by Ed Simon
Purple is a homage to nature and to what human ingenuity can do with nature’s givens.
The ‘less is more’ idea may soon become so entrenched in the culture that future readers will pick Dan Brown over Milton or Melville. That, in truth, is a very grim future. And every writer, including myself, should aim to prevent this from happening.
For those partisans of parsimony, those sycophants of simplicity, those who penned the canonical style guides which have long done abuse to twentieth-century composition, men like William Strunk, E.B. White, and George Orwell (among others), there would not be much to recommend in the sentences of the greatest prose essayist in the English language, the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne. His is a style which relishes the texture, flavor, and odor of words, which delights in combining phrases and clauses in new and ingenious ways, which conceives of language not merely as a vehicle to deliver meaning, but as the very thing in itself. It’s a style known for convoluted verbosity and an attraction to the wondrous word wrought delightfully (or, if you’re not a fan, exhaustingly). Even Dr. Johnson, who was a fan, described Browne’s prose as “a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another.” And yet Dr. Johnson also admitted that Browne “had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term,” which by necessity must remain the defense of that style of writing, regardless of what the advocates of concision and minimalism might thunder as decree by fiat. In his brilliant defense of ornate prose, author Paul West writes that “It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that’s rich, succulent and full of novelty.” Let’s be sassy then.
Decreed by fiat the partisans of parsimony have, and despite new editions of Browne’s specimens of rare excellence, such as his digressive and aphoristic account on faith, 1643’s Religio Medici, or his extended reflection on the intersections of archeology and mortality, 1658’s Hydrotaphia, the good doctor remains mostly read only by specialists. That’s despite having advocates of the caliber of Herman Melville, who called Browne a “crack’d archangel,” or Virginia Woolf who in an essay wrote that “Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth.” That few people even read the writings of Browne, much less love them, is a certainty; those who were his most enthused defenders are late Romantics like Melville or wordy modernists of a particular caliber such as Woolf, for the long lines and complex sentence structure of Browne haven’t been celebrated for a century. There have been periods of retrenchment in this war of attrition between the Attic and the Asiatic, with the latter being seemingly victorious in the nineteenth-century, for certainly no one would accuse an Edward Bulwer-Lytton of being a minimalist. Flipping through the works of Charles Dickens or George Elliot will corroborate that the nineteenth-century was an era of mauve ascendency, but with writers like Browne in mind, West argues that it makes more sense to think of the mode as “Elizabethan or Jacobean: fine language, all the way from articulate frenzy to garish excess.” But though our most esteemed of canonical writers, from Richardson to Austen to Dickens to Hawthorne wrote with such Punic adornment, the mavens of MFA programs and the nabobs of newsrooms have long pushed the ornate out of style. Author Ben Masters explains that, “Embellished prose is treated with suspicion, if not dismissed outright as overwritten, pretentious or self-indulgent.” And not just overwritten, pretentious, and self-indulgent, but in a word, purple.
Purple being an error is not, however, a law of physics, or a mitzvoth of the Hebraic covenant, rather it is a suggestion, and the first thing you must consider about the plain style is that like anything in culture, it has a history and its own biases. That’s the central ideological problem with all such authoritative style guides, that they precisely confuse issues of style with absolute dictate. Journalist Mark Dery astutely observes that “Strunkian style embraces the cultural logic of the Machine Age.” Any good Marxist can tell you that the culture of superstructure is built upon the material considerations of the base, and as the prose of Milton sounds different from that of Samuel Richardson who reads differently from Oscar Wilde who scans alternatively from Ernest Hemingway, so too do all styles reflect something of their own age. The virile, masculine simplicity of contemporary plain style thus evidences nothing so much as the concerns, methods, and goals of neo-liberal capitalism, with 140 characters the ultimate culmination of style guides which advocate for brevity and simplicity over all else. There is a long geneology which takes us from the plain-style of Puritan preachers to Twitter, but viewing that history clear eyed will perhaps remove the aura of infallibility from The Elements of Style and “Politics and the English Language.” As a caveat, I should confess that I believe all those writers to be geniuses; we should be forever grateful to Orwell for 1984, which clichéd references aside remains profound (albeit not always for the reasons its advocates assume), and White’s New Yorker essays are masters of form. My truck is not with their actual writing, my criticism stems from their prescriptions for everyone else. Nevertheless, a historical survey of the plain style’s ascendancy can make problematic its claims to exceptionality, by placing it in a context in which the subjective idiosyncrasies of its development can demonstrate that it’s as artificial as the purplest of prose. Secondly, a meditation on purple prose’s unique powers can exhibit the strength and sublimity of a much maligned style; a mode which in embracing the very idea of artifice demonstrates how all language is artificial, and is thus paradoxically more honest than plain style which makes colonial claims upon the province of Truth.
“Objectivity” is always the costume which any status quo wears, but plain style did not generate sui generis from the void, emerging from the chaos of too many clauses to produce lean, muscular, and tight syntax. If the plain style is associated with the feigned humility of democracy, the efficiency of capitalism, the logic of science, and the iconoclasm of Protestantism, then it’s because the apotheosis of the mode is a direct result of the Reformation, bolstered by all of the results of that event, both positive and negative. Browne wasn’t a Catholic, but he was a via media latitudinarian High Church Anglican, which for many Puritans might as well be the same thing. And his figurative rhetoric and the poetry of his prose mimics more closely the Latinate excesses of the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible than the rightly celebrated King James. Browne’s prose styling is Baroque, for like some olive-skinned Mediterranean he delights in language itself, seeing it not as a necessary means to an end but the end in itself; language not simply conveying meaning but enjoyed on its own terms. By contrast, the partisan of parsimony sees prose as a vehicle for meaning and nothing more, even if their feigned rhetoric-of-no-rhetoric is in reality one of the oldest rhetorical gambits there is. Browne is honest about this artificiality, reminding us that “All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God,” and he glories in that profundity as surely as one would an immaculate Hilliard miniature or a Purcell concerto, writing that we “carry with us the wonders, we seek without us: There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of nature.” Furthermore, it was not a foregone result that that the maximalists and the advocates of the Asiatic would be pushed to the Anglophone periphery, for the greatest sermonizer of the seventeenth-century was Launcelot Andrews (incidentally one of the translators of the KJV, albeit of the High Church contingent) who could gather a poesy of rhetorical flowers with the best of them, and he was joined in his stature with the preaching of John Donne, and the scientific writing of a Robert Burton or a Browne, but by the end of his century the straight lines and the clean surfaces of the Puritan plain style were dominent in homiletics, as logical and rectilinear as a Shaker quilt, and secular English prose has imitated that voice in gratitude ever since. The plain style was thus the ultimate victory of those same idol smashers who stripped altars, threw bricks through monastic stain-glass windows, and burned relics in bonfires of the vanities in front of medieval chapels. The same impulse which takes hammer to the Virgin is that which would have us strike out adjective and adverb in livid red ink.
Nothing as utopian as Dr. Browne’s contention that “Art is the perfection of nature” has marked the mainstream canon of Anglo-American essayists. Rather, writers like White and Orwell have placed “artifice” and “nature” in erroneous conflict, positioning themselves as the stolid defenders of an illusory ethos of saying it like you mean it. This is in marked contrast to the linguistic playfulness of the great essayists in the Latin Catholic tradition, writers like Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and so on, who have no fear of “mannerisms, tricks, adornments.” For the Anglophone world this trepidation about tricks, this miserliness about metalepsis, and this reluctance against rosiness has been to our detriment, avoiding as it were the complexity, the genre ambiguity, and most of all the playfulness of a Borges essay or a Calvino story. As West in his excellent defense of the purple wrote, “A writer who is afraid of mind, which English-speaking writers tend to be, unlike their continental counterparts, is a lion afraid of meat.” Whatever the specifics of the battle across history, at least in Britain and America, Generals Strunk, White, and Orwell authored the contours of our governing accord, the purple rather reserved to rule in Latin America or Italy. When prose is purple in the United States we call it “genre fiction” and rope it off away from Literature, lest the later be contaminated; in Portugal or Brazil or Mexico they call it “magical realism” and they give it prizes, and they’re the better off for it.
And so Strunk, White, and Orwell conceived of a pernicious binary opposition, where purple prose is effeminate, the plain exhibits machismo; where the purple is erudite, decadent, soft, and spoken with a suspicious accent, simple prose is humble, direct, and enunciated with perfect Anglo-Saxon consonants; where the purple is exotic and oriental with the whiff of incense and the feel of oil, the plain style is stiff upper-lipped and English, with no desire for anything that can stain the cushions thankyouverymuch. And where purple prose is as Catholic as a cleric hiding in some priest-hole fingering rosaries, scapular, and a crucifix, plain style is as unadorned and honest as a stalwart Puritan minister.
There is a valorization of meaning and a shunning of artifice, with Orwell’s very designation of condemnation in the word “decadence” signaling what exactly he thinks of all those who use more than two commas per sentence. West explains that for the advocates of simplicity, “Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.” Rather, as I’ve written earlier, the prose Puritans wish style to be lean, tight, and muscular. Is there something sexual in those adjectives? It’s not a mistake. The plain style has always presented itself as robustly masculine as Papa Hemingway (just don’t examine the particulars of that heterosexuality too closely). Purple prose is as flaming as the adjective which describes it, as decadent as Wilde’s scarlet ascot. Mandarin style is complex, affected, showy, bloated, and baroque. Purple is the prose of an H.P. Lovecraft who writes that “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far…up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age,” with its seemingly never-ending pile of words upon words, each abstract and soaked with their over-determination, an Orwell perhaps arguing that such ornamentation serves to obscure truth in that very ignorance of the “black seas of infinity.” Better to write in that lean, muscular, virile, and most of all masculine style of Hemingway, a man of the Keys and the plains and not a Providence dandy like the schlock-writer Lovecraft. Hemingway, who treated adjectives as if they were ungrammatical and in the next quotation has nary a single comma, adhering as close as possible to Cormac McCarthy’s war of attrition against all punctuation as being nothing more than “queer little marks,” could observe “What a business. You go along your whole life and they seem as though they mean something and they always end up not meaning anything.”
Ironically, Hemingway’s passage from Whom the Bell Tolls is an apt diagnosis of the pitfalls of the plain style. Not its occasional aesthetic excellence (which in the hands of a master like Hemingway is unassailable), but rather the epistemological and ethical claims of its most vociferous advocates in the form of Strunk, White, and Orwell. That is to say that if the ideological crux of all defenses of the plain over the purple disingenuously claim that concision and clearness are paths to truth, then like Robert Jordan you will ultimately realize that such prose can also “end up not meaning anything.” To paraphrase both West and Obioma, sometimes it’s not that less is more, but rather that less is actually less. Plain style doesn’t necessarily serve truth, but rather Mammon, emphasizing those stalwart capitalist principles of efficiency, budgeting, and austerity. Dery explains that “Strunk’s is a prose for an age of standardized widgets and standardized workers,” but let us not be standard, and let us not be workers. Let us rather be lovers, and take pleasure in that which we’ve produced. For as revolution is an act of love, so too does purple prose stand in opposition to the formulations of style which support the status quo.
The purple is not just a style for those who would be labeled by our Anglo-Saxons rulers as being mere inhabitants of sundry lands, but rather one with a venerable tradition within English as well, one that can be mined for inspiration in our contemporary moment. Browne’s prose, as with that of the other great masters of a seventeenth-century style including Burton, Andrews, and Donne, rambled on in grand branching rhizomes of multifarious meaning, adverbs tumbling upon adverbs, and adjectives plucking upon adjectives, a tumult of clauses, commas, and semicolons. Certainly the twentieth-century has its share of verbose authors, its William Faulkners, and David Foster Wallaces, and Vladimir Nabokovs, and James Joyces, and Woolfs (in sheep’s clothing and otherwise). But the standard which is taught in classrooms and emphasized in newsrooms is austere minimalism, exemplified by Orwell’s advice in 1946’s “Politics and the English Language” that one should “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” a tall order if directed toward Browne, who after all titled his perhaps greatest piece with the cumbersome, Latinate tongue-twister Hydrotaphia. Orwell continues by telling the dutiful student to, if possible, “always cut [an extra word] out” and to never “use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Orwell doesn’t mention his countrymen Browne in that essay, though he does celebrate the English of Browne’s near contemporaries, the team of translators behind the admittedly immaculate King James Version of the Bible. But when Orwell writes that the “inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details” one would be forgiven for going to Browne as a representative example, though one should also be further forgiven for wondering what Orwell’s problem is with fresh snow?
For the advocate of contemporary plain style, the convoluted sentences of a Browne and those in his stead serve to confuse or obscure some actual truth, where the mandarin rather delights in the sensuous and sonorous qualities of language to the detriment of fact. Strunk’s The Elements of Style, now celebrating its centenary (though fully revised and published by his student White in 1935), argues that “Vigorous writing is concise.” Labeled as “Rule 17,” as if this claim were a sacrosanct law chiseled by fire onto stone tablets at Sinai, Strunk and White argue that an author must “Omit needless words.” They needlessly continue by claiming that a “sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts,” though of course whither the sketches of Durer and the lamps of Tiffany? But I digress. By comparison, a representative sentence of Dr. Browne’s reads as follows: “I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of a horse. It is my temper, & I like it the better, to affect all harmony, and sure there is music even in the beauty, and the silent note which Cupid strikes, far sweeter than the sound of an instrument. For there is a music wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres.” For Browne’s sake, he better have hoped that that drawing of a horse didn’t contain too many lines! Because from the perspective of a Strunk, or a White, or an Orwell, or any of the other authors of style guides that have ruled ascendant like Pharaoh over the hearts and minds of contemporary writers, Browne’s sentence certainly contained too many words. Strunk and White, consigning not just Browne, but Dickens, Elliot, and Melville to the deleted files bin, write that the immature author sees style as a “garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable.” But sometimes sauce is delicious, who wishes to eat spaghetti with no gravy? Only an Englishmen would think that a meal of butter and egg noodles was in anyway adequate. Strunk and White write that one should turn “resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style — all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” They denigrate rhetorical figures, all while composing the previous quote with two instances of that classic trope of asyndeton (or did they think that I wouldn’t notice those deleted conjunctions?). But those conceits, those figures which are sometimes called the “flowers of rhetoric,” are the very substance of constructed beauty. Who wishes to visit a greenhouse devoid of plants? When it comes to prose, better to let a million flowers bloom.
In rejecting mannerisms, tricks, and adornments, those guides ironically trick their readers, for no such rejection of adornment necessarily implies sincerity. That’s always been the first of the great mendacities of the partisans of parsimony – that simplicity and honesty are equivalent. Better to distrust the rhetorical Greek bearing rhetorical horses of simple craft. Their construction is all straight line and simple joist, with no decoration to be seen, pretending that such carpentry is any less constructed than a rococo chair. Orwell wrote “the decadence of our language is probably curable,” which presumes that decadence is a disease in need of pharmaceutical, supplied by the author of the style guide of course. The second of their deceits is White and Strunk’s contention that complex writing is “to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better,” but who doesn’t yearn for such an invitation, and why would one reject the generosity of the writer who offered one to you? Strunk, White, and Orwell came to demolish the baroque style, and that will simply not do. For as Masters writes, “The novelists I find myself attracted to are those who cannot resist the extra adjective, the additional image, the scale-tipping clause. It feels necessary to assert and celebrate this, for we are living in puritanical times.” Yes, give me Hemingway, but give me Arundhati Roy too; read White, but do not ignore Kiran Desai; celebrate Strunk, but do not neglect Orhan Pamuk. Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma argues that “The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration,” and this obsession with the plain style has wrought too many identical sentences, too many short and prosaic lines, too many nickel-words when what is called for are phrases purchased with quarters, half-dollars, ten dollar bills. Obioma continues with the unassailable claim that it is not the plain style in and of itself which must be attacked, but rather “it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy.” For all prose could be translated easily into plain style, better to simply impart narrative or meaning without the decoration, lest we be accused of being verbose, decadent, and baroque, so that Browne’s reverie which holds that “man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of Bravery, in the infamy of his nature. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us” would better be translated as “People are alright.”
The argument that the plain style is the best vehicle for conveying the truth, and that decorative language is wasteful, is not only unsubstantiated in its particulars, it assumes that the primary function of language must be the conveyance of truth and not the celebration of language itself. Purple luxuriates in the pleasures of language, that which separates man from beast, giving it its due diligence, and which is perhaps best explored with the introduction of a certain counter-style guide which acts as a manifesto in its advocacy against all modernist upstarts who’d rather have us eliminate the space and comma bar in favor of only the delete key. Writing can’t approach the thing-in-itself, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. But what it can do is gild the lily and let us enjoy the natures of our own creation a bit. Not only Strunk, White, Orwell, but also their inheritors who penned less famous composition handbooks, as well as their adherents in the classroom (ironically including myself in dozens of classes that I’ve taught) present the plain style as evidently correct. Simple is always better and one must slash, burn, and “kill your darlings” as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of editing and revision. The disingenuousness of such staked objectivity was aptly critiqued by Theodore Adorno, who was himself never shy about being obscure, allusive, or ornate, and as a result was one of the most cognoscente critics of the Kulturkamp, minimalists who rule behind their stylistic penal codes. In his 1956 “Punctuation Marks,” he reminds us that “lucidity, objectivity, and precision” are simply their own constructed ideologies under the mask of impartiality, and that as regards their helpfully enumerated lists, “writers cannot trust in the rules, which are often rigid and crude.” Though the stylistic iconoclasts would have wanted nothing less than to circle and eliminate superfluous words and phrases as surely as some emissary working in the Ministry of Truth, I come not to bury Hemingway, nor to abolish the plain style. I would no sooner throw out the pristine simplicities of the King James Bible, the elegant classicism of The Declaration of Independence, or the sublime minimalism of John Cheever than I would denounce my beloved maximalisms either. But what I do come to denounce is the philistinism of injunctions from Strunk and White like “Avoid fancy words” (rule 14) or “Prefer the standard to the offbeat” (rule 21) and bourgeoisie sentiments of that colonial son Orwell when he wrote “Never use a foreign phrase,” as grotesque a bit of Anglophilic xenophobia as I’ve ever read (oh, I’m sorry, I mean “English-love other-hate”).
Dery calls this predisposition against the complicated which I’ve just parodied exactly what it is – another form of naked ideology. He writes that “the Anglo-American article of faith that clarity can only be achieved through words of one syllable and sentences fit for a telegram is pure dogma. The Elements of Style is as ideological, in its bow-tied, wire-rimmed way, as any manifesto.” Well then, not to supplant those previous manifestos (as they’d supplant me), I rather offer a counter-manifesto, a new style-guide for those who’d choose the gnomic over the obvious, the esoteric over the mundane, the allegorical over the literal. And, as the scaffold on which I shall build this edifice, I shamelessly borrow from and subvert Henry and Francis Fowler’s 1906 The King’s English (as indeed Orwell did as well, though just as easily as he could name names of his comrades to the Foreign Office he apparently couldn’t as easily properly attribute something).
My rules are as follows:
Prefer the far-fetched word to the familiar, luxuriate in the whiff of exotic nomenclature, feel the tactile sensations of their multisyllabic over-determination, choose words not just for what they mean but for how they sound. Raid dictionaries and distant archaisms for novel words, ones you don’t see in Madison Avenue ads, or on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, or WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS ON THE INTERNET!!!! Choose the unusual word, the idiosyncratic word, the strange word, the unique word. Language does not just facilitate reading, rather language is the warm Caribbean water in which we may draw that most primitive pleasure of ecstasy, which as Obioma reminds us “can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence.”
Prefer not the short word for its brevity, but rather choose the appropriate word. Remember that every word with its etymology, its history both spoken and hidden, its network of correspondences both seen and unseen, its branching central nervous system of dendritic connection to the rest of language, is the very empire of connotation. There are no synonyms, and the short word does not always express what it is that you mean to express. Flatten not language in the interests of mere word count. Recall West who writes: “It says life is infinitely more complex and magical than we will ever know unless we stop trying to pin down feeling in pat little formulas or sentences so understated as to be vacant, their only defense the lamebrain cop-out that, because they say so little, they imply volumes.”
Decide whether it is appropriate or not to cut a word out; sometimes an author must pile on words because mere meaning can’t be conveyed in the literalism of letters but must also be imparted with the rhythm, meter, music, and poetry of clauses, fragments, run-ons and continental-sized sentences. Sometimes repetition is required, for all melodies are conveyed in repetition, and more importantly, meanings as well. Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself. The lesson is large, it contains multitudes. Kill not your darlings, but only your enemies – the crux is being able to distinguish the two. Masters explains: “Above all else, language should be generous and liberating, and these writers remind us of the pure pleasure to be found in the free play and musicality of words. Their sentences sing rather than grumble or shout, and we are all the richer for them.”
Fear not the passive, for sometimes we lack agency and it is only honest to admit such. Do not have the sentiment of the disciplinary colonist who would mark in red the literature of science, or medicine, or technology when it eschews the active simply because English majors have declared that voice to be anemic. Be not a linguistic prescriptivist, acknowledge that all things in language (even the ungrammatical) have evolved, for they are useful to some purpose of expression somewhere, and that the passive is no different.
Reject the Trumps of style, fear not the foreign, the scientific, or the jargon. Adorno informs us that it “avails nothing aesthetically to avoid all technical expressions, all allusions to spheres of culture….The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech.” Jargon and scientific terms have developed for the same reason that anything has – their evolution accomplishes something that previously couldn’t be accomplished. Arguing against jargon should be a faux pas, like saying we should cut our legs off because the viewer happens to find them visually unpleasing (never mind that in both cases it’s now impossible to get around). An even richer vein than jargon, however, is the foreign word, where one can find le mot juste. By vice of English’s colonial past, we speak one of the most hybridized tongues on earth, an endlessly regenerative dialect for whom that quality is perhaps that which is most recommendable. Mish-mash of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Welsh, Frisian, Norman French, Scotts, Wolof, Igbo, Algonquin, Spanish, Hindi, and God-knows-what-else, English is built from concrete supplied by other languages. The modus operandi of style guides which would have you ignore this in favor of the “purely Anglo-Saxon” conjure not just an obviously racist understanding of language, but an impossible one as well (for which Anglo-Saxon? The Angle, the Saxon, the Frisian, or the Jute?). In the nineteenth-century, some plain-style aficionados not in keeping with the linguistic zeitgeist of that era planned to replace all Greek and Latinate words with Tolkienesque Anglo-Saxonisms, where you’d be reading this in a “word-hoard” rather than a “library.” I plainly reject that as so much kitsch. But as a mea culpa, where much of our past linguistic loanwords were acquired through imperialism, slavery, invasion, and the exploitation of immigrants, our new acquiring of words must be generous, loving, and reciprocal. We must chart dictionaries as benevolent explorers, thesauruses as reverse-missionaries, discovering the language that we currently don’t have but which we desperately need. For all of us luftmenschs out there, let us borrow words like Yaghan’s melancholic mamihlapinatapai, Inuit’s anxious iktsuarpok, Thai’s empathetic Greng-jai, Tagalog’s adorable gigil, Ulwa’s spooky yuputka, or Arabic’s heartbreaking ya’arburnee. Linguistic communication is but the smallest portion of language, and every subtlety, nuance, and degree in temperature for human experience could have a word which divides and categorizes that emotion in ever finer grades, ever more specific definitions. Why limit ourselves to Anglo-Saxon only? For that matter, why not invent our own Adamic nomenclature, as John Koenig has at The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, from Sonder (“the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”) to monachopsis (“the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place”).
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I’ve ridden Orwell pretty hard in this essay, but when he writes that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” he is unequivocally accurate. We’ve no need for that contention that language doesn’t shape the minds of humans, for words are not just our medium but the very substance of our identity itself. It’s not just turtles all the way down, it’s definitions too. And Orwell is correct that the words we choose and the permutations and combinations of those words are the theurgy which animate our very lives. The linguist Edward Sapir wrote that “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached;” that being our reality, why would we ever limit ourselves to not just our own house, but indeed only the foyer of our own house? Sometimes the reality on the ground calls for that simple, clear, lean language, and in those circumstances taking a scalpel to the fat of prose might be necessary, so that we may more obviously see the outlines of the beast’s skeleton. But sometimes, in an unadorned world, in a plain world, in an ugly world, what is called for is the construction of beautiful castles in the sky. The result of the less is more dicta, of the style guides, of the fetishizing of the plain style is nothing less than uniformity of thought, conformity of behavior, and confinement of the spirit. If at its best it gives us Hemingway, than good; but at its worst it gives us writers who all sound identical, a mass of literature that reads as if it were written by the same straight, white, male person.
West writes that “purple prose reminds us of things we do ill to forget” including “the arbitrary, derivative and fictional nature of language… its sheer mystery… its affinities with pleasure and luxury; its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye – the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes – with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable.” For West, the purple serves the purpose of not just informing, but also of making the “world written up,” were our mundane existence is “intensified and made pleasurably palpable,” so that we may “suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation,” and become partners in God uttering that first Bereshit in the formless void, that we may also “add to it by showing” as if we were the archangels. When Orwell writes that “Good prose is like a windowpane,” he’s not wrong, but he’s not giving the full account and he’s not right in exactly the way that he thinks he is. All writing is like a window. Both good and bad writing, purple and plain, are varieties of windows, for all language is not the thing we’re looking at itself, but rather that which we use to look out onto and examine the thing itself. Crucial that his simile compares the simple style to a window, for a window is still an artifice, a construction of humans made of wood and nails and set into a house. And a simple window, it should be said, can be a useful thing. One can more clearly see the approach of storm clouds, or the arrival of a missed friend. What is disingenuous is to pretend that the simple window isn’t sometime itself warped, or mussy with a bit of dirt, or a tint which alters the color of sunlight which streams in. The risk, the fallacy, is in assuming that the simple window only ever and always ever gives you the unvarnished accurate portrait of whatever field it is that you look out onto.
Sometimes our souls call out for not a pane of glass, but for a mosaic of painted ones. Sometimes we want a stain-glass window, a rose window. We desire a register of red, we have a yearning for yellow and for a panoply of purple. Plain windows have their function, but throw not a brick through stain-glass, for reverence and the sacred are emotions that can’t be easily edited or revised. Do not fear embroidery, or decoration, or ornamentation. Embrace allusion, and if content should escape you, find a goddamn encyclopedia! Embrace connotation, for true synonyms are like absolute zero, an abstraction with no reality! And most of all let the dreamy filament of language’s lush rhythms and resonances thrum in the stony cavern of your skull! Let us trade in the ascetic for the excessive, the arid for the lush, the parched for the quenched, and the straight line for the curved. Where plain style is reactionary, purple can be radical; where simplicity is capitalism incarnate, complexity can be anarchic celebration; where with all of the sociopathic bravado of toxic masculinity we are told to “kill our darlings,” we must rather let a thousand mauve flowers bloom – we must let the purple reign! Simple prose can be for the expression of things, but let the purple be for their very invention. Where the plain-style is for work, let us affirm that the mandarin is for play. Let us pray in the simple, white clapboard Puritan church, for sure; but let us have no fear in supplicating before the altar of a gothic cathedral either.
Image by Paul Bica.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.