Long and Hard

July 17, 2010

Start with a few titles: Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. Have you read all these?    How about this group? Donald Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets, John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, Henry Petroski’s Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, James R. Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Okay, then these: Noam Chomsky’s Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Modern Rhetoric, Lewis A. Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity…

So, raise your hands, who’s read them all? Seventy-five percent? Fifty percent? Come on, anybody read one? Good, thank you. Me too—but I read it a long time ago, and well, I didn’t do it justice, which is seems fitting because I’m talking about the Rawls’ book. Lately, I’ve fingered it a few times in the book store—did you know there’re actually two editions, the one published in 1971 and a later edition—so it’s daunting, a long hard read and not immediately relevant to anything I’m doing right now, and, you know, do you have to read both volumes? Did John change his mind on some key points? Turns out, reading Rawls is just a start; as a citizen I should be reading at least some if not all of the above. Democracy demands it.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.

This quote comes from Stephen Carter and the above list of books comes from Peter J. Dougherty and, to be fair, his reading list is only suggested reading. You can choose your own hard book to take to the beach this summer—just so long as it’s hard and it’s a book.

Kierkegaard has a passage somewhere in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (no, I’m not going to try and find it) where he’s sitting in a café smoking a cigar and thinking about his particular place in the world. Everyone is busy explaining things, everyone is making things comprehensible, everyone is making things easy.  What was he to do with himself? He lights a second cigar (Sören, this is not good for you) and thinks that there is danger here: The danger of making things too easy, the danger of making things too readily comprehensible, of eliding past real difficulties and not dealing with the hard, harsh complex reality of things. Perhaps, he thinks, it is necessary to make things difficult again. Make things hard. Like Socrates.

Wallace Stevens ventures a similar point:

The poet does not speak in ruins
Nor stand there making orotund consolations.
He shares the confusions of intelligence.
Giovanni Papini, by your faith, know how
He wishes that all hard poetry were true.

What’s the deal here? Are we really in danger of having it too easy? Do you feel like everyone is padding your way, making life easy, smoothing the bumps in the road?

If we take Stephen Carter at his word a good hard book might be a useful prophylactic in avoiding a conversation like this:

So J. J. puts in a word doing the toff about one story was good till you heard another and blinking facts and the Nelson policy putting your blind eye to the telescope and drawing up a bill of attainder to impeach a nation and Bloom trying to back him up moderation and botheration and their colonies and their civilisation.
— Their syphilisation, you mean, says the citizen. To hell with them! The curse of a goodfornothing God light sideways on the bloody thicklugged sons of whores’ gets! No music and no art and no literature worthy of the name. Any civilisation they have they stole from us. Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts.
— The European family, says J. J…
— They’re not European, says the citizen. I was in Europe with Kevin Egan of Paris. You wouldn’t see a trace of them or their language anywhere in Europe except in a cabinet d’aisance.
And says John Wyse:
— Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.
And says Lenehan that knows a bit of the lingo:
— Conspuez les Anglais! Perde Albion!
He said and then lifted he in his rude great brawny strengthy hands the medher of dark strong foamy ale and, uttering his tribal slogan Lamh Dearg Abu, he drank to the undoing of his foes, a race of mighty valorous heroes, rulers of the waves, who sit on thrones of alabaster silent as the deathless gods.

Of course, a good hard book also might do to impregnate such a conversation, this passage being from a long hard book itself and canny in discourse—one of Mr. Joyce’s contributions to the long and hard. Still when you’re debating partner is shouting ‘syphilization’ at you and ‘Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts’, it might be time to find a long book to read and read it far, far away. At the very least I recommend finding a new bar to hang out in.

What about Sören’s friend Hegel? Do you remember the first time you picked up the Phenomenology of Spirit? (Or is it ‘mind’? This is a hard choice.) If you haven’t had the experience, this from the Introduction:

It is natural to suppose that, before philosophy enters upon its subject proper — namely, the actual knowledge of what truly is — it is necessary to come first to an understanding concerning knowledge, which is looked upon as the instrument by which to take possession of the Absolute, or as the means through which to get a sight of it. The apprehension seems legitimate, on the one hand that there may be various kinds of knowledge, among which one might be better adapted than another for the attainment of our purpose — and thus a wrong choice is possible: on the other hand again that, since knowing is a faculty of a definite kind and with a determinate range, without the more precise determination of its nature and limits we might take hold on clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth.

Gee, I love that kind of talk. But I remember holding the book at arm’s length, checking the number of pages—Sweet Jesus! And this was only one book on a long reading list for a 19th century philosophy course. One way of characterizing the long and hard might center on the number subordinating clauses the author packs into each sentence. Still: as the man says, ‘A wrong choice is possible…’

Consider the recommendation I once had to read Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. It should fit the bill, long, over a thousand pages, hard to read, though maybe ‘tedious’ is a better word, and, yes, it is a book…but I think a brief précis here might do the job…and I think maybe if you’re still reading this, you’ve got the ‘long’ part of the exposition. Someone tap him on the shoulder and remind him there is such a thing as the mimetic fallacy. (And if you’re still reading something called ‘Long and Hard’ under the misapprehension it’s going to get ‘good’… friend, it’s all good. Keep reading.)


Let’s rough out a provisional list that would categorize ‘hard’. What is it about a book that makes it hard to read?

The first thing comes to mind is that maybe you’re too stupid. Mary had a little lamb… challenges you. Fleece is a big word. This does not, however, seem a propitious place to start a definition—we are in danger of being insulting—but truth to tell, all of us have our limitations. Some things are too effing hard: Quantum mechanics leaps to mind. The afore mentioned Kierkegaard and Hegel bust my chops; I’ll never master Finnegans Wake. I have doubts about my ability to do anything serious with mathematics—starting with long division. Still, I don’t think Stephen Carter had in mind taking stupid pills so that we find ‘The Boy’s Big Book of Boats’ hard to master.

Simply not being familiar with a subject makes it hard. Any new interest, any new field, if it is sufficiently developed, will bring with it a new vocabulary, new concepts, new ideas to assimilate, and I do think Stephen Carter was thinking along these lines with his injunction, but in fact reading way outside you intellectual background and education is of limited value. Take any academic journal written by peers for their peers; these papers are not written for the common reader and are not understandable by her. Reading such things will not improve democracy one wit. A good introductory text is what most of us need for most fields, not peer review journals. Hard is not called for here.

The willfully obscure is by definition hard—hard to read and hard to know if indeed the author has a hidden agenda of obscurity. If one is trying one’s best to be impossible to read, it will not be surprising that one is impossible to read, but the standard riposte that one is ‘grappling’ with the language, investigating new areas, ‘wrestling’ with new fields, etc. To boldly go where no man has gone before—is hard to refute and in many cases is true, for language can be an adventure: bending syntax, coupling words in unexpected ways, letting your sentences run wild and free, even making stupid mistakes in the service of exploration—all seem worth doing and reading. How to tell the difference? That’s hard and one man’s willfully obscure is another man’s language adventure. James Joyce, sí; Gertrude Stein…well, not for me, though there’s a William Gass essay out there that is quite revelatory about ‘Tender Buttons’—and sort of makes the case for willful obscurity. Society sometimes makes it necessary. So, go ahead, take the plunge into late Heidegger.

How about the simple declarative sentence v. the complex periodic one? Hemmingway v. Proust. Here’s Sir Thomas Browne wailing:

But, to difference myself nearer, and draw into a lesser circle; there is no church whose every part so squares unto my conscience, whose articles, constitutions, and customs, seem so consonant unto reason, and, as it were, framed to my particular devotion, as this whereof I hold my belief—the Church of England; to whose faith I am a sworn subject, and therefore, in a double obligation, subscribe unto her articles, and endeavour to observe her constitutions: whatsoever is beyond, as points indifferent, I observe, according to the rules of my private reason, or the humour and fashion of my devotion; neither believing this because Luther affirmed it, nor disproving that because Calvin hath disavouched it.

And my humble recasting:

The Church of England is both suited to reason and suited to my faith. I acknowledge my obligations to observe and follow the articles and constitution of the church as they stand.  I do maintain however that a certain independence of mind is consonant with this faith and obligation.

There is no doubt that we can mark a difference between a work of explication and one of exploration. In the best of all possible worlds, the former cluster around the latter, explaining what the hell the latter means, but while we can make this distinction pretty easily in theory, knowing the intent of a particular text—the author’s intent—is often not easy, and said author does not necessarily have her intent clear in her mind. One doesn’t want to see oneself as humble scrivener, copying out—at best slightly rearranging—someone else’s ideas for our middle class minds. Better to be Captain Kirk than Bartleby or that chap who gets involved with the Red-headed League in Sherlock Homes. This confusion of intent can lead to confused prose, especially if you are merely explicating what you think you are exploring.

Width and breath of reference can make for difficulty. Start talking about stuff nobody’s ever heard of and you will lose your audience in a trice. For some reason people don’t like having their ignorance shoved in their face. They’re more likely to think you showing off, than thank you for referencing Persephone or Schrödinger’s cat.

Likewise an overstuffed vocabulary, archaic expressions, use of foreign locutions, direct Latin words, and so on ad infinitum: they make for difficulty. And a lot of this difficulty is stuff that could be avoided.

But what about excessive subjectivity? Personal and private references? Things that nobody could possibly know about, except you? Yes, this should result in difficulty. But pause while I gather my breath—and please stop pacing. We’re almost finished.

A little necessary banality: When we write, when we communicate at all, we take our thoughts and move them from a private realm to a more public venue. Putting one’s thoughts on a piece of paper (or computer screen) is an effort to make them available for public viewing. It’s why writing, good writing, is so hard to do.  Let’s call this process, for the time being, making your thoughts objective. You have a certain idea and you do your best to write it out so that others can understand what this idea is—can evaluate it, make use of it, improve on it, think it stupid and say so. This is important: human discourse; Platonic dialectic; liberal democracy; the open society; our involvement with the truth, justice and the American way all depend on this process.

But suppose this is not what you have in mind, suppose you keep the words and their private reference intact, keep them, as it were, virginal and pure? Or suppose we walk down the other side of the street and you let your words haggle and prostitute themselves. Suppose you are under the volcano, taking a long day’s journey into night, entertaining Lolita? All I know are what the words know, and the dead things. Suppose you are half in love with easeful death? Oh Rose, thou art sick! In the movie, M, Peter Lorie, surrounded, a caged rat, caught in his own filth, (and nobody did the caged rat better than Lorie) cries out: You don’t know what it’s like to be me!

What it’s like to be me…

Ever read Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat? You can do so here. This question—what is it like?—is something of a touchstone of being conscious. Even though the bat’s existence is very foreign to us, it makes sense to ask this question about it. It does not make sense to ask it of, say, a rock or a mountain stream.

How would you answer that question about yourself? With metaphor, simile?  Suppose you just went ahead and assumed the simile, kept your subjectivity subjective, left it as it is, private associations and all? It’s been pretty good to you all these years, might be worth trying to share without translating it from the private you to the public you. At the heart of this lies an issue that is very difficult indeed: personal identity. At the heart of this is an issue that’s muy difícil indeed: translation. Going from language A to language B might be a model for going from the thoughts that make you ‘you’ to the thoughts you make public and intelligible.

We’re talking about communicating your subjectivity in such a way that it remains ‘what it’s like’ to be you in such a way that it makes sense to you. It’s not making the case for more civic pride, it’s not an elucidation as to why the firehouse should be centrally located, why you should vote for me, or vote at all. A private language is supposed to be impossible and I guess I believe that, and insofar as your sentences approach the private meanings they are going to be very hard to understand. The only place such a project might even begin to fly might be in the realms of poetry (fiction and the like).

Two questions: is this even theoretically possible? And would it be worth doing if the answer is yes? And third: why poetry?

I will not answer those questions; I will practice what I preach. What makes a sentence—or a collation of words—a poem? We can come up with some clever answers here—I think it was Delmore Schwartz who said a poem’s lines don’t extend to the edge  of the page— but I incline to say something like: when they are in contact with a realm of poetry…

Yes, I know, you’ve read all this and I come up with ‘a realm of poetry’. Okay, I owe you more than an aporetic splash down, so here goes:

Poetry is (can/ should be) difficult. It had better be difficult. It had better stick a gun in your guts. It had better make a move to rob you of your precious self—otherwise all you’ve got is Invititus or The Bear went over the Mountain.

Robert Frost once defined poetry as what gets lost in translation. This isn’t the whole story—nobody thinks that—but for our purposes, it takes us pretty far into the hidden kingdom.  By not translating this inner self-building stuff into public discourse, we leave the poetry in the words.  Of all the hard reading we seem to be expected to do, reading difficult poetry might be in the most need of justification. Poetry doesn’t do much for you anyway, right? Why wallow around in this particular mud, and why drag it all into the kitchen?

The long and the hard reach its apotheosis in difficult poetry. It’s the pure stuff, 98 proof, 106 proof, you drink it alone, sitting at the far end of the bar, you pour its ‘you’ into your ‘you’, have it straight, or on the rocks. Drink too much, it’ll make you feel great, give you a hangover, set you up for another drinking bout, be your buddy at the bar. It’s a version of what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem’, (the hard problem—he really does call it that—has to do with the effort to understand consciousness in terms of non-conscious physical processes). The hard and the long problem—an understanding of subjectivity, its qualia incognito—a whoopee cushion for consciousness, a religion for people who can’t believe in god, yet still want to talk to him. It’s the hallelujah chorus of thought. It’s Orpheus looking back; Eurydice making funny faces. It’s making time stand still.

Making time stand still…

You believe that?

I’ll try again.

Genuine poetic thought is difficult because we human beings are difficult, an unadulterated adult inside this child we keep hoping to be.

I’ll stick there.


There is a new website devoted to the difficult in poetry, www.arduity.com . It might be worth your while to check it out. After all, if you’re still reading, you must be committed to this difficulty thing. Or you’re very lonely. Putting you qua you, on the sly, in public—you listening to you as you talk to you…

Oh boy.

Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts.


5 Responses to “Long and Hard”

  1. bebrowed Says:

    Of the many you’ve given, I’d go for the ‘god’ one, I used to be of the time standing still persuasion but that was before I became old and jaundiced. And you’re right, there is a crucial difference between those who won’t and those who can’t believe.
    Thought provoking and eloquent as ever..


  2. I agree, well thought-provoking, however the English language has changed somewhat since Browne’s era (he never ever wails in Religio Medici) and ornateness and succinctness often are opposing characteristics of style.

    On literary endeavours Browne wrote-

    ‘And if the substantial subject be well forged out, we need not examine the sparks, which irregularly fly from it. (C.M. 2:2)

    But as for those zealots of the lexicon who oppose all usage of the word ‘whilst’ in favour of ‘while’.

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Thanks Kevin. Your thoughts are appreciated. Whilst it is certainly true that the way the English language is used has changed,I have to think Sir Thomas would have been a remarkable writer no matter when he wrote. Perhaps I should have said,’He wailth’?

  4. Paul Says:

    You’ve done a commendable job of defending obscurity, ambiguity, and even the deliberate incompleteness of thought – the latter particularly well by example.

    However, you blur the distinction quite neatly – and perhaps deliberately – between obscurantist writing and the idea of higher minds. Consider, not poetry or fiction, but a field like philosophy. Is it [i]always[/i] the philosopher’s obligation to protect his ideas from apprehension by “middle-class minds”? Is there some mental hazing that must be administered to prove oneself?

    As a rhetorician myself, I am with Herbert Spencer, who kept his own mental hazing to a bare minimum. He once said things should be made a simple as possible – but no simpler. Rhetoric admits no need to be obscure for its own sake, or to fear being understood.

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Herbert Spencer! I’ve always had a fondness for Herbert Spencer, but I confess I haven’t thought much about him in years. And I certainly don’t think of him as a rhetorician. I’ll have to take a look. This idea of keeping things as simple as possible—as is warranted by the complexity of the issue, (surely this goes back at least as far as William of Occam—and his razor. Herbert Spencer? He may be supplying the aftershave lotion; I shall have to look.) remains a point worth emphasizing. The simplest explanation that does indeed cover the problem is to be preferred. The question in my mind, though, is how you come to the knowledge that you presumably have, that you indeed have addressed all the issues. You may be thinking about the problem in too simple a way. You may have defined key terms in such a way that, while you think you have covered all the bases, home plate is still unguarded. Philosophical questions are particularly prone to this situation. Just when you and your friends have decided that a ‘just’ act can be characterized without recourse to the political and economic context that act takes place in, the new kid on the block brings class warfare and game theory to the discussion.
    The fear of being understood is also worth talking about. I take it to be legitimate. That one should be open and honest and fully self-disclosing with everyone and in all situations is hardly true. People and institutions have power and influence that have to be a factor. A boss who thinks his employees are going to give him a straightforward account of his behavior after he blacked out at the company picnic is naïve indeed. The other side of this coin, however, is a mighty slippery slope. O what a tangled web we do weave…
    Lastly, as to the distinction that I have—neatly—blurred between obscurantist writing and ‘the idea of higher minds’, and the—commendable—job that I have done defending the incompleteness of thought—especially by example… Why, words simply fail here, do they not?

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