Here to return to
THE GRACE OF OBSCURITY
CLEARNESS, directness, ease, precision, — these are literary virtues of a homely and primary sort. Reserve, urbanity, depth, force, suggestiveness, — these, too, are virtues, and happy the writer who has them. He is master of his art.
No good workman likes to be praised overmuch for the elementary qualities. Let some things be taken for granted, or touched upon lightly. Tell a schoolboy that he writes grammatically, — if you can, — but not the editor of a newspaper. Almost as well confide to your banker that you hold him for something better than a thief. “Simplicity be cursed!” a sensitive writer used to exclaim, as book after book elicited the same good-natured verdict. “They mean that I am simple, easily seen through. Henceforth I will be muddy, seeing it is beyond me to be deep.” But nature is inexorable, and with the next book it was the same story. Probably there is not a line of his work over which any two readers ever disputed as to its meaning. In vain shall such a man dream of immortality. Great books, books to which readers return, books that win vogue and maintain it, books for the study of which societies are organized and about which libraries accumulate, must be of a less flimsy texture, — in his own testy phrase, less “easily seen through.”
Consider the great classics of all races, the Bibles of the world. Not one but abounds in dark sayings. What another book the Hebrew Scriptures would be if the same text could never be interpreted in more than one way, if some texts could ever be interpreted at all! How much less matter for preaching! How much less motive for exegetical research! And withal, how much less appeal to the deepest of human instincts, the passion for the vague, the far away, and the mysterious!
All religious teachers, in so far as they are competent and sincere, address themselves to this instinct. The worthier they are of their calling, the better do they appreciate the value of paradox and parable.
The greatest of them made open profession of his purpose to speak over the heads of his hearers; and his followers are still true to his example in that particular, however they may have improved upon it in other respects. They no longer encourage evil by turning the other cheek to the smiter; not many of them foster indolence by selling all that they have and giving to the poor; but without exception they speak things hard to be understood. Therein, in part at least, lies their power; for mankind craves a religion, a revelation of the unseen and the unprovable, and is not to be put off with simple morality, with such commonplace and worldly things as honesty, industry, purity, and brotherly love. No church ever waxed great by the inculcation of these humble, earthly, every-day virtues.
In literature, the value of half-lights is recognized, consciously or not, by all who dabble in foreign tongues. Indeed, so far, at least, as amateurs are concerned, it is one of the chief encouragements to linguistic studies, the heightened pleasure of reading in a language but half understood.
The imagination is put freshly in play, and time-worn thoughts and too familiar sentiments are again almost as good as new. Doudan, writing to a friend in trouble, drops suddenly into English, with a sentence or two about the universality of misfortune. “Commonplaces regain their truth in a strange language,” he explains; “if we complain of ordinary evils, we ought to do it in Latin.” The hint is worth taking. So long as we have something novel and important to communicate, we may choose the simplest words. “Clearness is the ornament of profound thoughts,” says Vauvenargues; but we need not go quite so far as the same philosopher when he bids us reject all thoughts that are “too feeble to bear a simple expression.” That would be to reduce the literary product unduly. Joubert is a more comforting adviser. “Banish from words all uncertainty of meaning,” he says, “and you have made an end of poetry and eloquence.” “It is a great art,” he adds, “the art of being agreeably ambiguous.”
Such tributes to the vague are the more significant as coming from Frenchmen, who, of all people, may be said to worship lucidity. Let us add, then, the testimony of one of the younger French writers, a man of our own day. “Humanity hardly attaches itself with passion to any works of poetry and art,” says M. Anatole France, “unless some parts of them are obscure and susceptible of diverse interpretations.” And in another place in the same volume (“Le Jardin d’Épicure”) we come upon this fine saying: “What life has of the best is the idea it gives us of an unknown something which is not in it.” How true that is of literature, also! The best thing we derive from a book is something that the author never quite succeeded in putting into it. What good reader (and without good reading there is no good writing) has not found a glimpse, a momentary brightness as of something infinitely far off, more exciting and memorable than whole pages of crystalline description?
Vagueness like this is one of the noblest gifts of a writer. Artifice cannot compass it. If a man would have it, let him pray for a soul, and refresh himself continually with dreams and high imaginings. Then if, in addition, he have genius, knowledge, and literary tact, there may be hope for him. But even then the page must find the reader.
Of vagueness of a lower order there is always plenty; some of it a matter of individual temperament, some of it a matter of art, and some a matter of a want of art. It is not to be despised, perhaps, since it has utility and a marketable value. It results in the formation of clubs, and so is promotive of social intercourse. It makes it worth men’s while to read the same book twice, or even thrice, and so is of use in relieving the tedium of the world. It renders unspeakable service to worthy people who would fain have a fine taste in literature, but for whom, as yet, it is more absorbing to guess riddles than to read poems; and it is almost as good as a corruption of the text to the favored few who have an eye for invisible meanings, — men like the famous French philosopher who discovered extraordinary beauty in certain profundities of Pascal, which turned out to be errors of a copyist.
This inferior kind of obscurity, like most things of a secondary rank, is open to cultivation, although the greater number of those who profit by such husbandry are slow to acknowledge the obligation. A bright exception is found in Thoreau. He was one who believed in telling the truth. “I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity,” he writes. But he was too modest by half. He did attain to it, and in both kinds: sometimes in willful paradox and exaggeration, a sort of “Come, now, good reader, no falling asleep!” and sometimes, but less often, — for such visitations are rare with the best of men, — in some quick, unstudied phrase that opens, as it were, an unsuspected door within us, and makes us forget for the time being both the author and his book.
Perhaps it would be true to say that when men are most inspired, their speech becomes most like Nature’s own, — inarticulate, and so capable of expressing things inexpressible. What book, what line of verse, ever evoked those unutterable feelings — feelings beyond even the thought of utterance — that are wakened in us now and then, in divinely favorable moments, by the plash of waters or the sighing of winds? When an author does aught of this kind for us, we must love and praise him, let his shortcomings be what they will. If a man is great enough in himself, or serviceable enough to us, we need not insist upon all the minor perfections.
For the rest, these things remain true: language is the work of the people, and belongs to the people, however lexicographers and grammarians may codify, and possibly, in rare instances, improve it. Commonplaces are the staple of literature. The great books appeal to men as men, not as scholars. A fog is not a cloud, though a man with his feet in the mud may hug himself and say, “Look, how I soar!” Preciosity is good for those that like it; they have their reward; but to set up a conventicle, with passwords and a private creed, is not to found a religion. In the long run, nothing is supremely beautiful but genuine simplicity, which may be a perfection of nature or the perfection of art; and the only obscurity that suits with it and sets it off is occasional, unexpected, momentary, — a sudden excess of light that flashes and is gone, surprising the writer first, and afterward the reader.