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

October 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

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 sizeable 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 I seek.

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

  • Robert Minto says:

    I’ve been compiling you a pretty damn purple email in response to the full text of this which you sent me. But your post sparked a separate thought:

    Re: academics with invisible prose. They’re reacting, obviously, to the kind of visible prose that infects the humanities, not as the colonization of content by poetry but by pretentiousness. Most of the prose that’s highly visible these days is visible in the way a smokescreen is visible, to hide the suspect movements behind it. In the real art of style as for instance practiced by the baroque writers to whom I constantly return, the objective is precisely color — the blue of Gass, the purple of West — or, say, the red of McCarthy — the thick sable and golds of Donne — or the rich, rich, modulated browns of Browne — anyway, it’s about color, which has the effect in this context, as in that of a photograph for example, of enhancing the presentness of its subject. It’s much harder to miss the core point of the wildly gesticulating, dramatizing, metaphorizing, parallelising prose-poet, if one submits to his pageant, than it is to miss the core point of the dry analyst, as that point slips by like a shot of vodka after a few of whiskey…

  • Brad Johnson says:

    That’s an interesting almost counter-intuitive idea you have going there in the final sentence. I like it. I may have more to say on it.

  • tom clark says:

    Speaking of baroque, there’s always been a mysterious inclination to “read” Browne as red. Perhaps merely the imagining of the vein structures in the urological specimen drawings one finds in his letters… though of course they’re in black and white.

    Spengler did not opine without reason that shit-brown is the historical colour. The mere ubiquitousness, appalling, barely a step above the languages of conference and committee.

    And gold to an ayery thinnesse beat… a bank card?

    Milk the snail!

    Seize the purple!

    Status symbolisms and class histories imbed each swatch of these royal hues.

    The colour-fast Tyrian-shellfish purple dyes were highly prized and strictly regulated in Byzantium. Production was subsidized by and use largely restricted to the imperial court. A babe born to a reigning emperor was porphyrogenitos (born in the purple). The Imperial birthing apartment was walled in porphyry, the purple-red rock.

    The “setting” of the proportion of black to red in Byzantine silks was thought to be a matter of especial delicacy. These dyes took time and trouble to produce, but were considered well worth all that. They got better and better as they aged.

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