ornithopteryx - idk some website or something

In Defense of Purple Prose

By Paul West
Paul West received an award in literature this year from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
His 10th Novel, "Rat Man of Paris," will be published this winter.

Published: December 15, 1985 The New York Times

A WORD is its uses, as William H. Gass shows in his rollicking conspectus, ''On Being Blue,'' although he might have ogled ''purple'' as well. Purple does seep into his bluebook, however, here tinting some ''spent body like a bruise,'' there leaving a ''lavender thumb''-print of ''broken veins.'' In fact, as well as being a book on the uses of ''blue'' - in talk, literature and the dictionary - ''On Being Blue'' is a prime, up-to-date example of purple prose, not so much a patch as it is a pyramid, a pandemonium, a seething nuclear pile of words.

Infatuated with ''blue,'' its optical resonance and its metaphorical range, Mr. Gass picks up samples from far and near, reveling in the word's every appearance, teasing and inciting and delving until the little tome glides off on its own like emancipated lava, announcing I Am Words, I Am Language, I Am Style. The book is elaborate without being ornate, ambulatory without being pedestrian, and, for those whose tastes run to purple, a definite joy. It reminds us that the almost lost art of phrasemaking attracts the scorn only of those who have never made up a stylish phrase in their lives, as if style had become taboo, a menace to people, gods and cars.

Of course, purple is not only highly colored prose. It is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing - showing off - the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.

Consider Paul Cezanne's famous doubt, eloquently pondered in an essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French thinker. Was what Cezanne saw, and painted, in his hand or ''out there''? Or was it in the paint itself, the fine-ground lumps of geology he painted with? Plump for all three, in a mood of feckless empathy. You can see what nagged at him, as I think it must have nagged at such masters of purple as Sir Thomas Browne, Macaulay, Joyce, Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Nabokov. Is it something lacking in you that makes you want, in your visionary versions of the world, to load every rift with ore? The phrase is Keats's. It implies that the ore in the ordinary isn't enough. He wants ore-dinary. It's not a lack, though, but a lack's opposite: that powerful early-warning system of the sensibilities we call imagination, the system Coleridge called ''esemplastic'' because it fuses the many into one. SOME creative heads, in order to see the world at all, and to find it worth representing, need to begin by putting it in gaudy colors. More sternly, in a mood of utmost reverence, they recognize that what you bring to the act of perception is often just as important as what you perceive. ''We receive,'' wrote the same Coleridge, ''but what we give.''

The gist of it all is that a mind fully deployed, and here ''mind'' includes imagination, will find the merest thing an inexhaustible object of wonderment, itself included (in a fit of modesty, of course). A carrot. A wart biopsied. Take the bald, blank end of a stem from which a hibiscus bloom has dropped, and you can feel the rough ends of the dried-up tiny tubes that fed it - microstraws bound together by nature's clamp, like fascias, along which streamed the fuel of display. That's how a purple paragraph itself might start to bloom. The urge is more than the yen to make a well-upholstered paragraph that connoisseurs will clip and paste into albums of such things. Purple is a homage to nature and to what human ingenuity can do with nature's givens.

Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy - the human bond with ordinariness. I doubt if much unmitigated ordinariness can exist. As Harold Nicolson, the critic and biographer, once observed, only one man in a thousand is boring, and he's interesting because he's a man in a thousand. Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or substance. Got up as a cry from the heart, it is really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else.

How many prose writers can you identify from their style? Not many have that singular emanation from the temperament or those combinations of words all of them characteristic for a certain gait, a certain tone, a certain idiosyncratic consecutiveness of thought and image. Stone the crows by all means, but let the birds of paradise get on with the business of being gorgeous. Even Hemingway, who has much to do with this vogue for the flat, breaks his own habit in certain rapturous, long sentences in which he seems to recognize that although being alive is just one damn thing after another, there is no ultimate sum, no total; you just go on adding as long as you live, which is perhaps why a medieval monk, illuminating one capital letter for months, say, was living as full a life as Brother Busymitts, who rushed through a dozen in an hour.

It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity. So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can't do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks. A writer who is afraid of mind, which English-speaking writers tend to be, unlike their Continental counterparts, is a lion afraid of meat.

After all, it is the mind that stages such apparently incongruous and impossible things as making a stone talk, speaking up for posthumous narrators and dead characters, and, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's ''Autumn of the Patriarch,'' tuning in to the collective imagination of an island's islanders as they begin to confect the myth of its dead dictator. Mr. Garcia Marquez lets the reader listen in on an unwieldy, ramshackle process that nevertheless is going to get where it is going. The islanders want an image: potent, nasty and attractively damnable, and they are willing to lie, to fudge, to get it.

The only way of being a demiurge is to fashion a material world out of the one already on hand, not allusively but close-up, so much so that things the words denote seem right on top of the words, on top of the reader too. The ideal is to create a complex verbal world that has as much presence, as much apparent physical bulk, as the world around it. So you get it both ways: the words evoke the world that isn't made of words, and they - as far as possible -enact it too. The prose, especially when it's purple, seems almost to be made of the same material as what it's about.

This is an illusion, to be sure, but art is illusion, and what's needed is an art that temporarily blots out the real. So, reading Thomas Mann's description in ''The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man'' of a delicatessen window should, for a while, be nearly the same as staring into a comparable deli window in Manhattan. It's when the words blot out the real, and displace it, that prose comes into its own, conjuring, fooling, aping, yet never quite achieving the impression that, in dealing with an elephant, it is actually working in elephant hide. There lingers always, just out of view, on the conjectural fringe of vision, the fact that what's going on is verbal. The prose will not turn to the sun, like a plant, or wither without actually falling off its stem, or spawn tapeworms in its interior. Yet it has mass, texture and shape. It calls into play all the senses, and it can interact at the speed of ionization with the reader's mind. HOW extraordinary: our minds loll in two states, ably transposing words into things, things into words. What goes on in this hybrid mental shuttling to and fro is something passive but active, a compromise in affairs of scale, dimension and abstraction. The phrase ''teddy bear'' is smaller than the toy animal, which in turn is smaller (usually) than the big bear from the wilds; is almost entirely flat (a printed phrase stands up a little from the surface it is printed on); and lacks physical attributes conspicuous in any bear. The words represent, but they also re-present, and when the wordsmith turns to purple various things happen. The presence of the supervising wordsmith becomes more blatant, but the objects being presented in words have a more unruly presence. They bristle, they buzz, they come out at you.

Purple isn't quite onomatopoeia, whose modern meaning is different from what it meant in Greek. Now it means making a word sound like its referent (''hiss,'' ''crack,'' ''cuckoo''), but it used to mean ''word coining,'' which is wider. When it isn't just showing off, purple is phrase coining, an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps from nature. Then there is purple, which, from quite a distance, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation.

This plunge is almost like revisiting our ancestors. After all, words must have begun as acts of abstract approximation, a simultaneous closeness and removedness that nabbed the essence of a thing in a shout, a grunt, a hiss, but partly in order to refer to it in general. Take the word ''muscle,'' for instance, which comes from some Roman's impression that when a muscle flexes, a small mouse -a musculus - seems to be running underneath the skin. We have all but lost that mouse, and I am not saying that purple will retrieve it; it might, it might not, depending on how much etymology the purplist has. But purple will perhaps restore the shielded, abstracted modern reader to that more atavistic state of mind in which the observer can imagine a subcutaneous mouse. It is not a matter of coming up with new words, but fiercer - of coming up with new and more imposing combinations of words.

Purple is certainly a long way from the clinical doting on particulars we find in the French New Novel, but is quite near to Latin American magical realism, which is both a literary and a sociological thing. What might seem a literary flight of fancy exists already in part of Brazil, where birth certificates actually name freshwater dolphins as the fathers of certain children. Purple relishes that sort of thing, zeroing in on it or concocting it as part of the thing it loves to make: a paste as thick as life itself, a stream of phenomena delighted in for their own sake. And it is not a matter of inventing something out of nothing, for that cannot be done; everything is derivative, so there is no getting away from what might be thought the bases of life, of art. The farfetched always takes you home again, never mind how strained its combinations, how almost unthinkable its novelties. The color we have never seen, the smell we have never smelled, the mind we have never known, can only be made from the colors, the smells, the minds, we already know.

I am suggesting that purple prose reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena (''cuckoo'' is close, but ''indri,'' meaning ''look!'' in Malagasy, got tagged on to the monkey of that name by mistake); its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics and photography; its affinities with pleasure and luxury; its capacity for hitting the mind's eye - the mind's ear, the mind's very membranes - with what isn't there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable.

All this may sound like the latest variant of the old Classical-versus-Romantic quarrel, and maybe it is; but, even more, it is the quarrel between those who know what literature is allowed to be and those who want to let it evolve. If you write in stripped-down prose, you will probably do better commercially than if you, as the idiom has it, indulge yourself. What's a self for, anyway? For every hundred people with a hair-trigger response to what they think excessive, there are a few with a hair-trigger response to prose stripped down. The objection is empirical, not moral. It says life is infinitely more complex and magical than we will ever know unless we stop trying to pin down feeling in pat little formulas or sentences so understated as to be vacant, their only defense the lamebrain cop-out that, because they say so little, they imply volumes.

I have heard it said that writing that ponders things in detail, takes its time and habitually masticates its object until a wonder leaps forth, is ''Victorian,'' no doubt because the word evokes portly self-satisfaction or finicky dawdling. It makes more sense, though, to think of purple as Elizabethan or Jacobean: fine language, all the way from articulate frenzy to garish excess. Purple, it seems to me, is when the microcosm fights back against the always victorious and uncaring macrocosm, whose relative immortality we cannot forgive.

A wide net will bring in such treasures as the Gass book I began with, and the same author's ''Omensetter's Luck''; Faulkner's purple masterpiece, ''Absalom, Absalom!''; Lawrence Durrell's witty, crafted velvet; the mesmeric ripeness of Jose Lezama Lima's novel ''Paradiso''; the holistic, crackling bravura of Mexico's Carlos Fuentes; the poignant narcissisms of Juan Goytisolo, whose prose has a cutting edge, whereas his fellow Spaniard Juan Benet sometimes turns a sentence into a closet oratorio. There is Dylan Thomas's prose - letters and broadcasts and stories; the erotic skywriting of Guy Davenport; the quiet verbal accumulations of Walter Abish; the rapturous, almost mystical fiction of the Brazilian Osman Lins, whose exquisite formal, visionary novel, ''Avalovara,'' deserves a wider audience; Julio Cortazar, Michel Tournier, James Purdy, Richard Howard, Evan S. Connell, Jean Genet, Arno Schmidt, William Gaddis, the John Hawkes of ''The Passion Artist,'' the Witold Gombrowicz of ''Ferdydurke,'' the Thomas Bernhard of ''Correction'': they all partake of this plume, this flambe, this pageantry of the mind. THEY tell us, these authors, that it is headily terrifying to be alive, we have no choice in the matter. We are like Lucky in ''Waiting For Godot,'' when that bewitching mishmash of data and names, echoes and useful things to remember, pours from him like expedited ectoplasm. Purplists write in appalled fascination, wondering what chemistry prompts the style. In order to be reverential of life, people do not have to work overtime to pin down the world outlook of the nasturtium, but we may try to; nor must we linger too long on the curious aroma of mulled disappointment that hovers in the hallways of university literature departments, although we may. We simply have to heed the presence of all our words and the chance of combining them in unprecedented and luminous ways. Prose is malleable, not ordained. Phrasemaking is often a humble, almost involuntary virtuosity. And purple, whatever it may seem to catcalling wallflowers as it flaunts by with eloquence raised to its highest power, is bound, because of what it does so well, to cause exhilaration. It is also bound, however, because of what it cannot ever do, to deepen the sense of metaphysical fear. And what it cannot ever do is start from scratch.