One of the challenges of writing a 550-word column for general consumption is finding the proper balance between simplicity and depth. The discipline of 550 words imposes a limitation not unlike that of an artist’s canvas, that is to say, the overall dimensions of the finished work are defined and thereby limited in space. It is within such limitations, one may argue, that any creativity or talent is revealed.
A problem arises, however. When complex ideas are presented simply, one is criticized for taking shortcuts and being sloppy; when complex ideas are presented in full, one is criticized for writing too far over the heads of too many.
I subscribe to the notion that the mundane is the ladder to the transcendent; that subtle meaning resides within the simplicity of form and the profound can be perceived in the enumeration of phenomena. Thus simple is not always simple, nor is its explanation. Resorting to words always adds to complexity. What begins as a pure perceptual experience, such as seeing the color red, becomes far more complicated when that direct experience is described in words. In some cases, like describing sex, it’s nearly impossible to convey experience with language.
Bill Clinton is famous for answering a question with the statement, “It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” As a lawyer he knew that the parsing of words establishes meaning, a matter of grammar, context, emphasis and etymological history. Yet as we all know, sometimes just one word says a mouthful.
My inclination to find complexity in the simple became obvious when I was a senior in high school. Asked to write a major English class term paper on a topic of my choice, I decided to explore the prominent use of excrement in the various writings of Jonathan Swift. Author of Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, numerous essays and poetry, Irishman Swift was both a clergyman and author of acerbic wit and satirical bent. Luckily, my teacher Mrs. Breslow was an open-minded and creative thinker who agreed to let me pursue my highly unconventional topic. Ultimately, I not only cataloged multitudinous examples of Swift’s creative scatology, but seized the opportunity to psychoanalyze him, as well. Just as Gulliver’s occult scientists at the Grand Academy of Lagado spent their days trying to convert dung into fine food, so did I wiseacre the subject into fine words and earned an A.
The early 20th century mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff, made much of what he called “wiseacres.” He proceeded to write a fabulous and often incomprehensible 1,500-page book entitled All and Everything, larded with numerous snippets of wisdom just to prove that he could out wiseacre the best of them. Moreover, he declared that his book should be read in full three times. Lo and behold, he was acclaimed as enlightened by a rising tide of sycophants looking for complex answers to simple questions.
My columns are intended to inform, entertain and stimulate; read them as lightly or as deeply as you choose. There is always the risk that I will begin to take myself too seriously, but please rest assured; I recently affixed a fresh roll of single-ply toilet paper to my desktop printer whereupon in swift measure, I print my latest column for appropriate use thereafter.