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How Obscure Clarity Can Improve Your Writing

In On Writing, Earnest Hemingway says, “I try always to do the thing by three-cushion shots rather than by words or direct statements. But maybe we must have direct statements too.”

E.B. White is often quoted with, “Be obscure clearly.”

Hemingway's three-cushion shot and White's obscure clarity could be seen as extensions of the “show, don’t tell” advice often given to fiction writers, but the implications of both techniques could mean added texture for a story, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks from his own experience.

Case Studies for Obscure Clarity

Utopian and dystopian literature have long been strongholds for the imaginative use of obscurity. Inventing new societies, new governments, and new social norms have been the hallmark of these genres. In the process they have specifically capitalized on the use of satire, symbolism and euphemism. Utopian and dystopian authors have utilized White's obscure clarity through the names assigned to characters, locations, themes, and everyday vocabulary used within the context of the story. In his Utopia, Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire. Ayn Rand used religious symbolism in Anthem to exalt the pursuit of one’s true self. In The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood applies the use of euphemisms to show how we might become used to just about anything, however tyrannical or foreign it initially seems. Other writers, as well as film makers, built euphemisms, established symbolism, and wrote in a satirical manner to both cloak and intensify their messages. By the use of obscure clarity, the resulting pieces of literature have become powerful works of fiction, capable of clearly delivering messages beyond what might have been possible without the use of such three-cushion shots.

Satire in Thomas More's Utopia

Thomas More was a man of deep religious convictions, a devout Roman Catholic who was canonized in 1935, four hundred years after his death, by Pope Pius XI. More was declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II. It should be reasonable then to assume More’s religious and political views would be similar to those of the church he served. But More’s fictional Utopia, completed in 1516, flies in the face of his century’s religious convention with its free society of religious experimentation and political socialism. Understanding the names of places, people and even the book’s title will reveal More’s satirical purposes in writing the book.

Modern readers have come to understand a “utopia” as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion. As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled. But in fact, the word “utopia” (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as “no place”. By calling his dreamland “Utopia” More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not, and presumably cannot, exist. He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story. The primary narrator, the character who describes this paradise to his companions, is a traveler named Raphael Hythlodaeus. Although he is telling his tale to two real-life, historical characters, Thomas More and his friend Peter Gilles, Raphael is a fictional character. Since the character’s name is chosen by the author, it opens the door to investigate the reason this particular name was assigned. Because More was widely known to be a deeply religious man, it doesn’t require too much stretching of the imagination to assume More chose the name “Raphael” with its Biblical counterpart in mind.

In the Bible, Raphael was the name of an angel. The angel Raphael was mentioned in the Book of Tobit. He guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness and helps him recover his property. Because of this story, Raphael is considered an angel-physician, an agent of healing who cured both the bodies and the souls of men. In fact, the name “Raphael” is from the Hebrew for “God has healed”. Throughout the Bible, angels are seen as ministers of light and illumination, proclaiming messages from God. The angel Gabriel was said to have delivered tidings to a virgin named Mary, who was to bear the son of God. The archangel Michael is one of the principal angels in Abrahamic tradition; his name was said to have been the war-cry of the angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. Therefore, the name Raphael carries connotations of a healing messenger, with a message of possible divine origin. Taking this into consideration it might appear More professed his Utopia to possess an illuminated culture, and that imitating their society would mean the deliverance of humanity. Deeper exploration of the book shows this isn’t the case at all.

More assigned Raphael the surname Hythlodaeus, which when translated from the Latin means “dispenser of nonsense”. So although he may have been named after an angel, a messenger of light, the Raphael Hythlodaeus character is designed to be simply a messenger of nonsense. More’s satiric intent was further underscored when he used this character to describe a country whose name literally means “no place”, and its river of no water and its ruler with no people. Most of the proper names More used in Utopia are words of Greek derivation, invented for More’s purposes. Anydrus (the name of a river in Utopia) means “not water”, and Ademus (the chief magistrate’s title) means “not people”.

In the introduction to his translation from the original Latin, Paul Turner states:
It is clear from an ironical passage in a letter to Peter Gilles that More expected the educated reader to understand these names; and, to ensure that their significance was not overlooked, he mentioned in the book itself that the Utopian language contains some traces of Greek in place-names and official titles.
The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in Utopia, disagreed with More’s celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof. The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer. Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.

Satire was an established staple in Medieval and Renaissance literature. These periods gave birth to such greats as Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. English pieces from the late Medieval period were aimed primarily at hypocrisy within the church. Even if he did not criticize the church, within the protective walls of satire’s three-cushion punch More was afforded the safety to criticize other religious and political fancies of the day.

Symbolism in Ayn Rand's Anthem

Few would dispute that Twentieth Century literature has been impacted by the work of Ayn Rand. Every book written by Ayn Rand is still in print and sales each year number in the hundred thousands. More than 20 million copies of her books have been sold to date.

In the summer of 1937 Rand constructed a dystopian tale of mankind in the distant future called Anthem. Unlike More, Rand’s reasons for writing the short novel are fairly transparent; she did not obscure her message through the use of Greek. If her motives are not readily apparent within the story, then the title can easily be broken down to reveal Rand’s motives. An anthem is a piece of music with religious significance. It is often made of scripture, and is sung or recited as a proclamation of faith. In naming her story Anthem, Rand declares its purposes, but in this case these purposes are not religious in the traditional sense of the word. In a letter Rand explains the final two chapters of the book are the actual anthem, and it is obviously an anthem to the individual.

The working title Rand used for this short novel was “Ego”. However, as she corresponded in November of 1946 to Richard de Mille:
I used the word in its exact, literal meaning, I did not mean a symbol of the self – but specifically and actually Man’s Self.
In an introduction to the 50th Anniversary American Edition of Anthem, Leonard Peikoff explains:
Although the word ego remains essential to the text, the title was changed to Anthem for publication. This was not an attempt to soften the book; it was a step that Ayn Rand took on every novel. Her working titles were invariably blunt and unemotional, naming explicitly, for her own clarity, the central issue of the book.
On another level the names she assigned to her characters, as well as their social significance and assignment within the story, add another layer of meaning to the text. In the world she has created, our own world but in the distant future, people are expected to view themselves only as part of a larger whole, a single cog in a larger machine. The individual is not recognized, and preferences are not permitted. To further this agenda, names are assigned at birth via committee, and are such socially oriented names as “Unity”, “Union” and “International”. No surnames are used, but instead a string of numbers is attached. These names have no individual meaning and are merely used to indicate which cog a person is in the great machine of society.

As the story progresses, two of Rand’s characters explore possibilities of the naming convention. Rand uses this realization as a stepping stone toward their ultimate realization and understanding of the concept of an individual. They assign descriptive names, which appear more like titles, such as “The Golden One” and “The Unconquered”. In this case, Rand’s naming choices revealed the characters’ growing understanding of “self”.

As Rand’s characters gain further awareness, they begin to explore the symbolic possibilities of an individualized name. Rand’s protagonist names himself Prometheus, symbolic of his attempt to share his light box invention with his brethren and the resulting persecution. Prometheus then names his female partner “Gaea” to symbolically show that she is to be the mother of a new race. The lives of both characters have shown parallels to their mythological-god namesakes, and we are led to expect further godlike parallels from them in the future.

Throughout the piece, Rand employs forms of symbolism by means other than name. For instance to deepen the humanistic values of her text, she pulls images from the Bible. Her protagonist pulls light from the heavens and delivers it to his brothers with a message of hope for the future, but is rejected and persecuted. He discovers a word from ancient times, the word “I”, and proclaims it is a god, to be followed and worshiped for its own ends. Rand draws from the Biblical account of Adam and Eve as well. Overall, Rand uses the depth of symbolism to enrich the messages within her text.

Euphemism in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood is a Booker Prize-Winning author who has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees, including the Canadian Governor General’s Award, Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Her works have been published in more than twenty-five countries. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood capitalizes on society’s tendency to euphemize difficult situations as a way to gain their general acceptance.

The Handmaid’s Tale paints the picture of a dystopia from the then-near future. One of the distinctive features of this world is how names are assigned to a position, a job, and each handmaid assumes that name when they take that job placement. The names of handmaids in the story, such as Offred, Ofwarren, or Ofglen merely show that handmaid is the property of Fred, of Warren, or of Glen; as such, the women are reduced to the level of an object. Just as I may own a car and call it “my car”, when it’s sold a new car takes its place and is given the moniker “my car”; the names of handmaid characters in Atwood’s story show a similar lack of personal regard.

While not directly named for their assignments, two other official forms of employment for women are assigned generalized names, the “Aunts” who train the handmaids, and the “Marthas” who run the households. Guards are called “Angels” and men in leadership roles (within the Gilead regime, the government within the story) are called “Commanders”. Atwood utilizes such “friendly” names to assist in hiding the grim realities within the story; such euphemisms as “angels”, “handmaids”, and “aunts” hide the real duties of characters assigned to these positions.

In particular, the term “handmaid” is applied to the nameless surrogate mothers forced into slavery to bare children for the country’s sterile elite. The term is taken from the Biblical account of Rachel and Jacob.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3)
Reminiscent of the section titles in Geoffrey Chaucer's medieval narrative poem The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer's text personalizes his storytellers even though they are identified by their profession, Atwood creates a complex narrator for her story. The complexity of the narrator, Offred, is in contrast to the generic qualities of her name.
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.
Atwood utilized other euphemisms to reflect the utilitarian sensibilities of the governing culture within her story. A short Biblical reading and the subsequent act of fornication imposed upon the handmaidens was called a “ceremony”. The resultant babies, when they were not correctly formed or had some other defect, were called “Unbabies”, and women who could not conceive were called “Unwomen”. Assassinations of the rebellious and disobedient were not called executions, but “Salvaging” and were seen merely as an “unpleasant necessity”. Even the handmaids’ slogan, “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs” could be seen as a euphemism for the reality of slavery which it strove to mask.

With such words as these, Margaret Atwood made the dystopian hell of The Handmaid’s Tale seem a place of benevolent inconveniences where anyone could grow accustomed. Ironically, in Atwood’s tale where such occasions as public hangings and slavery can be accepted as commonplace, the simple game of “Scrabble” is viewed as a dangerous, forbidden activity.

A Few More Examples

The use of obscure clarity and the three-cushion shot is not limited to Utopian or dystopian literature. However, whether by the use of satire, symbolism, euphemisms, or some other means, the these genres have drawn a long line across history from their works with hidden, or at least partially veiled, agendas. Where Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward caused the formation of small book discussion groups called “Bellamy Groups” across the nation, its indirect attack on the Industrial Age from whence it came brought new attempts at social reform and affected the future for several generations. In a like manner, George Orwell’s book and the movie version of 1984 sent reverberations around the globe for introducing the concept of a futuristic “Big Brother” who is always watching us.

The use of euphemism as a means of creating obscure clarity may also be seen in the smog-choked dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner. In this film, a class of androids has been created to perform slave labor on remote planets. In some instances these androids are too smart for their own good and become dangerous. However they are not “exterminated”, despite their decidedly human appearance and actions; the term used for their annihilation is that they are simply “retired”. One could only guess if such a euphemism is applied to the “retirement” of human individuals as well.

A Kinder, Gentler, Message?

The self-proclaimed prophets of our modern society stand on street corners within the city. They hold up their cardboard signs and warn us to “repent.” As we cross their paths we duck our heads and hide our eyes, pretending they are not there and never considering their messages. At the most we might throw a dollar in their hat with the small hope that somehow it will make them go away. Such prophets have always been with us. But other prophets approach us on the literary sidewalks. They capture our imaginations with tales of a time to come and the possibilities of the future. These prophets also warn us of our folly, but we listen carefully. We give these prophets of the literary sidewalk our rapt attention because they do not hit us with their messages head on. These prophets shrewdly approach us and spin their tales with an obscure clarity. They tell us of our folly, but soften the blow with a three-cushion shot so we are not offended. For this sensibility, we regard these writers as our best and brightest, the wise sages among us.

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