Visitants, my slim volume of essays and short stories is selling like hot cakes – indeed, like Titanic cup cakes. Okay, i sold two and emailed a copy to the Viking but by my standards that really is a lot. The Viking, being the Viking, just read the Tolkien essay then destroyed the entire book in a fit of Christian rage, however he emailed me to say he’d enjoyed it.
Until fairly recently i’ve only had one friend whose range of reading equals or surpasses my own; this is not a boast, it’s rather that my friends are mainly uninterested in books. None of them are stupid but they only read occasionally, and then within a very narrow field – so the Viking only reads comics, Fantasy, and sci-fi, another friend is satisfied by history books and Terry Pratchett, another only has time for student essays and articles about Milton; another only reads books about how to kill people; and so on. Academics in general usually know almost nothing outside of their field – and their reading is seldom for pleasure; on the whole i’d rather talk with the Viking about some second-rate Fantasy doorstop than discuss Dante or Kierkegaard with an academic. The Viking at least only reads things because he wants to.
This has had its influence on the way i write, and speak. If i want to put something into words, to talk it over with my friends, it has to be comprehensible to someone who is intelligent but largely unread. The Viking knows a lot about inorganic chemistry, pain, Fantasy and Science-Fiction books, and disturbing comics, and he has made occasional and violent forays into authors such as Chesterton, but there would be no point using fancy words or blabbering about Deleuze or Hegel. And so i have developed the habit of writing, speaking, and thinking, as simply as possible.
Outside of the sciences, i feel that most things can be expressed clearly, using ordinary words, with ordinary grammar, so that an ordinarily intelligent person can understand them, with perhaps a little effort. The depths may be beyond the casual reader, but even such a reader should be able to read and enjoy, and understand enough to repay his time. For example, when i read George Steiner’s Language and Silence in 2000, most of his subjects (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Celan, Wittgenstein) were largely or wholly unknown to me, but i still read with attention and pleasure, and profit. And Steiner cannot be accused of demotic writing; but he is still transparent to an intelligent reader – difficult and demanding, but perfectly transparent. There is no justification for murk.
i think, however, i understand some of the shameful motives behind typically atrocious academic prose like this:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
(Judith Butler, winner of The Bad Writing Contest and apparently “one of the ten smartest people on the planet”).
The deliberate corruption of language within the Humanities, by time-serving non-entities such as Butler, apple polishers and false prophets and syphilitic hypocrites, is symptomatic of a wider corruption within the West. However, i think one cause of Butlerian “prose” is mass literacy – if everyone can read, then the priesthood need something special, to distinguish them from the tabloid-reading rabble. Scientists have their own almost impenetrable jargon, so why shouldn’t we? Otherwise, how would the masses, as represented by the students, know that their professors are wise? If the professors no longer wear gowns then they must instead wear a gown of impenetrable language (which, being designed to repel and perplex, is really a mockery of language, an anti-language) – like Dante’s hypocrites, in their metal cloaks:
Là giù trovammo una gente dipinta
che giva intorno assai con lenti passi,
piangendo a nel sembiante stanca e vinta.
Elli avean cappe con cappucci bassi
dinanzi alli occhi, fatte della taglia
che in Clugnì per li monaci fassi.
Di fuor dorate son, sì ch’elli abbaglia;
ma dentro tutte piombo, e gravi tanto,
che Federigo le mettea di paglia.
Oh in etterno faticoso manto!
There below we found a painted people who were going round with very slow steps, weeping and looking weary and overcome. They had cloaks with cowls down over their eyes, of the cut that is made for the monks of Cluny, so gilded outside that they were dazzling, but within all lead and so heavy that those Frederick imposed were of straw. O toilsome mantle for eternity!
(Inferno, XXIII, 58 – 67, tr. John Sinclair)
Frederick II was said to have punished traitors by wrapping them in lead cloaks, which were then melted. It would be a fitting punishment for Literary Theorists, who have betrayed all that universities once stood for, who have assisted in the corruption of language and the destruction of education.
However, i partly sympathise with the priestly motive – to distance oneself from the laity. Reading blogs, i am often struck by the idiocy of many commentators, for example on Peter Hitchens’ blog, or this Swineshead person here. Hitchens seems to waste 95% of his energy responding to comments like “so you say we should vote for Labour!”, wearily explaining why he doesn’t actually mean that, for the 10,000th time, to someone who probably won’t even read his reply, or at best skim-read it in a state of salivating rage.
For my first few blogging years i would respond to most comments; i felt that, if i left an attack unanswered, people would assume i had no defence. Later, i realised that most attacks were, intellectually, on the level of playground insults and there was no point trying to debate the matter. i wasted many words arguing with white people who told me i was a racist, reactionary idiot and crypto-Nazi because i wrote a post about standing at a bus stop in Manchester, hearing conversations in (i think) Arabic, Polish, and Urdu, but not a single word in English. i carefully explained that i wasn’t criticising the people at the bus stop, that i simply felt it was a bit weird to no longer hear my native language spoken on the streets of my country – but everything i wrote triggered The Red Mist, and i was twice accused of dallying with Nazism, by white people (i am half Indian). They would not meet me honestly, would not actually engage with my arguments – instead, they threw off-the-peg insults, working themselves up into a slavering, righteous fury. These were people with good jobs and no doubt a good education, who were widely read (one is a journalist) – but they were incapable of logical debate. They were, really, fucking idiots.
This is the problem with words – everyone uses them, so most people abuse them. The internet is full of people who have a superficial intelligence, and so feel empowered to weigh in with their half-assed opinions. My instinct is to go into words, to enter into an argument as honestly as i can; however, since most people emit words as cows emit methane, casually and without thought or intention, i may as well be talking to myself – or, better, just disable comments. i’ve had a couple of (nice) emails from readers recently, bemoaning the disabled comments; but it’s better this way – i lack the patience for other people’s folly, and i will not retreat into a hermetic obscurity, the gilded cloak that is all lead inside – a heavy mantle for eternity. If i am to write clearly, to be open to all, i must also defend myself. Ideally, i would – like the temple prostitutes back in the day – be open to the public without discrimination; but no one is perfect, and so imperfectly i remain, on offer but beyond touch.