In yesterday’s post I decoded the convoluted remark by a defender of dishonest journalism that “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.”
There are a lot of reasons for obscurity, but the big five are lazy thinking, lazy writing, intellectual snobbery, motivated irrationality, and covert signaling. The lazy thinker can’t write clearly because he doesn’t know what he is trying to say or has nothing to say. The lazy writer might have written clearly, but it would have been too much work. The intellectual snob thinks turgid writing is a sign of subtle intelligence. Motivated irrationality means the writer can’t write plainly because it would force him to face his own thoughts. In the case of the person whom I quoted, the reason for obscurity was probably covert signaling, which means writing in a way that clues in the shills but keeps the suckers in the dark.
I teach my grad students that if they can’t translate obscure language into language the man on the street can understand, then they don’t understand it themselves. The most lancingly funny example of decoding I know is in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. It’s not his best novel, but the incident is worth the whole book. Weston, an earthman, is trying to justify interplanetary genocide to the ruler of the Malacandrians, or Martians, whom he mistakenly takes to be savages. Ransom, an earthman who knows the language better, is called upon to translate.
“Me no ... no ...” began Weston in Malacandrian and then broke off. “I can’t say what I want in their accursed language,” he said in English.
“Speak to Ransom and he shall turn it into our speech,” said Oyarsa.
Weston accepted the arrangement at once. He believed that the hour of his death was come and he was determined to utter the thing — almost the only thing outside his own science— which he had to say. He cleared his throat, almost he struck a gesture, and began:
“To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization — with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life —”
“Half a moment,” said Ransom in English. “That’s about as much as I can manage at one go.” Then, turning to Oyarsa, he began translating as well as he could. The process was difficult and the result — which he felt to be rather unsatisfactory — was something like this:
“Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnaus’ food and — and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. He says what he does now will make very different things happen to those of our people who are not yet born. He says that, among you, hnau of one kindred all live together and the hrossa have spears like those we used a very long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light and like our old ones, and you have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have many bent people and we kill them or shut them in huts and that we have people for settling quarrels between the bent hnau about their huts and mates and things. He says we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it. He says we build very big and strong huts of stones and other things like the pfifltriggi. And he says we exchange many things among ourselves and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way. Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.”
As soon as Ransom had finished, Weston continued.
“Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation.”
“He says,” began Ransom, “that living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good — no, that cannot be right — he says it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead — no — he says, he says — I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language. But he goes on to say that the only good thing is that there should be very many creatures alive. He says there were many other animals before the first men and the later ones were better than the earlier ones; but he says the animals were not born because of what is said to the young about bent and good action by their elders. And he says these animals did not feel any pity.”
“She —” began Weston.
“I’m sorry,” interrupted Ransom, “but I’ve forgotten who She is.”
“Life, of course,” snapped Weston. “She has ruthlessly broken down all obstacles and liquidated all failures and today in her highest form— civilized man— and in me as his representative, she presses forward to that inter-planetary leap which will, perhaps, place her for ever beyond the reach of death.”
“He says,” resumed Ransom, “that these animals learned to do many difficult things, except those who could not; and those ones died and the other animals did not pity them. And he says the best animal now is the kind of man who makes the big huts and carries the heavy weights and does all the other things I told you about; and he is one of these and he says that if the others all knew what he was doing they would be pleased. He says that if he could kill you all and bring our people to live in Malacandra, then they might be able to go on living here after something had gone wrong with our world. And then if something went wrong with Malacandra they might go and kill all the hnau in another world. And then another — and so they would never die out.”
“It is in her right,” said Weston, “the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity — whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed — dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable.”
“He says,” translated Ransom, “that because of this it would not be a bent action — or else, he says, it would be a possible action — for him to kill you all and bring us here. He says he would feel no pity. He is saying again that perhaps they would be able to keep moving from one world to another and wherever they came they would kill everyone. I think he is now talking about worlds that go round other suns. He wants the creatures born from us to be in as many places as they can. He says he does not know what kind of creatures they will be.”
“I may fall,” said Weston. “But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond.”
“He is saying,” Ransom translated, “that he will not stop trying to do all this unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn’t know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much.”