I couldn't understand the use of commas in the second sentence in the following passage and the overall meaning of it.

This doubt and the still-harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives. Our soul rings cracked when we seem to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more.

What is the grammatical role of each comma in this sentence? What is the meaning of soul rings and what is the overall meaning of the sentence? How its clauses relate to each other ? Is there any use of metaphor here ?

I would be happy to understand the grammatical structure of this sentence.

  • You might need to post the preceding sentence or sentences that make it clear what "it" (in "play upon it") refers to. Mar 22, 2014 at 17:05
  • Ok I put the sentence preceding it.
    – Cloo
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:12

2 Answers 2


Interesting piece of writing - I was curious as to the writer, so I looked it up, and was surprised to find it was (a translation of) Kandinsky's writing, from On the Spiritual in Art, which I must re-read. Thank you!

In answer to your question, Kandinsky is making an analogy between the dull nonresonant sound an old, long-buried, cracked vase would make when it is dug up and the reaction he sees the soul, or the spiritual part of our being, would make in response to its being acted upon by a materialistic impulse.

Our soul rings cracked when we seem to play upon it,

What's the subject? Our soul.
What about it? rings. Rings is the verb.
How does it ring? cracked. Cracked here is either used an adverb which modifies 'rings' or as an adjective which modifies 'soul'.
When does it ring? when we seem to play upon it. That is an adverbial clause which modifies 'rings'.

as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more.

How does it ring? as does a costly vase
What kind of vase? long buried / which is found to have a flaw in it - adjectival phrase/clause modifying 'vase'.
Buried where? in the earth. Adverbial phrase modifying 'buried'.
When does it ring? when it is dug up. Adverbial clause modifying 'ring'.
Dug up when? once more. Adverbial phrase modifying 'dug up'.

There are several things here that would make me want to go back to the original and check how accurate the translation is. Does 'once more' imply it has already been dug up once before? Is there distinction between soul and spirit, that Anna Wierzbicka has written eloquently about that has been 'lost in translation'? Is the choice of 'cracked' accurate? And what exactly did he mean by 'primitives'? Not to mention the fact that I would imagine the vase 'ringing' after it was dug out, not when. Alright, it doesn't say 'when it's being dug up', but it still seems ambiguous.

Ref to AW's paper is: Soul and Mind: Linguistic Evidence for Ethnopsychology and Cultural History - Anna Wierzbicka - American Anthropologist - New Series, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 41-58.

  • What does the verb to ring mean hear? How can a soul ring ?
    – Cloo
    Mar 23, 2014 at 4:20
  • @Pentanol The sense is that of a bell ringing in that it resonates or produces sound waves when it is struck. The more harmonious, proportional and whole it is the more freely and resonantly it can vibrate. If it is cracked, it will not make a clear, resonant sound. Indirectly relevant is the story of the 'Liberty Bell' - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_bell Mar 23, 2014 at 5:50
  • This was a part of an SAT passage based reading section. I have the full text and I can provide you with it to understand these ambiguous terms that you sought to understand the meaning.
    – Cloo
    Mar 25, 2014 at 5:34
  • This following link contains the full passage: en.textsave.org/F3P
    – Cloo
    Mar 25, 2014 at 5:53

Our soul rings cracked when we seem to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more.

I can't add anything to what Leon Conrad said in terms of meaning. (Like him, I'm not keen on the "once more", which is better left out). But you did ask about the role of commas. The first provides a break or pause between the first part of the thought and the second, where he switches to the simile of a long-buried vase to represent the damaged soul. The function of that comma as a break-point speaks for itself. The remaining two commas make a pair that enclose the phrase "long buried in the earth", a phrase that provides a bit of additional information about the vase he's thinking of. Syntactically they aren't essential, and you could remove them without damaging the structure of the sentence (but you must remove both or neither). Their main function is rhetorical, an artistic device to slow down our reading slightly, forcing us to dwell longer than we otherwise would on the image of something "long buried in the earth" before proceeding to the conclusion of the simile. I'm not a great fan of commas where they aren't strictly needed, but in this case they suit the overall style of the piece.

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