Simplicity is a technique, not a style guide.
Eric Hoffer and art as the purgation of superfluities.
My latest Man Made Wonders column, at The Critic, is about Fens reclamation, Thames embankment, and England as a nation of drainage engineers.
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Discussing Orwell’s writing rules, you are often up against the argument the simplicity is better than baroque complexity. I do not believe that represents the true difference between the Orwell and non-Orwell side of the debate—simplicity doesn’t mean short or basic—but I struggled to find a way of adequately expressing this idea.
Today I read this from Eric Hoffer’s notebooks:
In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage. Michelangelo’s definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that the creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern.
Now, Michelangelo is hardly the Strunk and White of architecture. Quite the opposite. This argument doesn’t say that the pattern has to be unadorned, basic, spare or anything similar. The injunction to purge the superfluous leaves wide scope, depending on your artistic aims. It helps you achieve a pattern of whatever level of complexity you wish: it does not mean you must remove all forms of complexity: it is indifferent to whether the pattern is ornate or not. Sometimes complexity is messy and frivolous; sometimes it is necessary to make a vision clear.
Michelangelo was the creator of Mannerism, a pre-baroque style of complexity. He was inspired by the Laocoön, a sculpture where all superfluous details are removed, but where what remains is still a convoluted event, shown by a complicated but not confusing pattern.
Michelangelo’s dome at St Peter’s, with double columns on the outside, need not have those columns visible—this is the simplest version of the pattern he was making, not the simplest pattern possible. Beethoven re-wrote and re-wrote the opening of the ninth, to make the tune as simple as it could be, not as simple as any tune can be. This is why Orwell breaks his own rules in the rules: he was writing in a particular style, as simply as that style allowed.
The rules of simplicity are a technique, not a style guide. As Hoffer said,
It is the Frenchman’s readiness to exaggerate that is at the root of his intellectual lucidity and also of his capacity for acknowledging merit. The English were not afraid to exaggerate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were then not far behind the French in the lucidity of their thinking.... There is hardly a single instance of cultural vigor marked by moderation in expression.
Sometimes the choice is not between the simple and the complicated but between vigour and moderation.
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