Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Even a little time spent among their kind is enough to teach us that people who take pride in their intelligence usually have a monstrous capacity for stupidity. And I don’t even mean good stupidity; that rare breed of stupidity by which a normally sensible person does something foolish in order to amuse others. Good stupidity reveals one’s sense of the ridiculous and a confidence in one’s own abilities as a human being. It also displays a personal assurance about one’s sanity and is a credit to anyone brave enough to acknowledge it.

Bad stupidity is perhaps less rare and more sought after, though never by its proper name. Bad stupidity takes on many forms. It is intellectual snobbery, pretension, conceit, and arrogance. It is the vice that intelligent people display when they justify the reasons they act immorally or out of pure evil. It is there when people adhere to an ideology or choose the fetishism of ideas over the practical sense of moderation.

Yet of all the examples of stupidity that arouses interest, it is the fetishism of pedantry that I find the strangest of all. Pedantry, in its purest form, is a form of personal trespass. It’s the teacher’s hand over your shoulder when you least expect it. It is the note scribbled in the margin of your life, ignoring any sizable achievement in order to reveal your smallest failings to the world.

The true pedant is an intellectual vole; happily scratching away at your foundations, encouraging the rot of cynicism to weaken your enthusiasms. Pedants do no harm in the short term but bring down the biggest schemes by their incessant gnawing. The smallest mistake is enlarged and made to appear greater than they really are. The pedant has no interest in largeness of any kind. They value the point of fact, the detail of a word, a single mistake in a sentence. Demonstrating their mastery of a small domain, the pedant thereby overcomes their own insignificance in the cosmic order by ridiculing others. They are the worst kind of cynics, for whom eternal doubt is the only certainty they will ever acknowledge.

Intelligent writers are rarely pedants. To write intelligently is to write with an awareness of audience. The fundamental instinct of an intelligent writer is to communicate with a reader. Clarity is their ultimate goal. In contrast, as the saying goes, have you ever seen a pedant with a warm heart?

Bad intelligent writers crave something else. Clearly expressed ideas do not interest them. They dread the moment they are exposed as humans, with all the doubts humans typically feel about the world. Consequently, bad intelligent writers hide behind unwieldy lexicons and construct abstractions which they hope nobody will ever wish to test. Orwell called Joyce an ‘elephantine pedant’ but there are many less capable than Joyce who commit bigger sins. Bad writers ultimately write for themselves, proving that they are the lone and lonely masters of a subject they do not wish to share with others.

The English Language gives the ambitious writer great freedom. Its infinite complexities allows us to construct vastly complicated sentences. It accounts for the characteristic failing of many writers who overlook the elegance of the simple clause. They choose, instead, to write prose that struggles on beyond the point where sense would have drawn a breath. Complexity is usually a good thing, yet in written English, complexity is anathema to clarity. It often stands in the place of expression or even saying anything meaningful at all. As the space between good and bad intelligence is a thin divide, so too is the space between good and bad prose extremely small.

It is often as small and as simple as a full stop.


Mopsa said...

What brought on this eloquent diatribe, Chippy? Someone has rubbed your thong the wrong way.

Big Chip Dale said...

I'm just getting into the mood, ready to defend Harry Potter from the joyless intellectual snobs. I suppose it's my way of saying that it's harder to write something entertaining than it is to write something impenetrable.

rilly super said...

a friend of mine does a spot of hackery for various papers and she'd say, in support of your argument chip, that's it's harder to write an article for the Sun than for The Telegraph. I go for impenetrable me though, as you know dear...

Big Chip Dale said...

I tend to agree, Rilly, though perhaps the example is a bad one. It's easy to dump the contents of your mind onto the page in an unstructured way. And it's easy to write sentences that are pretentious and full of implied depth. But who, in all honesty, wants to read that sort of thing? I'm not against good literature but I just think that many people confuse it with verbal stodge.

Anonymous said...

Chippy your to much for me ,I enjoy reading ,I tend to read what I enjoy ,not what the media says is now the bestest thing since sliced bread ,the book I am now reading again is RVJones Most secret war, is there something wrong with me doing it my way ,even if I say Harry Potter is not on my reading list

Big Chip Dale said...

No, Anonymous, that's exactly how it should be. You read what you enjoy. And writers who acknowledge this tend to get read. Those that don't fade into obscurity, like the pretension sick fiends they are.

Not read the R.V. Jones myself, but I have 'The Small Back Room' by Balchin sitting in the pile of books I want to read next. I just have to be in the mood to read history.