Drawing to the end of Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, I came across this sentence:
“At Bräunerhof one’s thoughts are immediately stifled by cigarette smoke and kitchen fumes, and by the twaddle that is talked by the semi-educated and the demisemi-educated of Vienna as they let off their social steam at midday.”
This comes in the middle of a polemic against… well, every aspect of Austrian culture, but especially the Viennese literary coffee houses (I am amused to see that the Wikipedia entry for the Café Bräunerhof as “most known for being the famous author Thomas Bernhard’s favourite café”).
I was drawn to the entertaining word “demisemi-educated”, as I’d never seen it before. At first it struck me as being the unfortunate translator David McLintock’s attempt at finding a fitting substitute for one of those beautiful German compound monstrosities that pop up, those muscular portmanteaus like gesamtkunstwerk or schwangershaftverhutungsmittel. Bernhard had little regard for translation (just like everything else), so on this level, that it would probably annoy the character even further than he already was, I found the word funny.
Then, suddenly, some residual flotsam of my ancient musical education rose to the surface and I realised that “demisemi” is from music theory. Which makes sense – Wittgenstein’s Nephew, and the two central characters, are united by their passion for music. The reader gets the definite impression that the titular Paul Wittgenstein’s opinion on music is the only one that Bernhard (either the character or the writer, if they’re not the same person) has any respect for.
So, whereas before, the sentence just seemed to transliterate as “stupid, and even stupider people, chat stupid shit in the Bräunerhof,” the implication is that they were mainly chatting shit about music. A wryness and a dryness has entered the passage, as this is more likely to annoy Bernhard than shit chatting on any other subject. And, exploring it further by applying the music template to the subject of stupidity, we see that the semi-educated aren’t simply semi-educated in the normal sense that they’re half-clever, or have some formal grades but no intelligent application, but have received only a 16th of an education: a semiquaver lasts a 16th of a full note. And a demisemiquaver lasts half as long as a semiquaver, so I infer that a demisemieducated person has only a 32nd of an education.
The next fraction, by the way, would be a hemidemisemieducated person (someone with 1/64th of an education), before the prefixes reset to semihemidemisemieducated.
It is in this way the more Asperger’s-inflected parts of my personality can occasionally make me laugh.