01 February 2009

Alain de Botton, Montaigne and clarity

I've just finished ready The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. It's wonderful.

Sean had borrowed it from Scott (thanks Scott) and started reading bits of it out to me. Basically it's the friendliest possible introduction to six philosophers, their lives and thoughts: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. All mixed in with a bit of humour, some personal reflections and some pics. I really enjoyed it and now feel more intelligent.

Possibly my fav bit of the whole thing is from his section on Montaigne. It relates to my day job (as an editor), and to my writing. It made me feel better about having trouble with those chaps like Foucault and co in my honours year. And this book was a demonstration of it (or the opposite of what he's talking about) in action:
Every difficult work presents us with a choice of whether to judge the author inept for not being clear, or ourselves stupid for not grasping what is going on. Montaigne encouraged us to blame the author. An incomprehensible prose style is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness: what reads easily is rarely so written. Or else such prose masks an absence of content; being incomprehensible offers unparalled protection against nothing to say...


Tim Jones said...

"being incomprehensible offers unparalleled protection against nothing to say..."

How much academic literary criticism, especially of the more theoretical variety, is covered by that little quote!

Helen Rickerby said...

I think that's true of a good deal of academic writing, not just in the literary criticism field. But good academic writing doesn't have to be full of waffle and meaningless multi-syllabic terms. I remember reading an essay by Umberto Eco on simulacra - things that look like the real thing but aren't - just after reading some stuff on the same subject by Jean Baudrillard. Eco's was fun, and talked about visits to Las Vegas and Disneyland. Baudrillard's was dense and difficult and really, I don't rememeber anything else about it. I learned more from Eco.