Monday, September 09, 2013

`An Event, or State, Not an Abstract Quality'

The first word I remember learning in first-year Latin almost half a century ago is lacuna, a gap, and a few years later I was delighted to find it used by Flann O’Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds (“Shanahan at this point inserted a brown tobacco finger in the texture of the story and in this manner caused a lacuna in the palimpsest.”) A minor pleasure, perhaps, but unexpectedly happening upon a rare or arcane word, and already knowing what it means, brings disproportionate satisfaction. While rereading the title story in Guy Davenport’s The Cardiff Team (1996), I found this exchange: 

“—We wouldn’t be talking at all if there weren’t a lacunarity to my own growing up, not that I’ve got there yet. 


“Experiences that got left out. But then we shall have our own way of growing up, not that I’ve got there yet.” 

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t recognize that form, but defines lacuna as “a hiatus, blank, missing portion” and “a gap, an empty space, spot, or cavity.” The publisher of The Cardiff Team was New Directions, founded by James Laughlin, with whom Davenport corresponded (Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 2007). On Aug. 2, 1995, Laughlin writes to Davenport: 

“Did I dream the beautiful word `lagunaria’ or did I see it in your new book, or have I misspelled it? It’s a [token?] word for me and I want to use it in a poem, but it’s not in the big Webster or the OED [Nor does my spell-check software recognize it. The word is a lexicographical lacuna.] Not that I don’t make up lots of words, and who cares anyway? I use it in my draft to mean lack of punctuality.” 

He adds: 

“GOOD. I just found it: lacunarity. A gap (in time) or missing part. But I am stretching it for the poem. I’ll draft a bit and please tell me if I’m off the track. Poem is about Angelica who was never on time.” 

Five days later, Davenport replies, saying the word is used by a character in “The Cardiff Team” to mean “gaps in his experience. If we looked in Medieval Latin, we’d probably find Lacunaritas. Classical Latin has Lacuna, a gap, and Lacunaria, a ceiling with regular spaces between the beams. 

“You justify the word in your poem [Laughlin had mailed a draft of “Her Lacunarity.”] Though, without specifying that you mean a gap in civilized regularity, you would run the risk of calling her spacey, loony, bubble-brained.” 

Davenport quotes two lines from Laughlin’s poem – “I never reproached / Her for her lacunarities…” – and adds: “That makes it plural and habitual. A lacunarity would be an event, or state, not an abstract quality.” One has adventures with words. If all is connected (our working assumption) and one remains attentive, a word can take you anywhere and everywhere.

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