Language, Complexity, and the Color Purple

I was recently reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and thinking about how lovely and complex the writing was. I had to hold a great deal of information in my head in order to correctly build an accurate mental picture as Dickens slalomed around his commas into sub-thoughts, digressions, and sub-subjects, building complex sentence structures in which multiple, sometimes unrelated, ideas were communicated simultaneously. It made me think of our own computer obsessed culture, and how everything is being driven towards optimization and efficiency. Writing is often hailed as being “good” if it gets the point across in an immediate, direct way, eschewing any sort of fluff or extemporaneous layering of impressions. It feels sometimes as though there is a sort of cultural inertia which moves us to transform wild, untamed prose into corporate memos which deliver stories in pill form, according to specific and accepted formulas which are known to release the proper amount of endorphins in the human brain at the proper time and for the proper reasons.

Consider this popular critique that is now often levied against modern literature deemed unfit for publication: Purple Prose.


Purple prose is criticized often enough for it to take, in novelist Paul West’s words, “a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that’s rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is [widely seen as] immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.”


Well I think we could all stand to be a little more purple, and a little less proper. I hate to see language evolving away from elegance, away from nuance and passion, towards a brisk and acceptable little future of close-cropped hair, starched shirts, and community approval. Screw the stupid community. Even if you suck at writing and you end up tumbling off a literary cliff in an explosion of purple words, I say be purple. You might find something interesting deep within the purple recesses of your purple heart. Yes, there are terrible examples of actual purple prose, but I sure as hell prefer encountering a few bad novels along my life’s journey if it means future William Shakespeares will write like this:


 

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off!
It is my lady. Oh, it is my love.
Oh, that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses. I will answer it.—
I am too bold. ‘Tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp. Her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!


 

 

Instead of like this:


 

Romeo saw Juliet walk onto the balcony, and he thought to himself that she was quite beautiful. He desperately would have like to touch her cheek, but he couldn’t because she was up on the balcony and it was too high.


 

 

———————

Magnus Von Black (yeah, that’s me… talkin’ ’bout mah seff in 3rd perss like a BOSS), is the author of a tremendously purple romantic science-fantasy adventure called The Song and the Pendant.

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2 Responses to Language, Complexity, and the Color Purple

  1. I remember reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” as a child and finding it fascinating because it stirred my emotions and ravaged my heart in ways I hadn’t experienced before. I absolutely loved the ornate prose, and the story, shrouded with dark mystery and romanticism, was one that introduced me to a very serious and sinister side of human nature… nothing like I’d encountered previously in children’s books. And I’m thinking the “purple prose” had a hand in this. I don’t think the book would’ve made such an impact on me had it been written more efficiently.

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