We are swimming in a great polluted sea of language, and we wonder why we can't write. We wonder why we don't want to read. Even worse, we cease to wonder; we just don't do it. It's as though it didn't matter any more.
As though hammers didn't matter; as though air didn't matter; as though horses and balloons had disappeared.
It's not a hardware problem; it's not a brain-wire problem. It's a writing problem. It's software, it's soft words, it's some swampish bureaucratic slide-down of mush-mouthed ass-covering prose that promotes long-term despair in hiimans.
It's the first feedback loop: how we read is how we think is how we write is how we think is how we read. Garbage in, garbage out - our hydroponic brains are getting overchlorinated prose. To inoculate ourselves against this particular virus, this excess of speechifying and voter-pamphlet prose and nicey-rucey high school anthologies and naeaning-stripped feelgood advertising jargon and pyramidal journalism and two-handed essays ("on the other hand comma weasel..."), it is necessary to seek density and clarity.
Density and clarity.
Density and clarity.
It is as William Strunk said to E. B. White all those years ago in that Cornell classroom, before the war to end wars had quite finished failing, grasping his lapels and leaning forward: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!" Brevity is so important that it must be tripled in size; density is so important it must be expanded upon.
Do this at home: Utilizing your Millemiium-approved Gaia-friendly by-gum-degradable access to paper-and-pencil technology, omit needless words everywhere. Omit them from your cereal boxes and your VCR instructions. Omit them from your conversation and your letters. Now, put them back... slowly, slowly. They are precious. They are gifts from God, these words. They are molecules of meaning, and the right sentence can cure cancer, can cure loneliness, can cure ham.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Eliot! Why not? Old Possum has his tricks; they can be your tricks. Concentrate on that comma! That is where the heart turns over, in that crooked eyebrow between the pronoun and the conjunction. If a comma is that powerful, think what a word can do. No, but seriously, folks: Think what a word can do.
Think of what a word can do.
Concentrate on that paragraph. All by itself, one line, indented for extra emphasis. An indent, negative space - that nothing that draws attention to the something beside it. Think what nothing can do. How much more powerful is a word! It can restore kingdoms, restore reputations, restore kitchen cabinets. Do this at home: Commit an act of clarity. Say the sentence that is the precise description of who you '' 1 are and where you are. Now ask yourself: Would you rather be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floor of silent seas?
Between the question and the answer Ues the act of writing, the act of reading, the act of meaning. The reason for the passion is the fear of loss. We are pissing our language away; we are beating our verbs into formats. Meaning held hostage! As Monty Python asked: "What do we mean by 'mean?'" Our brains are at stake, the narrow line of clarity between the folds of gray mush inside our skulls. This is God's video game now. At stake are our declining natural prose reserves.
In the gathering darkness of an airless stairwell, Amina Sinai is climbing towards a prophecy. Lifafa Das is comforting her because now that she has come by taxi into the narrow bottle of his mercy, he has sensed an alteration in her, a regret at her decision; he reassures her as they climb. The darkened stairwell is full of eyes, eyes glinting through shuttered doors at the spectacle of the climbing dark lady, eyes lapping her up like bright rough cats' tongues; and as Lifafa talks, soothingly, my mother feels her will ebbing away, What will be, will be, her strength of mind and her hold on the world seeping out of her into the dark sponge of the staircase air. Sluggishly her feet follow his, up into the upper reaches of the huge gloomy chawl, the broken-down tenement building in which Lifafa Das and his cousins have a small corner, at the very top... here, near the top, she sees dark light filtering down on to the heads of the queuing cripples. 'My number two cousin,' Lifafa Das says, 'is bone-setter.' She climbs past men with broken arms, women with feet twisted backwards at impossible angles, past fallen window-cleaners and splintered bricklayers, a doctor's daughter entering a world older than syringes and hospitals; until, at last, Lifafa Das says, 'Here we are. Begum,' and leads her through a room in which the bone-setter is fastening twigs and leaves to shattered limbs, wrapping cracked heads in palm-fronds, until his patients begin to resemble artificial trees, sprouting vegetation from their injuries. . . then out on to a flat expanse of cemented roof. Amina, blinking in the dark at the brightness of lanterns, makes out insane shapes on the roof: monkeys dancing; mongeese leaping; snakes swaying in baskets; and on the parapet, the silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their beaks: vultures.
That's Salman Rushdie, who was a genius long before he was a famous pre-dead writer, and that paragraph is a post-graduate course in everything you need to know. "The darkened stairwell is full of eyes"; there is no better way to say that, every needful word included, every texture honored, and that is seven words in a paragraph of 310 words in a book of 552 pages. That already is a miracle, the act of writing it and the act of reading it. It is the miracle of meaning.
What can you find there? That last colon: Good. The dark sponge of the staircase air: Yes, yes. You can feel your forehead moving toward the sentence fragment. Physiological changes! Hook up the electrodes, darling, I feel some prose coming on.
Those patients like trees. Imagine that you were a boy in Bombay and you had been to the magician and you had seen the leafy splints and many years later you could pour that story like water onto a page. Better yet: Imagine that you had only imagined it, and could make it real. It's the gift that keeps on giving! It's eternal life!
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion said that.
The narrative of Rushdie's, which is the maybe-true story of the birth of the maybe-him, is just like your narrative. It is separated from your narrative only by will and skill. Talk about Empowerment! You can create the story of your own birth and make it live in the brains of people around the world. Mythmaker! Swallower of worlds! Many-verbed keeper of clarity! It's Show Time!