We Need Few Words To Express The Essential

Polonius would have been right at home on Twitter.

Polonius, stained glass , Elsinore Theatre, Salem, Oregon

“Brevity is the soul of wit” he ¬†advises King Claudius and his Queen Gertrude, following up with “…I will be brief. Your noble son is mad” Whoa. Your noble son is mad. He only needs 21 characters and spits in Twitter’s eye because he has said it all AND he has 119 characters left for other stuff. Mind you, Polonius is pretty wordy during the rest of Hamlet, leading that great literary critic Sigmund Freud to call him a ‘chatterbox’. But we remember what Polonius said, not Freud’s comment.

The ability to say what you mean briefly, to convey the message before your audience falls asleep, is a great skill. And it takes time, paradoxically, to speak or write that way. Verbose is easy. Truncated but meaningful is hard. Pascal agrees. I like to think of Blaise Pascal as a great 17th Century psychologist, although he is usually described as a mathematician, physicist and philosopher, but read his Pensees. Better psychology, I reckon,¬†than the aforementioned Freud. And when you read him, it is clear he lives up to his well-known quote “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Mind you, Pascal is good, but not perfect, because his Wager is a philosophical shambles. You know, when Pascal was wrestling with Christianity v Atheism, he said “If you gain you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is”. We call that an eachway bet. BTW, in 2011, Pascal might well have said “…that She is”.

Dali portrait of Paul Eluard, sold for record $22M in 2011. Eluard's first wife, Gala, left him to marry Dali

Which leads us to Paul Eluard. I was reading a newsletter yesterday from a professional organisation to which I belong. In order to soften the ponderous political and educational essays, there are, as in most newsletters, little soft bits to amuse. Like Quotes of the Day. And there it was: “We need few words to express the essential” Paul Eluard. But this organisation, in keeping with its severe and authoritative profile (its name begins with Royal), has the quote in the original french, with a promise to translate it next issue! (Don’t you hate that) Eluard died in 1952 at the age of 57, a marvellous life and a marvellous poet, and the words Dadaism, Surrealism, love and freedom would be his catchwords. But read his life, better still, get his poems. For a taste, here is Isaac Cohen’s great talk given to the Chicago Literary Club in 2002.

Have I gone on too long? I have according to Eluard. Or have I? Maybe not. Because his full quote is not often seen. He actually wrote “We need few words to express the essential. We need all the words to make it real”. That makes wordy klutzes like me feel better.

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