‘Explicit to the idiot …’

Today, two things in my mind. One, William Blake’s extraordinary letter to the Reverend Dr Trusler (23 August 1799). For background, Blake was always very short of money; Trusler was offering to become a patron of Blake’s printed illustrations and had proposed some – as we might put it these days – consumer-driven changes to make them more accessible. This is just a small part of Blake’s crushing response:

‘What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the idiot is not worth my care. The Wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too explicit as the fittest for instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act.’

I urge you to read all of it in a Complete Works if you can (this is the most complete on the web but has a page missing). Blake’s extended savagery reminds me of the look back in anger that detonates the 20-minute explosion sequence at the end of Zabriskie Point but in this case Blake’s indignation also spurs him to one of his most direct, moving and impassioned statements of his creative credo.

Thing two: I went to see a production of Hamlet last night, outdoors in the startling Master’s garden at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge – itself an exotic trope of concealment and revelation, naturalism and artifice. When we came home afterwards the big eyes of my 10-year-old son were blazing the energy and excitement of Shakespeare’s words and imagined world. How could one man 411 years ago do this? The astonishingly varied and virtuoso succession of language effects seems to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ (III, ii, 21–2). Of course we thereby define nature (human nature) and Nature (what we think of these days as the ‘outside’ living world) as heterogeneous, motley, multiversal, multitudinous, pluralistic, profuse, and all the other adjectives we need to begin to describe ineffable everythingness. Then we also see ourselves there too – to be honest, that’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it?

I was thinking of one particular superb passage from II, ii, 303 onwards. The rhapsodic paean to humanity reaches the ecstatic climax of ‘quintessence’ before crashing down to the nihilistic ‘of dust’ – how better could three words tell us who Hamlet is? And then his ‘Man delights not me’ riffs off on to some bawdy and desperate trash talk with Rosencrantz – astonishing.

If you go to this page and search for ‘quintessence’ (at line 312 or so) you will find that the modern version of Reverend Dr Trusler has substituted ‘highly refined speck’. Try reading the passage aloud. Clunk, clunk.

OK, this is not exactly like Blake and his patronizing patron, because the world is full of people who, reasonably enough, find Shakespeare’s language difficult. In fact the Enotes site is an example of good communication, because the original is still there to read, and students can hear for themselves the difference in word music. They read, find out and then know – the better for the comparison – the grit and grace of the work of genius.

So, what has this got to do with ‘helping your business to communicate with other people’?

Difficult words can ‘rouze the faculties to act’. None of us ever understands everything but we can still enjoy the feel or music of an unfamiliar word – often Shakespeare’s obscure words physically enact their meaning anyway. Lemony Snicket deliciously introduces some complex ideas into his books via the baddies’ unctuous and patronizing explanations, whereupon the children triumphantly say they already know. We adults feel valued by the creative and complex commercial work produced by writers, designers and artists; we relish companies and organizations whose corporate messages tell us they have a high opinion of us. Shakespeare was and still is – all tickets sold last night – a major commercial success.

Let us have the courage to allow others to be creative and different. Of course artists in any field or medium often make mistakes but we can’t force them to be right by telling them what to do or by scaring them into being mediocre. Cheeseparing creative work kills it by a thousand cuts. When we see ‘creatives’ as full people – not the opposite of the ‘sensibles’ and vice versa – we will be getting somewhere.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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