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This article is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.

Verbal Time and Visual Time: A Distinction David Gervais

'Je ne peins pas l'être. Je peins le passage.'


Good writing wins clarity from things that themselves are far from being clear, like a match struck in the dark. A classic style, Pascal's say, is luminous because it is drawn out of obscurity. Styles that treasure obscurity for the sake of mystery, like Chateaubriand's or de Quincey's, have less to gain from clarity. A maxim like La Rochefoucauld's 'Ni le soleil ni la mort ne peuvent être regarder fixement' is not clear for the sake of it but because its subject is not clear. In more pedestrian classic styles such poetry is moderated by wit and sense. Their clarity covets mental decorum, the easy urbanity of an Addison. Nor is clarity always classical in its bent: Blake's proverbs are as clear (and suggestive) as La Rochefoucauld's maxims. Simplicity need not be simple. Writing can be clear without being under the thumb of the intelligence, as Pascal himself knew: there are speeches of piercing clarity in late Shakespeare, even though their style at first seems knotted and obscure. Real clarity is more than just the blinkered lucidity extolled in a tag like 'Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français'. This is a red herring; it merely makes complacency more complacent. Pascal earns his clarity in every sentence and every moment; it is not something he takes for granted, like electric light.

Simplicity of style is sometimes no more than ...

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