Sprawling Normative Vocabularies
On purple prose, academic writing and how (not) to write well.
Tuesday, 2004-09-21 | Classic Gin, Language, Literature, On Writing Well
We speak often of the 'irony of wisdom' in Old Testament interpretation class. Generally, the sort of irony we're describing is the kind that we see in the 'wisdom' that A&E; are saddled with once they've partaken of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The phrase 'the irony of wisdom,' as it is demonstrated in that episode, is generally meant to describe the idea that certain wisdom obfuscates, rather than enlightens. The actual event describes a kind of wisdom that is different from and opposite to the literal meaningof the word. A&E;, with their newfound wisdom, are finally only able to see that a.) they are naked and b.) that nakedness is something to be ashamed of.
That's irony, baby.
What I aim to describe tonight, however, is a different flavor of the 'irony of wisdom.'
At the beginning of my undergraduate career I was deeply enamored of the puissant vocabularies of academic writers and speakers. As a result of my captivation by the academic speaker and his way with words, I set about acquiring a similar vocabulary for myself.
I developed a certain kind of Stockholm Syndrome, basically.
Time was, I couldn't get enough of new words--the more esoteric and (ostensibly) limited in its applicability the word was, the better. By the time I was a junior, my prose did not merely have the quality or style of poetry, it was readable as such. Put another way, to read my prose was to make use of the interpretive and cognitive practices that are usually reserved for the reading of poetry.
This lasted for quite some time--I've only recently begun to see the beauty and poise in single-proposition statements that are unencumbered by knotty adjectives. Recently, an old friend wrote of my prose during my celebrated 'purple period' that 'You could start a fistfight over every adjective, every qualifier and adverb, every subordinate clause that is just draped over the sentence like the snake over Laocoon.'
Perhaps my abiding love for the terrible beauty and inexorable purposefulness of symbolic logic finally translated into something modal, something that began to directly act upon my cognitive (and compositional) processes. Maybe it had something to do with my time as a student--something 'clicked,' so to speak, and I was able to see that writing well (i.e. being in possession of the right stock examples and axioms) was more important than the possession of an arsenal of unequivocal nouns and adjectives.
In any event, as I am now beginning my career as a graduate student in earnest, I'm surprised almost daily by the amount of unnecessarily specific prose I encounter and what that those daily encounters seems to imply--when you read 100 pages or so a night by various authors and still manage to learn five completely new words, a trend has been expressed.
And so we return to the 'irony of wisdom.' It seems impossible to me that anyone who has spent any substantial amount of time in an academic setting should write the way that many scholars do. When an educator generates instructional prose as poetic as mine once was he's acting contrarily to the mandate given professional instructors by a.) their profession/situation and b.) the institution that employs them.
What I mean to say is that composition is an art of exclusion--not one of demonstration.
That's irony, baby.