Saturday, October 24, 2009

There is an inherent philosophical pleasure to reading the prose of Nietzsche, Bergson or Latour

on intellectual correctness from Object-Oriented Philosophy

I just saw the following sentence in a story about a train accident outside Mumbai:

“India’s rail network, which crisscrosses the country, has been marred by a poor safety record.”

The typical language nitpicker might find fault with this sentence: after all, doesn’t any rail network, by definition, crisscross a country? etc. etc.

But I find it to be an excellently written sentence for a news story. Just saying “India’s rail network has been marred by a poor safety record” would be factually accurate, but completely bland.

Adding “which crisscrosses the country” may technically be redundant, but it adds intensity and special emphasis, and creates a sense (an accurate one, too) of lively sprawl about the Indian rail network, while dramatically contrasting it with a lingering sense of danger from the poor safety record.

Some people continue to think that “good writing” simply means conveying clear and accurate facts without contradiction and with as much economy as possible. That’s not true. Good writing means bringing things to life rather than merely abandoning them to clarity and economy.

And this is why good writing is perhaps the most important instrument of philosophy. To present something clearly and economically is at best only Step One of the philosopher’s job. We can see things clearly and economically while still seeing them purely externally and superficially. In every topic there is much that escapes exact definition, and you need to be able to hint vividly at it, to give additional texture and depth to your subject matter.

One professor I knew of would always smugly demand “good plain English” of student papers. Fair enough. Good plain English is better than muddled, obscure English. But it’s insufficient. The demand for good plain English assumes that fuzziness and lack of precision are the major problem with most people’s work. I would argue, on the contrary, that an excess of clarity and precision is often the problem, since not everything in the world is clear and precise– or at least not at the outset.

Clarity is merely a useful tool or means to an end. The real goal is lucidity. And lucidity demands that we admit the dark spots on the map when they are there.

False friends from An und für sich by Adam Kotsko

This week, Anthony and I have been discussing translation, specifically the question of whether translations from Romance languages tend to favor Latinate cognates over more common terms. The primary motivation to do this is laziness: I see a word that looks like “operate,” for instance, and so I type “operate” into my translation and move on. Although the meaning will probably be conveyed adequately, it might be better to just go with the more common word “work,” because here’s the thing: Romance languages don’t have the weird two-tier system that English and German (and presumably other Germanic languages) have where there are two parallel sets of synonyms that are either “common” or “Latinate.” This two-tiered system has its uses — for instance, it provided Heidegger with a simple way of designating the “originary” and “artificially philosophical” versions of concepts (Dasein vs. Existenz, for instance), and in English it’s more common to use the Latinate forms to “elevate” the discourse. But in Romance languages, the Latinate terms just are the common terms; the problem of how to deploy either set simply doesn’t come up.

Now it’s possible that I should translate Agamben with a bias toward the Latinate terms because it’s a scholarly work and the Latinate vocabulary would reflect its more “elevated” status — but I could just as easily decide that it’s stupid that scholarly work should use artificially “elevated” language that conveys no additional information and go with common terms. Perhaps Agamben himself has preferences in this regard (I’ve been told he’ll be going over the translation), but his text can’t force the decision. Whether I decide which way to go in the translation or Agamben does, one of us will be implicitly casting a vote in favor of a particular style of English scholarly writing.

Impressions And Comments by Havelock Ellis, 1859-1939 ... _November_ 22. --I note that a fine scholar remarks with a smile that the direct simplicity of the Greeks hardly suits our modern taste for obscurity.

Yet there is obscurity and obscurity. There is, that is to say, the obscurity that is an accidental result of depth and the obscurity that is a fundamental result of confusion. Swinburne once had occasion to compare the obscurity of Chapman with the obscurity of Browning. The difference was, he said, that Chapman's obscurity was that of smoke and Browning's that of lightning. One may surely add that smoke is often more beautiful than lightning (Swinburne himself admitted Chapman's "flashes of high and subtle beauty"), and that lightning is to our eyes by no means more intelligible than smoke. If indeed one wished to risk such facile generalisations, one might say that the difference between Chapman's obscurity and Browning's is that the one is more often beautiful and the other more often ugly.

If one looks into the matter a little more closely, it would seem that Chapman was a man whose splendid emotions were apt to flare up so excessively and swiftly that their smoke was not all converted into flame, while Browning was a man whose radically prim and conventional ideas, heavily overladen with emotion, acquired the semblance of profundity because they struggled into expression through the medium of a congenital stutter--a stutter which was no doubt one of the great assets of his fame. But neither Chapman's obscurity nor Browning's obscurity seems to be intrinsically admirable. There was too much pedantry in both of them and too little artistry. It is the function of genius to express the Inexpressed, even to express what men have accounted the Inexpressible. And so far as the function of genius is concerned, that man merely cumbers the ground who fails to express. For we can all do that.

And whether we do it in modest privacy or in ten thousand published pages is beside the point. Yet, on the other hand, a superlative clearness is not necessarily admirable. To see truly, according to the fine saying of Renan, is to see dimly. If art is expression, mere clarity is nothing. The extreme clarity of an artist may be due not to his marvellous power of illuminating the abysses of his soul, but merely to the fact that there are no abysses to illuminate. It is at best but that core of Nothingness which needs to been closed in order to make either Beauty or Depth. The maximum of Clarity must be consistent with the maximum of Beauty. The impression we receive on first entering the presence of any supreme work of art is obscurity.

But it is an obscurity like that of a Catalonian Cathedral which slowly grows luminous as one gazes, until the solid structure beneath is revealed. The veil of its Depth grows first transparent on the form of Art before our eyes, and then the veil of its Beauty, and at last there is only its Clarity. So it comes before us like the Eastern dancer who slowly unwinds the shimmering veil that floats around her as she dances, and for one flashing supreme moment of the dance bears no veil at all. But without the veil there would be no dance. Be clear. Be clear. Be not too clear.

William Watson's poem: Epigrams

Think not thy wisdom can illume away The ancient tanglement of night and day. Enough, to acknowledge both, and both revere: They see not clearliest who see all things clear.


Here are few examples of Amal-da’s humorous writings: ... “Anatole France can be summed up in his literary quality by the rule he has laid down for writers: ‘D’nabord la claret, puis encore la clarté, enfin la clarté’ _ ‘Clarity first, clarity again, clarity at the end.’ " Home > E-Library > Works Of Disciples > Jugal Kishore Mukherjee > The Wonder That Is K. D > The Wonder That Is K. D. Sethna Alias Amal Kiran

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