Regarding Writing and Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I find, especially as I’ve gotten older (how many times do I think this should be a "default" opening for anything I write?), that I am less and less inclined to write at length, and even more so disinclined to read matter of great length.

The issue seems to me to be one of the engagement and interest. If I am fired up about a subject or a topic, I go on blithely and at what I know to most other people are insuperable lengths to state my point, whatever digressions my rambling may inspire (or provoke), whatever associated matters, with an attendant discussion of a length that the new matter deserves. This is a behavior that produces a result that to many people (and always as a surprise to me) is the object of envy. Why on earth would anyone want to be able to express themselves in such a way, and endlessly to boot? Further inquiry reveals that this envy is more of an abstract wistfulness about the difficulty of self-expression. I become convinced that it is less the actual artfulness that is evident and more the quite evident ease with which the words pour out that elicits the envy.

Similarly, if I am truly interested in the subject, presumably either in some visceral way, or at least as a matter of prolonged intellectual engagement, I will read on, in any medium, sometimes doggedly (held back chiefly by the ineptitude, or at least the inelegance, of the writing skills of the author). When I was training to be a scholar, which is how I think of my career both as an undergraduate and a graduate student of literature, I quickly learned of the most daunting aspect of the regimen. It is only in retrospect that I can articulate and hold closely my belief in the actual challenge. Through my student days, I always wondered about the soundness of my own intellectual equipment, not only in making discoveries of merit, and using such discoveries as the basis of original, cogent, and useful scholarship on matters that might in fact add to the store of human knowledge, and most specifically about the nature of being alive, as a human. I should not have worried, as I well knew with the abrupt end to my formal education, having observed the evidence of the extent and quality of the equipment bestowed upon my peers and found myself at least to have a middling chance at competing on that score as a result of the talents and skills I myself possessed.

No, the true obstacle to furthering a career in academe (aside from the vagaries of the intrigues, politics, and bureaucratic snafus that seem to characterize academic life as much as life in any other profession or craft) is slogging through the dross, through the verbal landfill that characterizes most of the output of writers on serious subjects, including unhappily (and, as they say in the software business, counter-intuitively), literature. Language is not the determinant. Whatever the native language of the writer, and whatever the language of the subject matter, there is a high degree of predictability that the writing will be impenetrable, off-putting, and, incomprehensible.

I am convinced, and I state this at the risk of becoming a target to whom one of the worst of epithets that I can think of applies, "anti-intellectual," that one reason for the esteem, as well as the cachet of difficulty and extremity of understanding, in which certain orthodoxies are embraced is the execrable way, indeed the almost impossible way there is about them of extracting any meaning, in which the theorists of that orthodoxy have expressed themselves. My metaphorical hat is off to those who, not so much translated them from some other tongue than English (fill in your own languages here), but to those who have managed somehow to abstract, distill, or otherwise channel, whatever wisdom or fineness of thought that may be therein embedded. If Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard and company have a following at all among Anglophones it is due to those brave, prescient, enduring, or possibly inventive, souls who have mined the tons of ore that are their canons, and managed to put on display, in clear, cogent and attractive form, what gems (and such seems the ratio of ore-to-precious substance) these living intellectual spelunkers of deep, unlit grottoes have claimed to have found hidden in their darkest corners. It’s easy to turn foreign gibberish into gibberish in English. Most such translators hone their skills through a youth misspent in generating their own original gibberish.

If it were up to me, their greatest contributions would have been relegated to the status of effective sleep aids. I lament the years, made up of strings of anxious moments as I despaired ever of writing like a critic or scholar, whose accumulated output would burden, for decades, if not centuries, the shelves of ill-lit book stacks only to be exposed to light by hapless students whose plight it is to suppose that one day they themselves will have left behind something worthwhile reading, never mind pondering and explicating to oneself, and then to others, and not to mention the actual business of modern scholarship, and that is, to build upon, enhance, or perhaps take issue with on substantive grounds, only to emerge as the basis for a new or anti-orthodoxy. The brotherhood of academia seemingly takes (or took — I will not speak for current conditions) one vow, and that is never to suggest to recruits, neophytes or acolytes that this particular emperor wears exclusively the proverbial emperor’s wardrobe.

Discovering truth is a tough business. To cloak what one believes is truth in anything but crystalline garb (a not subtle distinction from the cloth of the famous Emperor’s cloak) is to leave the truth undiscovered. To do otherwise also suggests that the discoverer is incapable, in his or her own field, of accomplishing successfully what I am told the mathematician must understand is the great challenge of his discipline. It is said that if you cannot explain your theorem (never mind its proof) to an intelligent ten year-old, it is likely you do not understand it yourself. Einstein said, "make it as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Compression of Language / Compression of  Thought

The Einsteinian admonition to be as simple as possible is not a command to be poetic, gnomic, or epigrammatic in expression. Bible study over two millennia has demonstrated that the simplest of texts can inspire torrents of words by way of enlightenment, explanation, explication, or mere rhapsodizing. Some seemingly simply stated concepts sometimes require lengthy elucidation. The danger is in imagining that such elucidation requires something other than clarity and simplicity (of that further irreducible Einsteinian variety of "simple") itself.

There is a truism, I believe, that suggests that even the most seemingly difficult of ideas — the Theory of Relativity is the usual contemporaneous example, as it has been (and as it has been contemporaneous) for a number of decades now, suggesting a dearth of truly difficult, truly profound ideas in the interim, that is, since 1905 — will eventually become the curriculum in high school, if not in the lower grades. This is a testament not to the diminution in time of the profundity of an originally difficult idea, but to the power, as I am trying to suggest, of simplicity. For you advocates of String Theory, I will say simply that I am not aware that it is as much an integral part of the high school physics curriculum, nor may I suggest, is it as simple (and no simpler) a theory as that of Relativity. I will not comment on either its profundity, or repercussions (but merely because I know even less than I do about its currency in high school curricula).

For me, if some things have proven more difficult for their hardness (I mean this metaphorically, in the metallurgical or gemological sense), it is not that I am less interested in them. There are lines of poetry, if not whole poems, that I would put on a par, in terms of comprehension in an encompassing fashion, with certain principles of science. I spent less time with the so-called Laws of Thermodynamics, than with some of the Cantos of Pound, not because one was harder than the other, and certainly not because of a proportionate lack of clarity (or simplicity, if you prefer), but because the one interested me more. It seems to me that scientific laws (or equations) and poetry are, by intent and definition and the magical ingenuity of the language of each, that is, the least building blocks of the language of each: letters and integers, the least reducible ways in which we can express, simply, any idea, from the most homely and quotidian to the most profound. There is no more efficient way, I don’t think, of compressing meaning via language than through poetry or the formulae and equations of mathematics (itself, essentially, the language of science).

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