When I was young, I had a vendetta against the word “or.” “It makes you sound undecided,” I told a friend, after reading her high school English papers. “Use ‘and.’ ‘But’ also works.” It wasn’t that I disliked the word per se; I just thought that conjunctions didn’t need to be used so much.
Four years later, one of my professors called me out on my predilection for closing lists without conjunctions. “You’re fond of asyndeton,” and she typed the word. She recited Aristotle’s thoughts on the technique in hisPoetics, and gently suggested that asyndeton was perhaps most successful if used sparingly. Churchill’s oratory aside, she was absolutely right. So I told myself to leave the conjunctions in, although I did keep a safe distance from “or.”
Then I read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Nominally the story of a young poet living in Spain on a fellowship, the novel rests on uncertainty and consciousness rather than any particular plot. Reading of the narrator's struggles to understand and respond to the Spanish spoken around him, I noticed how he used “or” as a way to juggle many possible meanings: "She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her into a little girl whenever she thinks of it..."
Lerner discussed this in a BOMB interview: "Yes, “or” is an important word in the book, especially in those scenes where Adam Gordon can’t tell if he’s following the Spanish of an interlocutor, and so, instead of simply failing to understand, understands more than one possible meaning at a time ... Hearing a Spanish sentence as X_ or _Y allows him to keep his exchanges from becoming actual, to keep them in the realm of the virtual."
“Or” as a marker of uncertainty, yes—but Adam Gordon, the narrator, shifts the need for actuality and certainty onto his readers and listeners. The premise of the novel is that the narrator is constantly plagued by the need to feel authentic and transcendent; his intentional use of “or” forces other people to make that decision for him. He lets himself live in uncertainty.
Is “or” the conjunction for our time? Adam Gordon drowns in polysyndeton in the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings—an event many people grieved over as on 9/11. The words I remember from that time, though, were authoritative. On the radio, people reread Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” where Auden memorably uses “or” to oppose: “We must love one another or die.” The conjunction didn't seem uncertain at all, actually.
“Or” seems less definitive, less divisive now than it did in 2001 or 1939. Robyn Cresswell pinpoints a contemporary, perhaps more honest direction in his appreciation of Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,”: “The poem begins, as I read it, by riffing on the either/or logic ... But it quickly ramifies into geography, history, poetics.” Perhaps “or” isn’t quite so terrible; maybe it’s as a way of conjoining many different coexisting possibilities, but without rejecting any of them or forcing us to choose.
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