How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.

Just now came back across this on my personal, mostly non-academic blog from a couple of years ago. It’s about stylized writing in general (aka, the dreaded purple prose), and definitely seems in line with some of the aesthetic concerns some have when it comes to the use of theory-speak, clarity, etc. Thought I’d re-post.

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Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language  that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . . .

I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; 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. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.

– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple Prose

As I’ve fully immersed myself back into the processes of writing, Paul West’s essay, of which but a couple of weeks ago I knew nothing, has become something of a manifesto. If I love writing, and I suspect I do, it is an affair matched only by my disinclination ever to write clearly. Even when I was an aspiring academic, I did all I could to feed my visceral resentment for didactic prose. To this day, I still tease my professionally academic friends who are applauded for their articulate clarity, — Yes, your writing is so clear as to be nearly invisible, if there at all. This speaks, I am aware, as much to my taste as it does to a certain unwarranted egotism on my part, but it is neither a preference nor a fault I’m willing to part with just yet.

And, yes, I know it is not for everyone: symphonies are expensive, hyperbole distracting, and the word “purple” sounds vaguely intestinal. Substance, however, it has more atomic weight behind it than style; and if it doesn’t necessarily or always pack as powerful a punch, it has traditionally attracted a larger audience. And, yes, I’m fine with that. If nothing else, it gives we stylists something other to blame than our bad stylings when we remain unread. (The best deceptions begin at home — deceiver, deceive thyself – whether it be into confidence or lack thereof, it really doesn’t matter, history has proven either can be made to work quite well, thank you very much.)

So I continue, mazing my way through labyrinths of clauses & subclauses, stacking metaphor onto metaphor until they fall into a mess or meaning, interested more in the undulation of language than its utility. How to do things with words? — Speak them and see. I’m in it all for the dingy luster, language like a sky newly wan, just before or after a hard rain — that color of sickness where the bedside visitor is unsure the patient is bound for better or descending into much worse, a morbid description for something so striking and that I retain only because I’ve been told by enough people that they know well & dislike so this color, but in so disliking fail to see all the other colors spilling over from the underside, as was the case yesterday, an autumnal green pocked by red — where these colors don’t shine, they shimmer, and in so shimmering they become not simply the sight but somehow too the sound of the language worth seeking.

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3 Responses to “How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.”

  1. Sarah Imrisek Says:

    I am reminded of Kierkegaard, who expected any serious reader of his works to take them in by reading them aloud. Which makes reading him on the bus a little challenging… but a joy nonetheless.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Even better, I suppose, if you’re reading Kierkegaard out loud in Danish. (Perhaps not as notable, though perhaps even still kind of odd, if you’re in Denmark.)

  3. Jesse Says:

    Awesome manifesto. Thanks for your labors and fruits.


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