Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.
I had read this poem a long time ago, but I had forgot about it until recently. It has me thinking about what I think makes for good writing, and in particular what kind of aesthetic standards I should uphold through my work in philosophy.
I am not sure what I think the significance of philosophy being a humanistic discipline should be; but a consequence of it is that we can be very open about consciously striving for aesthetic goals, in a way that might be uncomfortable for a scientist outside of pure mathematics or high theoretical physics. As such, I have never made any secret to my friends and colleagues that I take the aesthetic element of writing very seriously; but I am always somewhat embarrassed about this, because it has to be admitted that I simply do not have a very refined aesthetic sensibility. By my own standards, I produce work that is very subpar. I guess I mean to publicly reflect on why that is here.
Su Tung-p’o's poem very well encapsulates what I take to be the aesthetic goal of my own writing. I really think I cannot do much better in explaining it than point at the poem and say: whatever ideals it is fulfilling, I think my writing should be like that. But a few more explicit attempts. I want writing that conveys very clearly a certain mood or emotional moment, without explicitly evocative language or heavy handed evaluation. There should clearly be something existentially significant at issue, but the audience or readership should be shown, never ever told, what is at stake emotionally. I like writing to be stark, minimal, and moving. To make it apparent that there is a vast sea of emotion underneath, while having the surface appearance of a calm pool.
(I also have a kind of anti-exemplar. Both in practice and in theory, Du Bois has almost precisely the opposite aesthetic sensibility. From my vantage point much of Du Bois' writing is overwrought and overbearing; attempting to rhetorically bludgeon its readership into having the emotional reaction Du Bois has decided they must have in order to advance history's dialectic.)
But I always fall short of this! I think for three reasons. First, there is a tension at the heart of this aesthetic ideal. I both want clarity -- which is a pressure towards saying more -- and minimalism -- which is a pressure towards saying less. As it stands, in my writing I tend to sacrifice the minimalism for the sake of the clarity. This is probably professionally wise, but aesthetically I am not sure this is the best choice. Second, even though this aesthetic sensibility is very important to me -- it guides my choice of research topic, what I say thereon, and how I say it; it is even significant to my sense of identity, as I self conceive as a humanist trying to make this ideal manifest -- it is also somewhat vague and inchoate. The nearest thing I have seen to it being spelled out explicitly is the idea of wabi, `simple, austere beauty', from Japanese aesthetics. This lack of explicitness about precisely what I want makes me never confident I have achieved my goal in any piece of writing, and so I am always tempted to tinker with every element so as to better move it towards this -- and the result of this micromanaging and worrying turns out to be incoherent, as different modifications made at different times do not maintain a consistent vision. The final work, then, is not as good as had I just had the courage of my initial convictions. Third, I am honestly just not very good at this. For all these difficulties, the example of the poem shows that at least some people do manage to achieve the ideal some of the time. I try; I fail. I try again; I fail again. I am not even sure I am failing better.
This is something I am only now thinking through. I do not know if I will maintain this analysis of my own aesthetic shortcomings. But since this is a somewhat personal post in any case, I end with an example of my own failure. I once tried, as a self-set summer art project, to write an art manifesto, encapsulating the style I liked. The result was, I am sorry to say, a failure. It is too embarrassingly wide of the mark for me to be willing to share the whole thing (and in any case would probably require some introduction to the genre of art manifestos), but I think the final paragraph is illustrative. I ended it as such:
There is beauty in polished and functional clockwork. Each oiled and intricate subpart of the mechanism does exactly what it needs to in service of the whole, as the machine silently performs some valuable task. We strive to recreate that beauty in our own work. This should apply internally; each element of the work we produce should support the textual whole. It should also apply externally. Each text we produce should form one tiny cog in the great machine of science, itself one of the great engines of the democratic society to come.
The sentences are short -- but rather than being stark, they seem curt or dry. The underlying feeling I mean to evoke is unclear, and I am confident that having the context of the rest of the manifesto would not much help you. It is slightly too long, and is repetitious in ways that do not add emphasis so much as suggest lack of imagination. Simple, austere, beauty continues to elude me.