The Ideal Sentence

When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance,
‘He looked out the window,’ it already has perfection.

Franz Kafka

Ordinary sentences express thoughts; ideal sentences present ideas. The writer has a thought “in mind” when writing a sentence, and the sentence evokes a thought in the mind of the reader, but these are two different thoughts in two different minds. If I write the perfectly real sentence, “I am looking out the window,” a particular image may come to mind for you, but it is not the image of what I am looking at as I now look out the window. The idea of looking out a window, by contrast, exists independently of your mind and mine, my thoughts and yours, our windows and what happens to be outside them at the moment. The ideal sentence is about a stable reality not the passing scene.

A real sentence gropes at this reality with words, which are but inarticulate grunts when compared to the songs of angels that minister to our ideas. A real sentence, even one that invokes “the song of angels,” as I just vainly tried to, represents only what happens to be passing through the medium of the writer’s muddled mind. The ideal sentence, by contrast, presents an idea, immediately, in its pure form, as it appears in the mind of God. Ideas exist “in themselves,” regardless of whether they have been thought by anybody. Ideally, the writer is as distant from the idea as reader because the ideal sentence puts them both in the same position. In a sense, at an infinite distance.

Ideal sentences, of course, don’t exist in reality. We have no words for them. But every real sentence aspires to one; a reader is always trying to discern the ideal sentence is in the real one that is passing before their eyes. They are trying to understand what the author means, indeed, what the author must have meant, not necessarily what the author was thinking when it was being written.

One good reason not to try to read the writer’s mind “in the moment of writing” is of course that the sentence you are reading is often the result, not just of writing, but of a great deal of editing. By the time the writer is finished with it, the thought that originally inspired it is long gone. But the idea remains, and it is in fact all that remains after all the writing and reading, all the intending and understanding, has been carried out. Just as spoken words dissolve in the air as quickly as they are uttered, so a written sentence vanishes in the mind of the reader, leaving first images and then, finally, “the loneliness that is the truth of things,” as Virginia Woolf put it, which all the writer shares with the reader at the end of the day: a set of coordinates on the plane of ideas.

In order to make sense of your words, the reader is going to have to think. That is, the sentence cannot present your idea without allowing the reader to consider what you mean. In fact, the sentence will have to make the reader think. But it’s not finally the thinking that you are trying to bring about. You want the reader to get the idea.

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