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(August 1998) [Printed in "Reality Module No.5."]
Mundane and Metaphor
This is an essay about writing, about communication - about giving wings to words or grounding truth in concrete.
The Ribbon of Extremes:
At about age ten I made the sad discovery that I knew more about some subjects than my teachers did. It changed my world. The first effect was a depression - I realised that school would never provide the intellectual stimulation I craved - and most of primary and secondary school was for me intensely boring. A second effect was a perverse delight in my newly found "intellectual superiority."
I would have been a smart-alec if I hadn't been so paranoid about most of the other children - I was what they called an 'isolated' child. It makes me uncomfortable to think of the sort of person I once was, but part of developing maturity is learning to accept the people we once were.
Later in English essays I dragged in analogies from chemistry, psychology or astrophysics to illuminate Shakespeare, John Donne or T.S. Eliot. I had to explain my essays to my English teachers - good for my ego, but a complete failure when it came to getting my messages across.
In short - I was pretentious.
University changed all that, but not for the reasons you might think.
I was expected to find and read scientific papers in journals. If you've ever read journal articles, and I expect many of you have, you'll know they are the most boring and unnecessarily erudite stuff that's ever been written!
Out of curiosity once I looked up Tipler's famous paper "Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation" 1 I was deeply, profoundly disappointed. Here was a paper which explained how to build a working [if highly impractical] time- machine - but as I read through each paragraph I got gradually more and more bored.
1 Larry Niven wrote that story about it. The
paper is found in Physical Review (D, vol.9. p.2203) from 1974.
The respected mode of scientific writing had rendered a fascinating subject as dull and lifeless as decaying moths pinned to a grey card. I gained a deep and abiding dislike of this style of writing - the myth of scientific objectivity, the leaden prose. [This stuff really makes you appreciate "New Scientist."]
I had encountered here and elsewhere the most esoteric of writing - and had found it wanting. (It was the intellectual end of the Ribbon of Extremes.)
I had a seachange. I rejected being "clever." Anyone could obfuscate, I realised - even politicians can do it! But to take the profound and the complicated and express it in ways that make it clear and comprehensible is a far greater gift! [You had to know your subject really really well to achieve lucidity.]
I became a "guru" of plain English. I deliberately set out to make my science essays both lucid and interesting. (I'd be damned if I was going to use the passive voice!)
I'd come to a mid-point on the Ribbon of Extremes - but I'd developed an aversion to its other end too - the excesses of flowery poetry. This was to have powerful, painful consequences. I used to be a poet, but I am one no longer.
Ways With Words:
"Science uses language like a scalpel, literature uses it like a paintbrush."
There are many ways with words.
Science strives for precise meaning. Everything in science has its proper name - every bone in your foot has its own name so it can never be confused with another, every chemical has a name describing its components and when necessary its structure, each significant asteroid in space has a name or a number so that you always know which one you are talking about.
And every term in science and technology has a precise carefully defined meaning. In science (sans Quantum Mechanics) there is no room for ambiguity. Science aims to nail down truth.
Literature often works the other way. It creates impressions, moods - it isn't interested in precise description unless such description links into universal metaphors.
(But it is in the nature of art, unlike science, that there are no universal laws.)
Each word in our common vocabulary has resonances for us. Each is linked with memories and associations. The word "House" for George may call to mind a Toorak neo-Georgian monstrosity, for you it may bring to your mind's eye a thatched cottage surrounded by an English garden, for me it may be that thing with the bear and chair inside it from "Play School."
Literature works with these resonances, this nebulosity of meaning. Each word in science means one precise pre-defined thing, but literature works with the natural ambiguity of words to create something richer and stranger.
Poetry is the most concentrated form of literature - here words can envelope entire empires of resonances, and we can be moved to streams of tears because so few words can express so much.
Trial By Jury:
Midway on the Ribbon of Extremes is where I stand. I have striven for lucidity and had found it, but my prose remains chained to the earth.
Frank read "Wizard For Hire."2 He'd hoped for something remarkable, and had liked the plot, but had found my writing ordinary, dull, unmemorable.
I have been judged - and condemned to mediocrity. This is what I feel now.
2"Wizard For Hire" was my first (as yet unpublished) novel.
Reintegrating the Muse:
The midpoint of the Ribbon of Extremes is the lowest point. The lowest level can be called competent, workmanlike, utilitarian - as opposed to incompetent. A prose style for annual reports, minutes of meetings, summaries of newspaper articles.
It no longer satisfies. What I'd thought was lucid was ordinary, what I'd thought was concise was dull. I want to climb up from this position of mundanity - but I'm not sure how to do this.
I now have an aversion to both excessive erudition, and the poetic amplification of the trivial - e.g Patrick White's 'pocket-handkerchief lawns.'
I need to work up to a new higher space, balanced somewhere between the arcs of the Ribbon of Extremes - and communicate.
Communicate what? I have the mind of a mathematician and the soul of a poet, I must find a balance.
In a cold, analytical space - some poetry must form. I must reintegrate the muse.