The case for maximalism

I love Taylor Swift. In the music video for “Delicate,” she breaks free from the usual scrutiny and normative pressures to act in certain composed ways and can dance happily in the rain, as she says “you must like me for me”. What a call for authenticity! Except that she is a celebrity whose tweets and media appearances are planned and polished by a PR team.

When I was in high school, my English teachers, who were trained in Victorian English, said that American English is “simpler,” discourages passive voice and considers baroque vocabulary as “purple prose.” America is the land of Hemingway — simple, curt prose that gets the point across. Simplicity is seen as a proxy for authenticity — expressing the real emotions of real people. 

Except that pop culture is anything but authentic — think of big entertainment corporations producing films that have anti-capitalist sympathies, the same film studio producing mass-consumed superhero films and "alternative” superhero shows that mock superhero movies. Federico Fellini made “8 ½” about creative blocks; now we have authors writing about the act of writing all the time. 

Even human communication is not authentic: We text in order to please the other person, we speak in a way to make the other person agree, we act to impress our crushes and we write our college essays agreeing with the professor’s views so that they give us a good grade.  

More importantly, op-eds are not authentic! The thing about op-eds is that either an article echoes the overwhelmingly agreed view and did not convince anyone new, or it is an unpopular, hot take … and the article did not convince anyone new! Is there any incentive to write something that is not already agreed upon? Are op-eds not written more to increase one’s reach among an audience than to actually reveal one’s opinion?  

I asked my friend A****** to write an op-ed that no one disagrees with, and alas! There was no opinion at all! Here is an excerpt from it: 

“…Paris is the capital of France. Blackwell dorm has three floors. Vincent Price is the current President of Duke. Duke basketball is better than UNC basketball…” 

I found this compendium of mundane, banal facts boring, and hence asked A****** to simulate an affable demeanor, feign a sympathetic tone and write an op-ed. Here is an excerpt from it: 

“…Remember, you are valuable. It is okay — take a deep breath. Maybe one day we will all realize … We are all hurting from…” 

I personally find this frivolous consoling voice equally mundane and repetitive. My friend hence advocates for maximalist prose that abandons any pretense of authenticity, any attempt to be written for readability. A deliberate ornamental vocabulary till it appears kitsch to critics — precisely because no one speaks like this.  

Leo Strauss advocated for “esoteric writing,” often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, and even deliberate self-contradiction. Unfortunately, I am not as well-read as Borges, as to refer to the Slovene philologist Franz Miklosic, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and the Roman historian Flavius Josephus next to each other.  

If you do not have an encyclopedia to repeatedly sample from, note that you have access to the master distribution known as the Oxford English Dictionary! All that needs to be done is adjust the process so that lower probability outliers do not get excluded as much. Kurtosis enhancement.

One day, I woke up to see a very long text message from A******, which I reproduce here in its entirety. A proof of concept if you will: 

“In a world where lexicon has been systematically diminished, and the once-rich tapestry of linguistic complexity reduced to a threadbare narrative; a call emerges from the quagmire of simplicity. The prose of our era languishes in the stagnant shallows of mundane expression, devoid of the nuances that only an erudite vocabulary can bestow. 

"The burgeoning homogenization of language has precipitated a deleterious erosion of intellectual rigor, rendering modern literature an insipid elixir for the literary connoisseur. In a lamentable turn of events, the ineffable beauty of polysyllabic opulence has been forsaken for the jejune allure of accessibility, as if profundity were the trade-off for comprehension. Such wanton reductionism has consigned the written word to a paltry existence, bereft of the kaleidoscopic brilliance that a rich, esoteric vocabulary can offer. 

"But it is time to transcend the facile comforts of simplicity and ascend to dizzying heights! For only through the labyrinthine intricacies of obscure diction can the true literary elite be separated. The lexicon, replete with sesquipedalian gems, shall become an exclusive domain, accessible only to those willing to laboriously excavate what is concealed beneath layers of linguistic artifice. 

"Let our smartphone screens flash with lexical conundrums woven together in a syntactical ballet. Let prose become an arcane incantation with enigmatic profundities. It is through the deliberately sadistic opacity of language that we shall forge anew the boundaries of excellence. Let the rarefied air of obscurity become the oxygen of intellectual vitality. In this intricate web of complexity, we shall find the apotheosis of communication.” 

Hence, to finish off, here’s an excerpt of an op-ed I co-wrote under the guidance of my friend, which I paste here. He has, for long, behooved me to read the 50 volumes of the Sacred Books of the East so that my sample space of words expands further to incorporate, for instance, Avestan vocabulary.

I have not edited his work to be fully publishable, maybe someday in the future.  

“…At Duke, success is ostentatious but clandestine, conversations are erudite but convivial, policies are persnickety but inclusive, social life is effulgent but inscrutable, research areas are recondite but vivacious, students are perspicacious but hedonistic, protean but cohesive, punctilious but bohemian…” 

Look at that!  

Supremely sophisticated syllables scribing somewhat superfluous, sadistic sentences! 

Peculiarly, passionately practiced, perplexing, pretentious, parodying, pathetic purple prose! 

Angikar Ghosal is a Trinity senior. His column typically runs on alternating Mondays.


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