Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Allure of the Obscure

Napoleon Bonaparte, prior to becoming Emperor of the French, asserted that a Constitution should be short and obscure.  Joseph Addison, English essayist extraordinaire, noted that there is no defense against criticism except obscurity.  Both of these gentlemen recognized that obscurity may have significant benefits, albeit benefits which (to be obscure?) are not, really, beneficial in every sense, and are instead beneficial only in a limited sense, and less than beneficial in other respects.

The benefit of obscurity in the case of a constitution, from Napoleon's perspective, was likely though not necessarily entirely selfish.  Obscurity in the law mandates interpretation.  Unambiguous language is not to be construed, but is instead to be applied.  Ambiguity in language is subject to judicial interpretation, which may be supported by all manner of factors, such as legislative history, rules of construction, definitions.  Such interpretation requires the forming of an opinion, which may in turn be influenced by all manner of other factors.  Opinion is susceptible to error, and self-interest.  Interpretation can also be manipulation.  The more nebulous the law, the more it can arguably, at least, be subjected to creative construction; that is, construed to mean something agreeable to those doing the construing.

Napoleon seems to have been someone likely to manipulate an obscure constitution to his own advantage.  Then again, as someone of immense intelligence (if not virtue, pace Goethe) he may have felt that an obscure constitution might allow for interpretations which would be appropriate given societal changes. 

Addison evidently recognized that by being obscure a writer/thinker may avoid criticism as obscurity renders intent and meaning unclear, indefinable.  Criticism in order to be apt requires a comprehensible subject.  Without such a subject, criticism is always suspect and is also subject to a most convincing if perhaps irritating riposte--"That's not what I (or he or she) meant.  What I (or he or she) really meant is.....  You're simply too dense or insensitive or ignorant to comprehend."  This particular benefit of obscurity is primarily if not exclusively selfish.

I would add another benefit which is perhaps a variant of of the benefits of obscurity resulting from the fact that the obscure must either be disregarded or interpreted.  Obscurity's benefit may not be limited to those who are obscure, intentionally or otherwise, but may extend to those who purport to interpret the obscure.  This results from the creative and purposeful use of the obscure to further certain ends regardless of what might have been the intent of the author of the obscurity.

Obscure thought and language, being uncertain and undefined, may be used in ways never imagined by the obscure.  They are a kind of clay which may be formed to match or support defined ideas through the instrument of interpretation.  In that manner obscure religious, political, philosophical sayings and writings are used in the furthering of various agendas.  Those who make use of the obscure in this fashion may even think that they use it appropriately.  And who could dispute them in their belief, given the intimidating uncertainty of the obscure?

So it can pay to be obscure; it can even pay to tout the obscure.  Obscurity can be useful not only to those who manufacture the obscurity but also those who do not create it but instead take advantage of the obscurity for their own purposes. 

Obscurity can be attractive to many of us, because what is obscure can at least be said to be profound, mysterious, insightful because of its very obscurity.  It's difficult to disagree with such claims because the obscurity of the obscure has the result that those who condemn it can only do so because it is obscure; nothing else can be said about it by its condemners.  It's at least possible something profound is involved, of a kind that can only be communicated obscurely.  The obscure can be said to be most everything, except clear.

And, except with respect to the possibly difficult task of being sufficiently obscure or strategically obscure, the authors of the obscure may be thought of or insist they should be considered profound, mysterious and insightful even if they have not devoted any thought or effort to understanding that regarding which they obscurely proclaim.  Obscurity renders pontificating undemanding.

Hume wrote that certain books should be consigned to the flames--those not containing abstract reasoning regarding quantity or number and those not containing experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or existence.  It seems a rather arrogant contention; one wonders how many of his own works would have survived the conflagration.

I would propose something less absolute and draconian regarding obscure works (which are not works of art, which may be obscure because they are art) which purport to make claims regarding how we think and act and regarding the nature of the universe of which we are a part.  Call it presumptive disregard, or perhaps the presumption of gibberish.  If the authors of such works fail to communicate their ideas or assertions in clear, precise and simple language, we should presume they write nonsense.  But this presumption should be rebuttable.  If the author of the obscurity can explain the communication without creating one anew, or other portions of the author's work provide an explanation of the obscurity, the presumption will be rebutted.

This presumption may save us all a good amount of time and trouble.

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