Although I love nuance, and appreciate irony, I am by disposition overly direct and sometimes too on the nose. I find it difficult to engage in strategic obliquity.
If you tell me something, but really mean something else by it, I may not pick up on the subtext.
That’s a confession. But I need to confess it, because it helps explain why I’ve become sensitive to the overly direct nature of communication in our charged political moment.
I believe truth-tellers have become ever more pointed these days for any number of reasons. Partially, because they can and should. The more provocative the declared truths, the more they test the extent to which tyrannical forces have any power to silence them.
Partially, they do so because the lying is so prevalent. As Chris Hayes notes in his review of Michiko Kakutani’s new book The Death of Truth, “The president is a liar. He lies about matters of the utmost consequence (nuclear diplomacy) and about the most trivial (his golf game). He lies about things you can see with your own eyes. He lies about things he said just moments ago. He lies the way a woodpecker attacks a tree: compulsively, insistently, instinctively. He lies until your temples throb. He lies until you want to submerge your head in a bucket of ice and pray for release.”
However, it is also possible the truth-telling is at times too on the nose. It fails at a hallmark of wisdom, that of subtlety. And it fails at another level, the level of beauty.Just think, for example, of protest music. Some of is helpful, some even memorable, but often the more “of the moment” it is, the less “for all time” it can be. We’ll keep singing Bob Dylan forever. It’s unlikely we’ll keep singing some of the protest songs of 2018 for so long.
The greatest artists knew this. They practiced it. Some practiced it because they must. If Shakespeare had been as truthful as I’ve already been in this blog post, he would have been killed, and his theater burned to the ground.
In order to tell the truth and call the tyrants out, Shakespeare instead founds ways to “by indirections find directions out” (Polonius, in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 1). As Stephen Greenblatt observes in his Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power, Shakespeare perfected a strategic obliquity in his narratives of power.
I wonder if we could all learn from such strategic obliquity. Especially those of us who are attempting the prophetic, hoping to be at least somewhat “woke.”
I’m reminded that some of the literature I love the most was written at the height of when by all rights the authors should have been intensely on the nose. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Cixin Liu’s Death’s End.
Or that wonderful poem: