Sunday, December 30, 2007

Because clarity isn’t enough

The craft of difficult writing
There are reasons, if you can call them that, why a writer would want to play games with the reader’s mind. SWAHA DAS and HARI NAIR The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Dec 30, 2007
Closer to our times, the craft of “difficult writing” would resonate in a French best-seller published in 1966 called Les Mots et les Choses. In this brilliant but excruciatingly challenging book, the author explains how the European mind classified and ordered everything that was related to the human being since the 16th century. He tells a fascinating story of how Western man was both the agent and the object of study at the same time. Less than a decade after its publication, one of his students scripted an even more difficult, yet inventive, work called Glas. In it, he compares two thinkers in parallel columns strewed with textual quotations and his own commentary. Though the structure of this book might remind us of the glossators of the Middle Ages, the author offers no clue as to how the reader could tackle the text. These books radically challenged the notion of structure, which is inevitable for coherent acts of thinking and writing. No wonder therefore that these writers have been nick-named “post-structuralists” in America.
However, “being difficult” in writing is different from obfuscation. The masters of the stylus insist without end that rigour and intelligibility were never sacrificed by the greatest practitioners of the craft. One such teacher, who offered tips on how to “be difficult” in writing was the Spanish Jesuit, Balthasar Gracián (1601-58). An Argentinean litterateur, famous for being ignored by the Swedish academy, once reviled him in a poem as “the Jesuit who reduced poetry to stratagems through laborious nothingnesses”. However, this cunning soldier of style is today back in vogue amongst scholars of the discipline of Rhetoric as one who perfected conceptismo. This is a clever way of writing prose, where an author creates multiple relationships between words and ideas, and these are loaded with a variety of meanings compressed into concise expressions. Certain meanings become instantly evident to the reader, while others remain hidden.
Possible goals
But, why would a writer go to such pains at playing hide and seek with words and ideas? Well, because ingenuity does not seek truth alone but aspires to beauty, or so Gracián would remind us (Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio, Discourses 2,7&8). The more hidden the truth, the more valued the concept; and hence, more beautiful. He believed that the element of intrigue sparked by a verbal expression will put the reader on alert; and reward her with the feeling of having grasped a hitherto unknown but exquisite element of a puzzle previously seasoned with mystery. For producing similar effects on the reader, our author-priest nudges the potential writer of “difficult” prose to pursue in measured opposition the following: human malice as against the gushing forthrightness of a water-fountain, the inscrutableness of the heart versus the transparency of glass. Between these two binary poles, the writer may offer the reader a range of choices that extend from the simplest to the most sophisticated (AAI, D.13). Writing, then, for Balthasar Gracián, was both lucid and truant, giving and receiving pleasure in every page by playing games with the reader’s mind.
Having come thus far, we mustn’t wind up without lending an ear to certain snooty folk who opine on everything, including the craft of “difficult writing”. In the presidential address delivered to the joint congregation of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society in 1945, Henry Price declared that some things “can only be said obscurely; either in a metaphor, or in an oxymoron or a paradox, i.e., in a sentence which breaks the existing terminological rules.” This eminent Oxonian professor urged his flock of analytical philosophers “not to run-away with the zeal for ‘tightening-up language’ because clarity isn’t enough”.

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