Is Our Prophetic Too On the Nose? | Considering Strategic Obliquity

Is Our Prophetic Too On the Nose? | Considering Strategic Obliquity July 31, 2018
Strategic Obliquity
Indirection, or strategic obliquity?

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:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)
by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
No one could ever accuse Emily Dickinson of acquiescing to the status quo. Instead, what she did was steadily, and with purpose, create a body of work that has outlasted much of what counted as relevant or political in her day.
She told it slant, and like Shakespeare in his plays, by indirections found direction out. I’m trying to learn from her.

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  • Michael Mangold

    For God’s sake, politicians lie. That is their modus operandi. Starting with Nixon, the lying has gotten worse. This is nothing new: it is the same BS wrapped up in polemics. First of all, let us personally not lie and be as transparent as possible. Secondly, let’s get rid of the the institution known as “government” that promotes and rewards lies.

  • Janet Graige

    A river of truth shall run through it: At places the river is mighty, strong, and fast, overpowering the cold stone (heart) with relentless wetness. And then there is a waterfall, pounding boulders into pebbles, and rocks into silt. Later there is a meandering stream that over time wears the cold stone smooth and small. Which river is wetter? In the world today, we need all forms of the river flowing freely.

  • Ivan T. Errible


  • Ivan T. Errible

    So Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t lie?

    Or Eisenhower? Or Truman?

  • jekylldoc

    If you can put me into a culture that makes government unnecessary by properly cultivating the mastery and self-mastery of every person, I am ready to sign on to getting rid of government. In the meantime, I appreciate the protection it provides.

  • jekylldoc

    Amen! Preach it, brother!

    Current models of predatory, exploitative behavior assume that it arises spontaneously, rather than being cultivated by, say, people sucking up to big money. The truth, of course, is that we each have the inner impulses of a manipulative, insecure, perennially lying Trump inside. The more we try to confront it head on in others, the darker grows the shadow of it in our inner self, and the greater the danger that other people will hear only the manipulation that we thought we were not part of.

    Nathan’s parable to King David is a start. Even better is to love our enemies.

  • Brandon Roberts