No one I know uses the expression “Too clever by half,” but I imagine the person who would: he’s impatient—and a he, obviously—and has little tolerance for pretension calling itself knowledge, insight, or superiority. He objects to “big words” and “college crap” and “posers.” He’s annoyed by anything over-intellectualized, which, for him, seems to encompass almost anything thought about at all.
I’m lucky I seldom encounter him. In teaching, most people laud new observations, their novelty, their precise expression, their fresh wording. Academics appreciate discernment and attention to contradiction, paradox, and mystery. They like disagreement and know the ways dissent leads to redefinition and truth.
Occasionally, however, I meet someone skeptical of any ambiguity. “You’re overcomplicating it,” they say, or, more directly, “That’s just a load of shit.” I try to explain how dangerous it is to oversimplify, to reduce gray to the black and white stripes of a UPC symbol.
“Jesus Christ,” he says, “more fancy explanation.”
Whole swaths of language are out of bounds. No saying “menagerie” or “assemblage.” No saying “beatific” or “sublime.” Those words mark you. You mean, they think, only to say you’re better. You’re trying to “give yourself airs”… if that expression itself isn’t also just. too. much.
Perhaps I’m more hostile by half, but I wonder what we gain by neglecting the full range of language, by outlawing narrow distinctions. I wonder why words might have been invented if each weren’t, in some idiosyncratic and unique situation, perfect.
Recently one of my students, objecting to poetry, said, “What’s its function, that’s what I want to know. So there’s ‘lovely language’ and beautiful ‘word pictures.’” What does it really accomplish? It’s just a bunch of lines no one understands.”
Poetry accomplishes little, I suppose. It achieves nothing other than expression, anchoring with words what can’t really be said, representing without naming. That description too may be a load of hooey, an airy nothing, or an imaginary necessity, but poetry is a compulsion. Poets write because they must. They mean to get at reality, the most subtle of all subtleties, and present their truth.
I celebrate any absolute and confusing illustration of our human condition. What moves me is the feeling someone shares my gray state, my in-betweenness, somewhat beautiful and somewhat agonizing.
Why would anyone tie any artist’s hands? Aren’t we better off with possibilities instead of definitions?
The world suffers as the designation “bullshit” stretches outward. I fear its advance and worry that, someday, it might reach my neighborhood, turning out insight, dousing discovery, and closing the openings through which any light of revelation might flow.