Alain de Botton's column: A good idea from ... obscurity

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The Independent Culture
IT IS COMMON to assume that we have picked up a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand what is going on in it. For writers who have nothing in particular to say, or else have trouble expressing themselves clearly, it can be an excellent career move to write one or two completely incomprehensible books.

Because of what seems like an echo of a Christian (particularly Protestant) association between virtue and a renunciation of pleasure, a book which makes us suffer is typically taken as more valid, more profound, than one which reads with clarity and fluidity. In the academic world, there is a long-standing prejudice against lucidity and a corresponding respect for difficult books. Scholars who pore over the dense prose of Heidegger or Lacan, Schelling or Kant are perhaps attracted not simply to the brilliant ideas that lie therein, but also to the sheer difficulty of recovering these ideas from the contorted tangles of language.

Literary masochism reflects a prejudice that the truth should be a hard- won treasure, that what is read easily must be flighty and inconsequential. The truth should be like a mountain to be scaled, obscure and demanding. The more a book makes me suffer, the better it must be. The masochistic reader who dips into Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness will think, "Since I can't understand much of this, the author must be cleverer than me. And if the author is cleverer than me, then he surely deserves my time and effort."

Why do human beings have such an appetite for obscurity? Friends of obscure prose would argue that if a book is written in a style more or less impassable to a lay reader, this is usually because the subject is extremely sophisticated. Hegel could have claimed that it was impossible to articulate his idea of the "phenomenology of spirit" in the language of the daily paper, Lacan that one couldn't set forth a theory of "paternal metaphor" without a degree of technical language. According to this defence, the complexity of books is a necessary consequence of their complex content.

Because so many important subjects do indeed present legitimate challenges to the intellect, do not reveal their secrets when skip-read in the bath, it is natural that an association should be formed between what is difficult and what is serious. Science presents the most honest example of ideas that are hard to understand and yet correct - and it is in part due to our awe of the powers of science that we may form a general belief that the more obscure the book, the more profound it must be.

Which is, of course, one of those terrible half-truths: difficulty is not a necessary and sufficient condition of greatness, though it has often been associated with great ideas. How easy then, if you don't know what to write about or want to impress, to exploit the ambiguity, playing on the prestige of difficulty without having earned the right to it.