Sunday, September 27, 2009

Terse and prolix

Back in my voracious 30s, eager to gobble up every idea I could find, I fell for a while under the spell of the French "post-moderns." In particular, I devoured the works of Michel Foucault, on madness, on sex, but especially The Order of Things, his major work on the history and philosophy of science. I seem to recall a seismic shift in my understanding of what it means to understand.

Well, time passes, and the order of things changes.

Yesterday, the book fell off the library shelf into my hands and I settled down in a comfy chair to see what it was that so engaged me forty years ago.

A sentence at random: "It is essential to observe that the function of 'nature' and 'human nature' are in opposition to one another, term by term in the Classical episteme: nature, through the action of a real and disordered juxtaposition, causes difference to appear in the ordered continuity of beings; human nature causes the identical to appear in the disordered chain of representation, and does so by the action of a display of images."

I suppose I understood this stuff forty years ago, or thought I did, and no doubt Foucault was a very clever fellow, but after an hour in my comfy chair with his book I felt my brain entering a fug of despond.

Two possible explanations: 1) My brain is not as nimble as it once was; or 2) my brain is more nimble than it once was.

As I have aged, I have come to prefer the particular to the general, the concrete to the abstract, the poetic to the philosophical, the concise to the prolonged. If a thing can't be said in 300 words it is probably not worth saying at all.