Sunday, April 27, 2008

Writing So Beautiful It's Bad

I blogged once about why you should be skeptical of good writers:

I have more to say about the subject.

I recently picked up a book called Powers of Horror by Julia Kristeva (1982). I could not get through more than a page and a half of it, but what I read seemed to be a great example of what I'm talking about. It starts:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.

I won't bore you with any more, but it goes on like that for a least another page or so.

I asked the person from whom I'd borrowed the book what it was supposed to be about, and it's about, among other topics, something rather interesting: how under certain contexts we find things like saliva disgusting (when spit on a wall) and at other times attractive (when kissing.) So I am not saying that what the book is trying to communicate is bad. I'm saying that the way it's written obfuscates the meaning.

The book is written so beautifully that its comprehensibility suffers.

I don't want to say that writing should not be beautiful. I think, for example, Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is beautifully written. And certainly one can write prose so ugly and boring that its comprehensibility suffers. But beauty can go too far.

Poetry, ideally, is very beautiful writing, or at least very interesting writing. I didn't understand poetry for a long time. When I'd try to write it, I'd think of some idea I wanted to communicate, and then poetize it! That's short for making it obfuscated and beautifully written. I could have just written the idea itself, and been perfectly clear, but then it wouldn't be much of a poem, would it? Ideally, the meaning of a poem should be subtle: it's meaning comes out through the subtle connotations and meanings of the words in their particular arrangement.

When asked about the meaning of their works, I've heard some artists say that if they could explain it in simple words, there would have been no reason to make the art in the first place. The work of art requires interpretation. The act of interpretation by the audience is part of the artistic appreciation. A good work of art (IMHO) affords different interpretations by different people in different contexts.

But this passage is not poetry. This passage is trying to make psychological claims. It should not be written like poetry, so that it's open to interpretation. If this were turned in as a paper to any of my philosophy professors it would not even be graded-- it would be sent back. Kristeva would have done the assignment wrong.

When you're trying to help someone understand something, or trying to communicate something important about the world, don't mess around. It's too important. Write clearly. Write so that you're maximally effective.

The book might get better; I admit I didn't give it much of a chance. But my criticism still holds for the first two pages. The beginning sets the tone, and (one hopes) grabs the reader and makes him or her want to go on.

Is it fair that I'm judging it from the perspective of philosophical and scientific writing? Yes. Is it fair that I judge the English version of this book, given that it was originally written in French? Probably; French literary stuff like this is famously obscure. And even it it's not, I'll just shift the blame to the translator instead of the original author. Some number of people are to blame. Shouldn't I be judging it by the standards of the field in which it's written (literary criticism and psychoanalysis)? No. If she's trying to say something true about the world, as opposed to making art, then I'm in the right here. If this is the kind of writing that's considered good in those fields, then FSM help those fields. Their insights are like scientific experiments conducted but never published-- uncommunicated, destined never to have impact.

I'm not going to go into the details of what's wrong with the quoted passage. I'm tempted, as a professor, to get out my red pen and tear it to shreds. But I have student papers to correct.

There's still hope for them.


Thanks to Vanessa Corcoran, Daniel Saunders, and Anthony J. Francis for their comments on this essay.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror. Translated from French by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press.

Pictured: Kristeva. At least she's a good dresser.

1 comment:

Webb said...

That is some serious Bulwer-Lytton writing.