-structuralist essay “Signature Event Context” (1972). Michel Foucault’s 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France, later collected in book form as Security, Territory, Population, also offer a paradigmatic example. The title was probably not Foucault’s own, as the book was published posthumously in 2004 — which in itself proves the point, however, that by the 21st century, this title form had become a marketing hook.

I would guess that the primary influence on Barthes and Derrida’s titles were the titles of Martin Heidegger: The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (1938); his 1951 essay “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”); his 1971 collection Poetry, Language, Thought. (As with Foucault, some of these titles may not have been chosen by Heidegger himself). This Heideggerian, Barthesian, or Derridean tripartitle title form declines to pre-order its terms, offering them as a kind of puzzle for the reader. “Signature, Event, and Context” would, like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, more straight-forwardly suggest a linear sequence of important terms for the argument within the essay; “Signature Event Context,” however, compels attention by offering a gnomic, comparatively unmarked collection of terms. (The lack of commas intensifies this effect.) The title flaunts a certain blankness or withholding of affect, and enacts a cool decontextualizing, demanding that we abandon whatever associations we might already hold with its three terms “signature,” “event,” and “context,” in order to comprehend them more rigorously and dispassionately.

Once one takes note of this kind of tricolonic title form, one starts to see it everywhere in the titles of scholarly books and articles, especially in the 21st century. Robin Wood’s “Ideology, Genre, Auteur: Shadow of a Doubt” and “Symmetry, Closure, Disruption: the Ambiguity of Blackmail,” both from Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989); Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (2004); David Punter’s Rapture: Literature, Addiction, Secrecy (2009); Valerie Rohy’s Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality (2010); Jesse Molesworth’s Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Realism, Probability, Magic (2010); Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (2015). (And the prevalence of the tricolonic title offers an opportunity for a perhaps-inevitable form of one-upmanship, the tetracolonic title, as in Caroline Levine’s new Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.) The undifferentiated tricolonic (or tertracolonic) title — especially lacking the “and” — now often implies an allegiance to Theory, a disinclination to pre-sort the terms of one’s argument, and a certain affectual withholding. The titles seem to say, offhandedly, “Here are some of the key terms of my argument; I won’t explain yet how they relate to one another.” I am not sure whether it should be seen as a coincidence, or a deeper-running irony of late capitalism, that such titles also serve as convenient collections of search terms, well-poised to capture online queries.

All of this leaves one question, difficult to answer definitively: should Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” now be recognized as containing an overlooked Heideggerian resonance?

In a Weird Way: A Brief History

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An article in The Guardian from early 2014 quotes members of the Canadian electro-industrial band Skinny Puppy discussing the invoice for $666,000 in royalties they billed the U.S. government for use of the band’s music in torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Keyboardist cEvin Key (yes, he spells it that way) explains that the band was dismayed, but not entirely surprised, that their music was employed in this manner. “We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way,” Key said. “Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.”

Key’s comments made me curious about the phrase he used twice (in slightly different ways), one that I have often noticed in conversations with friends and colleagues: “in a weird way.” Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals that the phrase is a modern one: its first recorded uses are in the 1870s, and from that point, its usage continues in a more or less flat line (rising a bit in the noir 1940s, dipping in the 1950s) until about 1979, when its usage begins to angle sharply upward to the present day. A Google or LexisNexis search for the phrase turns up countless 21st-century examples.

What does “in a weird way” mean, and why did it become so much more prevalent in the late-20th century? The first uses of “weird” in English refer to “weird sisters,” as made famous by Macbeth (though the usage precedes the play), and in its earliest 19-century citations, “in a weird way” invariably means in an uncanny, creepy, or supernatural way. Some of the things that most often occur “in a weird way:” trees or leaves rustling in the wind, fires blazing up, and people muttering, singing, or murmuring. From an 1888 collection of sermons, describing the prophet David: “The demon was cast out, and the dark powers of the creation were mightily stirred up by it, and David, on his way home that night, felt them all about him in a weird way.” From an 1897 article in The American Archaeologist called “Notes on Delaware Indian Village Sites:” “The stone cists once occupying the eastern side of the burial place have been destroyed by the plow; the white oaks whose leaves rustled in the fall winds in a weird way have been cut down by the avaricious lumber man.” From “Catching the Wild Horse in South America,” in the Report of the Rugby School Natural History Society for the Year 1879: “A couple of the fattest mares captured are slaughtered, and without troubling themselves to skin them, the men cut up the carcases in huge joints, ribs, loins, back, etc., and pile them on the fires, which blaze high up in a weird way, owing to the quantities of fat and grease burning.” From the Wide World Magazine of 1898: “the native divers had tumbled out of their boats, and were swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea.” From a 1910 female traveler’s Journal of Japan: “I saw a most interesting method of laying a foundation of a native building — two dozen women pulling on a fan of ropes, and singing in a weird way, half drawing and twisting between each pull.”

Notice a common denominator? These are all travellers’ tales, quasi-ethnographic (or in one case, Biblical) accounts of strange people doing surprising things, usually in exotic, non-Western lands. The weird and its ways, it is implied, are threatened, or at least displaced, by the modern. This example from an 1887 Recollections of a Country Doctor, a description of a man sleepwalking, may seem to offer an exception to the rule of otherness, since it describes the non-exotic locale of Halstead, in Essex, England:
He not only muttered to himself uneasily and in a weird way, but he went through a sort of tragic pantomime at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something.”
Yet this turns out to be a exception that proves the general rule, after all, when one considers the way the author sets the scene:
“it was one of those sad days when the cold and damp seem to penetrate to your very bones, and when the scenery round Halstead had a way of looking like Ultima Thule, with the haggard moorland and gaunt cliffs fraternising with the sea and sky.
When Halstead feels like Greenland, then an ordinary Englishman named Reginald can mutter “in a weird way,” like a Biblical prophet or a native priest (or like the witches in Scotland in Macbeth).

In the early 20th century, however, “in a weird way” begins to loosen its meaning, allowing for new possibilities: not only to describe an externally observed “weird” occurrence or action (someone muttering, wind blowing, fire surging), but to convey a particular kind of internal subjective state of questioning uncertainty. The earliest example of this new kind of usage I found is in John Galsworthy’s novel The Patrician, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1910: “Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at Lady Casterley, to whom it seemed suddenly as if this was another woman. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt.” This usage can be interpreted as another instance of the familiar sense; like Reginald the sleepwalker, or the prophet David, Mrs Noel has, perhaps, tapped into the non-rational “weird.” Yet there is something in Galsworthy’s usage that sounds more contemporary: the phrase “in a weird way,” opening the sentence, narrates Lady Casterley trying to make sense of her own impression, seeking to find the right language to communicate a fleeting or unresolved — and perhaps painful– feeling or insight.

Here we see, I think, for the first time, an emergent usage for “in a weird way” operating as what linguists call a filler phrase (like “sort of” or “kind of”) that allows the speaker a mental and syntactical pause to begin to try to convey an inchoate feeling. When we say “in a weird way” now, we often are letting you know: I recognize that what I am about to say may seem unclear, impressionistic, or strange; I haven’t completely sorted it out — and I am trying to figure it out as I speak. In the comments from the keyboardist of Skinny Puppy, his first usage (“We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way”), but not his second (“we can see it being used in a weird way”), fall into this category.

“In a weird way” continues to be used in its earlier senses throughout the early decades of the 20th century to describe uncanny effects, generally produced by non-Western others: “Not noticing Jack or his companion and holding her sides, the squaw began to moan in a weird way, rocking back and forth, and at the same time removing the greater part of her covering” (from a 1914 novel, The Forge of Destiny). But increasingly, we see more examples of usages resembling Galsworthy’s, in which “in a weird way” signifies an affectual vagueness or uncertainty. H.P. Lovecraft began writing about what he called “weird fiction” in the 1920s, and the pulp magazine Weird Tales was founded in 1923. The emergence of “weird fiction” as a category distinct from the Gothic seems to partake of both strands of meaning: drawing, of course, on conventions from supernatural and Gothic fiction, but also, crucially, on this new “weirdness” of affect.

The “weirdness” of “in a weird way” seems to begin to seep into discourse more generally as the 20th century progresses. In a 1973 novel, The Liberated, by David Slavitt, a man named Peter “got into the elevator…In a weird way, he had the feeling that he should be coming up the service elevator, that his news about Amy and their state of bereavement were a double gaffe.” “In a weird way” could be seen as entirely expendable in this sentence; cut it, and the meaning is conveyed. But the phrase crucially imparts a sense of Peter’s indeterminate “feeling.” The phrase “weirds” his affect, we could say, tells us that the thought that is about to be expressed is a hazy, perhaps only half-possessed one.

“In a weird way,” increasingly presented as its own grammatically independent clause, offers a hint of apology for its own imprecision; the phrase rose to prominence in the last few decades of the 20th century, we might speculate, because it proved useful for an era in which precision and rationality had been demoted as verbal desiderata. To preface a claim or observation with “in a weird way” is to undermine it, slightly, to confess that it may not convey a clear thought, but instead an inchoate feeling or perception; to note a possible contradiction or opposition, and to acknowledge that you, the listener, may see it differently; to communicate a feeling of vagueness that is not a mere prelude to a later state of desirable precision, but may be rather a final, somewhat undecided resting spot. The phrase offers us a way to acknowledge internal motives, desires, and impulses that we might otherwise disavow, or that we cannot rationally explain. A gay man quoted in The Advocate in 1998: “In a weird way I feel more connected to straight people.” A student at McGill University, cited in the Calgary Herald in 2000: “Sometimes, I’d make horizontal cuts across my entire forearm. It stung incredibly. It was so painful that, in a weird way, it felt good.”

A 2002 New York Times article about David Lynch’s hauntingly uncanny film Mulholland Drive is titled “In a Weird Way, David Lynch Makes Sense.” “In a weird way” had become ubiquitous by the turn of the last century perhaps for the same reason that a filmmaker like David Lynch could now be part of the mainstream, rather than relegated to the world of “underground” or B-pictures. We have lost some of our confidence in our ability to distinguish sharply — or of the value of so distinguishing — between the non-rational, often non-Western or non-modern “weird,” and our own selves and words; between the eerie or unheimlich outside of us, and the Heimlich rationality we used to believe was inside. Genres and aesthetic modes that were once, by virtue of their “weirdness,” relegated to the margins, are now closer to the center. The mainsteaming of so-called “weird fiction,” often indebted to Lovecraft – China Miéville and Kelly Link, whose new collection Get In Trouble is just out, are two prominent current flag-bearers — is one symptom of this shift.

In a weird way, we now tend to prefer to see ourselves less as the rational ethnographer or doctor taking notes on the “weird,” than as resembling the muttering sleep-walker, “at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something;” or those divers, “tumbled out of their boats…swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea:” seeking not precision or exactitude of expression, but rather a hazy pearl of emotional and verbal uncertainty. We now all travel the weird way.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.