Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Concision

Concreteness, compactness, concision--put it any way you like--is something that good writing is based on. Or you may call it, as Jacques Barzun did in the title and content of an important book, “Simple and Direct,” which comes pretty much to the same thing. I myself have always been astonished at an overstuffed sentence and inscrutable paragraph, wondering about how many respectable authors can lack clarity and require poring over a certain piece of their writing, sometimes in vain..

There are of course subjects that are beyond the comprehension of the general reader (though not as many as one might think), but I am concerned with matters that could be made perfectly clear, but egregiously aren’t.

To be sure, there have been great writers to whom long and complicated sentences came naturally—one thinks of Proust and Henry James, for example—and who could get away with it. Yet that is mostly in fiction, whereas I am thinking chiefly of exposition.

But not exclusively.  Even in verse, for instance, how powerful through its brevity is William Norman Ewer’s poem running thus in its entirety: “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/The Jews.” I am, of course, not advocating that all poems should be four lines of monometer, but merely instancing a salient example of what concision can do.

Everyone concedes that concision is mandatory in the witty retort. Famously, when the Earl of Sandwich said to John Wilkes, “’Pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That must depend, my Lord, upon whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” This could be even more compact without the “must” or the plural “mistresses,” but much depends precisely on a mere two extra syllables to make the answer that much stronger.

 That kind of economy--mandatory in the retort, aphorism or epigram--can be just as effective in various kinds of writing. While we are at it, isn’t it interesting that under he entry “Concision,” the Heritage Dictionary offers a bit from, of all people, Henry James: “the quick, direct discrimination of this eye, which explains the vivid concision of his descriptions.”

Even the fact that we have such synonyms or near-synonyms as concise, terse, pregnant, testifies to the importance of the matter. Here let me recall the most famous historic instance of concision, Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vinci,” which echoes down the centuries undiminished in stature. And it behooves us to remember that Caesar was, among other things, quite a writer. By the way, in that verbal triangulation, while “I came” and “I conquered” are potent enough, it is the “I saw” that is the most unexpected, most striking, and most suggestive of all.

The next most famous piece of historic concision is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, whose terseness stood out even more powerfully coming after Everett’s lengthy oration. Granted, concision is not easy. Recall Woodrow Wilson’s “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

The opposite of “concise” is, of course, “verbose,” and we know, or ought to know, how insulting that is when judiciously applied. It was of David Copperield that Robert Graves pointed out that, just by cutting every “little,” it could be made, I forget exactly how many pages shorter. That was a reflection mostly on Dickens’s sentimentality, but, indirectly, also on his wordiness. And for lack of concision in speech, we have terms like garrulity, loquacity, talkativeness and, if you look up the last-named in the dictionary, a bunch of other synonyms. Needless to say, what is offensive in speech is just as culpable in writing, probably even more so.

Admittedly, there are some specious excuses, such as your writing being paid by the word inducing you to become wordier. But that is surely a shabby excuse, even granting that in our culture, or lack thereof, writing can be shamelessly underpaid. The sound of one’s own voice, whether in talk or in writing, makes for a poor love object, as even unsophisticated hearers or readers will readily concede. Absolved only is dramatic effect, as when in “King Lear” the word “kill” or the word “never” is repeated several times; extreme rage and extreme grief are accorded the privilege of such iteration, on the stage as in life.

In any case, repetition is not the same as prolixity. The former will make you boring, but it is the latter that makes you inept. There are further possible reasons for verbosity. Greed, flattery, evasiveness, mendacity and other undesirables come to mind. To return to “King Lear,” it is the unloving daughters that are wordmongers; the loving daughter is wonderfully concise.

 I forget who it was that summarized the play as “a man has three daughters, which proves sufficient to drive him insane.” That kind of concisions—except when, as here, as a joke—is manifestly undesirable. And for comic purposes, verbosity can be immensely effective. Think of Polonius or, better yet, of Cyrano in the monologue of the nose. Conversely, though, there is the line in a play that—quite undeservedly—always gets a laugh. It is when, after some long, rambling speech by one character, another replies with “No shit?” Although the terseness there is reinforced by scatology, I consider it no laughing matter.

But there is also love. Lovers are traditionally allowed, or even expected, to give vent to their emotions in a flow, even torrent, of impassioned words. Here eloquence, rhetoric, hyperbole, and all kinds of high-flown comparisons tend to be pardoned, whether in writing, utterance, or artful susurration. All this, however, only for the beloved person’s eye or ear; everyone else’s stomach might be justified in turning.

But I must stop before readers of this blog post accuse me of lack if concision.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why Religion?

What is religion really about, and do we truly need it? An atheist wonders and asks these fundamental questions.

Obviously, a thinking person has to wonder why the universe exists, and, concomitantly, why does mankind? Also, why here on earth and, apparently, nowhere else? Which, of course, raises the consequent question: Is there a God? That may be where questioning must begin.

First of all, why should there be monotheism rather than polytheism, which satisfied humanity for so many centuries? And why has religion taken, as it still does, so many different, contradictory forms? And why has this diversity begotten so many atrocities, from the Inquisition to suicide bombing, from wars to more wars?

Furthermore, why does the Judeo-Christian Bible (there are others) state that God created Man in his image, which, among other consequences, has given rise to much laughter among the many who have sneered at the representation of God as a fatherly, white-bearded gentleman seated on a throne and exuding either severity or benevolence. Yet this would be the image in which we are created.

I have tended to concentrate my astonishment, for need of focus, on T. S. Eliot, a man of talent and intelligence, perhaps even genius, who went from making fun of the Church to becoming a good Anglican, ostensibly believing in such things as heaven and hell.

Now, heaven and hell may have had some credibility before astronomy and geology, not to mention space travel, became what they now are. Search the heavens, as we now can, for a place called Paradise; the earth, for a place called Hell. Nothing bib- lical anywhere.

Nietzsche and his likes came up with the idea that God was dead. Where then is his grave? On the highly questionable notion that the Almighty could die, some trace of his tomb must exist somewhere. But where?

I know well enough what religious belief is for. We all want to belong to a community, or fraternity, or club, to counteract isolation, loneliness, dejection. That is what, undeservedly, makes a Church so attractive. Yet just because I pray and sing hymns with a bunch of others, are they really my kin? Do they give a rap about me and I about them? Anyway, how much do we really share with Muslims, Buddhists and so many diverse religions differing from ours? And does either sharing or not sharing make us right?

Clearly, religion has its uses. Chiefly because without it, humans would be even less well-behaved, law-abiding. governable; have less of a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and lack a moral directive. But then why does so much evil exist nonetheless, how could a civilized nation have perpetrated the Holocaust, and how can to this day so many deny that it ever existed? Persons who are not manifest idiots.

To be sure, there is all that stuff about free will with which God allegedly endowed us. But how free is free? Free to declare something white black or vice versa? Free to dispute that one plus one make two? To believe in the resurrection of the body after it has been cremated or rotted underground? Has there not always been a great contradiction between going to heaven upon death or not until Judgment Day?

That clever cuss, Tertullian, came up with the notion of faith as belief in the unprovable, of “credo quia absurdum,” which is why it is called faith, because it takes absurd things to be true—on faith. Nice enough, but that means that we can throw logic out the window, doesn’t it?

Granted religion, especially Roman Catholicism, is a kind of free spectacle for the poor, who cannot afford the real theater. Well, if it is really that sort of art for art’s sake, how can it have anything to do with God?

Still and all, why does the world exist? Why do we exist? How can we have developed so much knowledge and knowhow, so much philosophy and science? How come there are no motorcars on Mars?

There is no incontrovertible explanation for these things, despite the many millennia of time to come up with indisputable answers, which would seem like an argument for agnosticism rather than atheism. That, however, means ignorance about basic matters, and is ignorance really bliss? The very least God could have done for us is instill in us belief in his existence. Yet just to think of the multitude who still capitalize the noun and pronoun pertaining to him. How absurd!

Let me cite one significant example. A man as smart as William Buckley responded to my letter of condolence at the decease of his wife with the declaration that he could not go on living without his belief in an otherworldly reunion with her. This from a highly educated, extremely intellectual human being! Was one to pity him? Envy him? Ignore him?

What can certainly be said for religion is that it has inspired some very great music, painting, sculpture, and literature. That is, even if not necessarily voluntary, a huge gift bestowed on us. But are we to carry gratitude to the point of irrationality? Or do you really believe that God sees the sins—even the tiniest peccadilloes—of billions of human beings and lets them get away with it? Out of the candy box with your hand, Sonny, when it isn’t even your box and can do such harm to your health. To say nothing about your ineligibility for salvation.