The OF Blog: Regarding the "purpleness" of prose

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Regarding the "purpleness" of prose

So much is in the eyes and ears of the beholders. One person's "purple" is another's moving passage. In a day and age in which the semicolon seems to be destined to the same fate as the English Subjunctive, when complex clauses in which there are several dependents that serve to modify the thrust and meaning of the main, but at the expense of some fearing commas the way that another might fear heights or open spaces, one has to wonder at the changes wrought during the past few decades.

There's an interesting discussion here about "prose overdose." The authors named almost universally were some of my favorites; their prose is beautiful to me. But it seems that for many, "transparent" prose is the bee's knees, since most of the authors lauded by those who disdain the "purple prose" writers tend to be those who write in a rather minimalist style, even when some elaboration would have helped those stories.

With this in mind, I decided to read George MacDonald's 1895 classic, Lilith. Peppered throughout the book are passages such as this:

All at once, a radiant form stood in the centre of the darkness, flashing a splendour on every side. Over a robe of soft white, her hair streamed in a cataract, black as the marble on which it fell. Her eyes were a luminous blackness; her arms and feet like warm ivory. She greeted me with the innocent smile of a girl - and in face, figure, and motion seemed but now to have stepped over the threshold of womanhood. "Alas," thought I, "ill did I reckon my danger! Can this be the woman I rescued - she who struck me, scorned me, left me?" I stood gazing at her out of the darkness; she stood gazing into it, as if searching for me.

She disappeared. "She will not acknowledge me!" I thought. But the next instant her eyes flashed out of the dark straight into me. She had descried me and come to me!


She poured me out a bowlful of milk, and, handing me the loaf, begged me to break from it such a piece as I liked. Then she filled from the wine-jug two silver goblets of grotesquely graceful workmanship.

"You have never drunk wine like this!" she said.

I drank, and wondered: every flower of Hybla and Hymettus must have sent its ghost to swell the soul of that wine!

"And now that you will be able to listen," she went on, "I must do what I can to make myself intelligible to you. Our natures, however, are so different, that this may not be easy. Men and women live but to die; we, that is such as I - we are but a few - live to live on. Old age is to you a horror; to me it is a dear desire: the older we grow, the nearer we are to our perfection. Your perfection is a poor thing, comes soon, and lasts but a little while; ours is a ceaseless ripening. I am not yet ripe, and have lived thousands of your years - how many, I never cared to note. The everlasting will not be measured.

"Many lovers have sought me; I have loved none of them: they sought but to enslave me; they sought me but as the men of my city seek gems of price. - When you found me, I found a man! I put you to the test; you stood it; your love was genuine! - It was, however, far from ideal - far from such love as I would have. You love me truly, but not with true love. Pity has, but is not love. What woman of any world would return love for pity? Such love as yours was then, is hateful to me. I knew that, if you saw me as I am, you would love me - like the rest of them - to have and to hold: I would none of that either! I would be otherwise loved! I would have a love that outlived hopelessness, outmeasured indifference, hate, scorn! Therefore did I put on cruelty, despite, ingratitude. When I left you, I had shown myself such as you could at least no longer follow from pity. I was no longer in need of you! But you must satisfy my desire or set me free - prove yourself priceless or worthless! To satisfy the hunger of my love, you must follow me looking for nothing, not gratitude, not even pity in return! - follow and find me, and be content with merest presence, with scantest forbearance! - I, not you, have failed; I yield the contest."

She looked at me tenderly, and hid her face in her hands. But I had caught a flash and a sparkle behind the tenderness, and did not believe her. She laid herself out to secure and enslave me; she only fascinated me! (Chapter XXV, "The Princess")
MacDonald's prose probably leaves many of you reading this shaking your head at the flagrant abuse of exclamation points, commas, dashes, and semicolons. But perhaps for some of you, these punctuation marks, aided by the rhythm of the triple modifiers (such as the "outmeasured indifference, hate, scorn!"), served to give a sense of flowing meter to the passages cited above; I certainly found it to work despite the near occasions of falling into the mortal sin of becoming untrue to its own self. For me at least, the descriptors serve to add subtle hints of mystery and possible deception into what might, at first glance, be but a saccharine-filled paean to capital L Love. Likewise, the allusions to scenes from ancient Greek myth, such as that of the wine, serve simultaneously to ground the story in a mythic setting, while the prose and the dialogue serve to accentuate just how "otherworldly" this setting truly is. It is a fine balance, but for the most part MacDonald manuevered his way well between the Scylla of too little exposition and the Charybdis of too much description at the expense of the story.

However, for many, this is just too much. For them, the focus is lost admist the tangled weave of the verbal labyrinth; even Ariadne couldn't provide the necessary thread for these erstwhile Theseuses to find their bearings. Less is more, even at the expense of a more varied hue and pitch to the stories they read. More is lost than just in translation, it seems. A pity, or perhaps not? What do you think on this issue, as well regarding the quoted MacDonald passage?


David Moles said...

More straightforward than it looks, I think -- it's the sentiment that's out of fashion, more than the sentence structure. Cut it half-and-half with Hemingway and it'd be Zelazny.

Lsrry said...

Good point about the sentiment, as that is something that I noticed, but didn't think about much, perhaps because I'm so used to reading Romantic texts over the years. I wonder if such a sentimental style could even be viable in modern writing without coming across as being too affected; seems more and more doubtful with each passing year.

J m mcdermott said...

I wonder how often these same "less is more" lusters read the king of all "less is more" writing: poetry.

I bet they don't read much of it.

Which is about all I have to say about that point of view.

Lsrry said...

Good point. Oddly enough, I love well-composed poetry and am a bit ticked off that my Amazon order that includes some translated Palestinian poetry hasn't arrived yet. Grr...

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