The Snares of Simplicity

Liberals, Communists, and capitalists all share one dangerous and demonically-prompted trait.  They want to simplify.  The complexities and nuances of any traditionalist society irk them no end, and they are driven by an impulse to flatten and homogenize everything.

To understand the real-world implications of this mentality, look at what Enlightenment-drunken French city planners did to medieval Paris.  They wrecked it without quarter, and imposed massive boulevards and a horrifying geometric circular grid on what had been leveled, centered on the ludicrous Arc de Triomphe.  Everything had to be made mathematically “clear” and “rational,” like the prose of les encyclopedistes.  Baudelaire mourned the passing of an older, richer, more intricate Paris.

In the case of businessmen this impulse is part and parcel of their lust for profit.  A “one-size-fits-all” paradigm is encoded into the mindset of capitalism, which hates anything that might compel it to take into account differences in taste or variation in market demand.  Differences and variation cost money.  Any time a businessman can squelch them, he’ll do so without hesitation.

Communists and left-liberals (two varietals of the same flower) dislike historical complexity because it is an obstacle to their profound desire for uniformity, lockstep thinking, and general submission to regulatory power.  The Left sometimes supports cultural separatism for temporary tactical advantage (as they did once in Ireland and Sicily, and are now doing in Scotland and Catalonia), but when push comes to shove such tactics are always subordinated to their overarching goal of totalitarian hegemony.  (As I myself heard Barbara Ehrenreich once say, “Sure, we leftists are all for multiculturalism.  But remember than in the ultimate analysis the Left isn’t multi-anything.”)

The desire to streamline, to rationalize, to coordinate, and to regulate metastasized like a cancer with the triumph of the nation-state in the seventeenth century.  Standardized language, standardized laws, standardized education, and standardized ideology were all fruits of this new absolutism.  With the coming now of globalist tyranny, as nation-states slowly give up their power to a world-encircling elite of unelected bureaucrats and mega-corporate leeches, this situation will only worsen.  Snotty Belgian scum at E.U. headquarters in Brussels already dictate to Sardinian shepherds how much cheese they can make, and how to do it.  This is nothing compared to what is on the agenda.  When that Hitler-aping bitch, Angela Merkel, tries to dictate policy to Poland and other eastern European states, you know that the E.U. is just the Third Reich with a Smiley-face button.

All of this suggests an often-overlooked point.  While businessmen love simplification for the mundane reason that it eliminates cost and avoidable extra effort, the Left wants simplification solely as a first step towards the future consolidation of power.  Once they have that power in their hands, they don’t mind complicating things, as long as they’re the ones calling the shots.  But let’s put politics aside for the moment.

This rage to simplify, and to dissolve anything that requires an atom more of thought than one is willing to expend, also exists in the world of writing.  I knew a dimwitted female at the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center who was in a state of constant fury because her dissertation advisor insisted that she make proper use of the subjunctive tense in her prose.  She’d bitch and moan that “Nobody uses the subjunctive anymore!  It’s dead in English!”  When I pointed out to her that modern speakers of French no longer used the passé simple, but that it was still important in poetry and scholarly French prose, she went into a hissy fit about “elitist Gallic grammarians.”  I then mentioned that four varieties of the subjunctive were still essential in both spoken and written Spanish.  She stormed out of the room, probably to lick her wounds with her support group.

And of course there are the buffoons in poetry workshops who make a huge fuss if a poet employs any word that isn’t in the common vocabulary of the ordinary American.  I recall one jerk from New England who objected to the preposition upon, since according to him no one ever said it now.  There was another ass from California who insisted that no self-respecting contemporary poet could make use of a grammatically subordinate clause.  Only simple declarative sentences with a subject/verb/object structure were allowed.

A lot of this silliness goes back to Ezra Pound, whose maniacal command Simplify!  Simplify! became a mantra for the less intelligent camp followers of modernism.  To be fair, not everyone writing today is in the grip of these absurdities.  But the damage has been done.  Poets who wish to make fuller use of the inherited (if not current) resources of our language are reflexively on the defensive.  They feel compelled to explain, if not apologize for, their use of an obscure word or a strange idiom or a syntactical inversion.  When I hear a competent and intelligent poet in an on-line workshop address polite excuses for his non-colloquial language to some officious critic, I see red… why doesn’t he just tell the little scumbag to bugger off?

He doesn’t do it because he has been conditioned to be afraid and defensive.  It’s been bred into his bones, going back to Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, that only the common and ordinary speech of the common and ordinary man is allowable in serious poetry.  And even though scores of excellent poets since then have ignored that stupid stricture, it still hovers in the air like an unhouseled ghost, haunting poets with the threat of disapproval.  Omigod, I might sound old-fashioned and out of touch!  I’ve got to be less fancy!

But complexity, intricacy, and the use of arcane or obsolete diction have always been an integral part of the poetic endeavor.  No one ever spoke the artificial Greek of the Iliad; it was a carefully preserved construct used to fulfill genre expectations.  Some people made fun of Spenser’s conscious archaisms and inkhorn terms, but Shakespeare himself also wrote a language that no one heard in Elizabethan London.  Ben Jonson’s English is as mannered as Cicero’s Latin.  In fact, archaism and non-colloquial diction are the rule in great poetry; Wordsworthian plain language and modernist simplification are the exceptions and deviations.

There are other related prejudices that go along with the simplifying tendency: no ideas but in things; show but don’t tell; lard a metrical line with substitutions; if you rhyme do it slant.These little rules make up a Gestalt of compositional orthodoxy that is unconsciously imposed on contemporary writers.  The little rules are a backdrop of preference and expectation, all the more constricting for the fact that they aren’t questioned or discussed.  Only by a sheer effort of the will does a modern poet break free from them.

Let’s ask ourselves the question that needs to be asked about every trend or orthodoxy: Cui bono?  Who benefits from programmatic simplification?  What economic or sociopolitical purpose does such simplification of the written language serve?

We can pick up the obvious and usual subjects quite easily.  Mediocre writers support the trend because it ratifies them in their mediocrity.  Grade school teachers favor it because it makes their work easier.  Advertisers and mass-media types like it because they are impatient with anything that hinders direct and immediate access to an audience.  These persons are merely self-interested, like vultures on carrion.

But such folks are not the primary driving force behind simplification.  The real impetus comes from deeper and more malignant forces.  One is the Low-Church Puritan mentality, with its hatred of all ornament and stylistic polish.  This Puritanism is like a dormant but virulent bacterial infection in the American mind, and it bursts forth in florid form periodically as a churlish rage against whatever is intricate, complex, figurative, and sophisticated.  Related to it is the atheistic-agnostic hatred of mystery and awe, or anything that might suggest the inexplicable, the ineffable, or the divine.  The urge to reduce every phenomenon to its basest elements, and thereby deprive the world of teleology and design, is at the heart of this hate.  And lastly, to return to politics, there are the cultural Marxists who have attained a near-total supremacy among our cultural elites.  For them, ruthless simplification is a means of leveling discourse in such a way as to limit debate, or confine it to certain acceptable parameters.  Theirs is the fiercest anger of all, for the homogenization and denaturing of language is an indispensable step in their program to make heterodox thought both unthinkable and unspeakable.  Silence your enemies by rendering them inarticulate is the fixed policy of cultural Marxists.

Arthur Mortensen and I have often discussed the general modern trend towards “de-skilling” the population as a means of both social control and reduction of costs.  Such “de-skilling” is happening throughout the West, as school systems degenerate into babysitting services and places for propagandizing. A de-skilled citizenry has to follow orders blindly, since it cannot think for itself; and it need not be paid the higher salaries that skilled workers demand.  Automation, computerization, and the outsourcing of jobs to Third-World shitholes have already devastated millions of American workers.  De-skilling merely adds the cherry to the top of the cake—we need not feel any compunction about impoverishing persons who have no marketable skills; all we have to do is give them orders.  There is a deeply rooted connection between the simplification of our language, and the “rationalization” of the workforce by corporate planners.

Big Business and the left-liberal cultural elites have a plan.  It’s working out perfectly for them right now.  It remains to be seen if a serious resistance to these powerful forces will coalesce.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.