Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?

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Sprezzatura in writing

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

A line [of poetry] will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

William Butler Yeats, Adam’s Curse

I just came across this quote from Yeats in Robert Greene‘s The 48 Laws of Power. More specifically, in Law Number 30, which says (page 245):

Make your accomplishments seem effortless. Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease. All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed. When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more. Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work–it only raises questions. Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Greene takes us through a Japanese tea ceremony, through Houdini’s vanishing acts and other artistic/aesthetic feats that would be ruined if the effort were visible.

The best word to describe the ideal is sprezzatura. Italians are better at it than most. It is “the capacity to make the difficult seem easy” and “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

It’s why Michelangelo, master of sprezzatura, kept his work-in-progress under wraps and would not allow even the pope to sneak a peek. Would have killed the magic.

Ease = Beauty = Power.

Writers strive for it. I do.

Here, by the way, is a sixteen-minute TED talk on “glamor,” where we discover that they key is…. sprezzatura!