Personal Reflections on Knowledge, Writing and ‘Eloquence’

As much as I would like to claim otherwise, I did not possess any bookish inclinations as a young child. To me, reading was something that required undue mental exertion and served as a bothersome distraction from the kind hooliganism that is the right of every young boy in America. In my 11th grade “Great Books” class I was assigned to read 12 novels, including Crime and Punishment. I read exactly zero, and managed to pass the course with a “D+,” a high mark about which my mother would never let me forget. If my memory serves me well–and I don’t say this on account of a deceitful modesty–on the eve of my high school graduation I had read only one book cover-to-cover: The Twits by Roald Dahl. It is impossible to know for certain what impact such a rich reading experience had on my subsequent intellectual development.

By contrast, although I did not have a particular fondness for writing, I generally managed to receive good marks on my writing assignments, excepting Great Books, of course. I derived a strange pleasure from composing verbose sentences, which I would read back to myself, over and over again, in what surely amounted to an unjustified narcissism. Indeed, I took such a strong liking to eloquent prose that I was often tempted to plagiarize; that someone had expressed in precise language what I felt vaguely and obscurely, and which was lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind but could never quite find its way to my pen, caused me to feel a burning itch of frustration, and envy. But I could never bring myself to appropriate language that wasn’t my own, if only out of fear that I would be exposed. Indeed, had I been certain I could emerge unscathed, I would have appended my name to Dickens and his progeny a thousand times over. Like many others, my lust for eloquence sprang from a desire to be thought brilliant, even if it was objectively untrue.

As painful as it is to acknowledge, save for a few inconsequential departures, my childhood story represented the diametric opposite of the boy-genius described by Bertrand Russell, who is prone to withdrawing into a dark corner and drowning himself in letters: “Adults who achieve anything of value, as a rule, have liked solitude: [as children] they have tried to slink into a corner with a book and been happiest when they could escape the notice of their barbarian contemporaries,” he would write. By every measure, I was the barbarian who the young prodigy would do well to avoid, unless he hoped to become duller.

It was only upon entering university that I experienced a genuine intellectual awakening. Living at home, it was difficult to find moments of repose and quietness, but in college, for the first time in my life, I found myself with ample time to allow my mind to wander into realms that it had hitherto never entered. After a verbal confrontation with my best friend about the merits of our respective religions, Islam and Christianity, I was left feeling that I did not put forth an adequate defense of a faith that I intuitively believed was intellectually sound. I thus developed an earnest desire to learn about Islam and believe that all my subsequent intellectual interests sprang from this initial incursion. Islam was necessarily a sinuous subject in which law, history, philosophy, theology, spirituality, and culture were wrapped into one and thus provided the perfect spark to a mind that had grown stale from 18 years of disuse.

On my college campus I undeservedly earned a reputation for being knowledgeable about the topics on which I pontificated, and would frequently participate in informal on-campus debates. In my private moments, I often felt considerable guilt that I was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to earn praise from my peers and elders. I knew that from a spiritual perspective, seeking knowledge for personal glory was a reprehensible trait, one that the great sages had continually described as an affliction of the human heart. Al-Ghazali would famously say, “knowledge without action is vanity, action without knowledge is insanity.” I was constantly chastised my close friends and family for acquiring “knowledge” for all the wrong reasons. I knew there was truth to their charge, but that it was incomplete, as my love for learning owed to something quite sincere as well, including a love and empathy for those I advocated on behalf of. Years later I came realize that, except for a handful of God’s chosen saints, it is the occupation of every human being to live for a desire to earn the respect of their contemporaries, no matter how much they wish to deny it. It is emphatically true that even the noblest pursuits, among which the acquisition of knowledge is only one, can be employed for congratulatory purpose. George Orwell insisted that the trait that motivates writers foremost is “sheer egoism,” and a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood.” “It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one,” he would say. That narcissism is only the trait of those consumed with their physical beauty is surely not right. In reality, one’s intentions are almost always divided, in which self-aggrandizing motives are in constant war with nobler impulses. It is an on-going struggle, but one that becomes easier to overcome, in my view, as one develops self-assuredness and depends less-and-less on affirmation from others while simultaneously seeking a Higher purpose. It is a strange irony that confidence is often the surest cure for hubris.

In the course of my studies, I decided I wanted to create my own original compositions that were every bit as eloquent as the writings I envied. With little regard for content, eloquence became my alpha and omega. When I first began writing outside a strictly classroom setting, I would endeavor to emulate one of my close friends, a few years my senior, whose style I greatly admired. “Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his preface to Lolita, in which he would explain that his own eloquence was the product of profound pre-mediation and intellectual strain. My friend was the anomaly about which Nabokov wrote, as his eloquence appeared almost effortless. What resulted from my imitations, however, were ghastly compositions which sounded contrived from the first letter to the very last. I found myself writing things I didn’t believe, all in an effort to sound lettered. After repeated failure, I became disillusioned and believed that I could never write anything unless it was prompted by the specter of receiving a poor grade from a professor. Surely one who wrote for that end was destined to fail.

I slowly realized that my inability to write had less to do with intellectual ineptness and more with the fact that I had literally nothing to say. Despite outward pretensions, I had not amassed knowledge in any real sense, but only memorized a few facts from many disparate disciplines which, in the aggregate, was perfectly useless. Moreover, my personal life was so lacking in color, and my creative impulse so devoid of powers, that I knew that I would be an even greater failure if I embarked upon the path of fiction writing, which necessarily required a rich and varied life experience. In short, my failure lied in wanting to be “eloquent” but having no words to string together. To write under these conditions was no more possible than drawing a square-circle.

It was during the second semester of my sophomore year that I began to read voraciously and limited myself to a few subjects that I found especially interesting. I knew I could not master anything in a professional sense, at least not immediately, but that if I gained substantive knowledge writing would flow quite naturally. Indeed, I found that once I gained a proper understanding of this or that subject, writing became almost effortless, even if my work was not particularly eloquent. I consciously ignored eloquence and focused, above all, on content, and found that I was capable of producing sensible sentences if only I obeyed the maxim imparted to students of architecture, “form follows function.” Here I was the architect and language my tool, which I sought to put to most economical use. As I read more and more, I found that I could write long essays with relative ease and my writing, despite its many inadequacies, both then and now, greatly improved. 

As I see it today, “good writing” lies not so much in possessing a vast vocabulary but rather, at least in the realm of non-fiction writing, accumulating a body of knowledge on a matter about which one can write confidently. Writer’s block is triggered not by an inscrutable force, but the writer’s lack of comprehensive knowledge about the subject on which he wishes to comment, which necessarily makes composing more than two or three paragraphs a daunting task. When one has acquired sufficient understanding of a subject, all that remains is deploying one’s analytical faculties, organizing an argument and expressing those thoughts in manner that comports with one’s personal taste and style. But as the Ghazali quote above suggests, the antecedent to the “act” of writing is gaining true “knowledge.” Without this, it seems to me even the most gifted intellect cannot write any more coherently than a child scribbling with a crayon. Eloquence, in my mind, should be an after-thought and not made an end in itself. The focus must be centered on the message one wishes to deliver, not the decoration with which it is expressed. It is precisely when I invert these priorities that I know my undertaking is motivated by exuberance and a desire to be thought clever rather anything praiseworthy. And it is also where my hollowness as a “writer” becomes most evident.

Today I have found that non-fiction writers universally praised for their eloquence are often, consciously or unconsciously, so enslaved to what Orwell called “aesthetic enthusiasm,” that their writing lacks the kind of organization, clarity, and intellectual rigor through which meaningful knowledge can be imparted. Unnecessary esotericism in the realm of non-fiction writing speaks more to the writer’s ego than a desire to transmit knowledge, in my mind. In contrast, writers’ whose prose is devoid of embellishment and color, but expressed with unstinting clarity and precision, can often be the most edifying of all. Noam Chomsky represents this school of letters. But life is rarely binary and, for better or worse, my love for eloquence is as fused to my being  as my own limbs. And thus it is those non-fiction writers who are able to unite clarity with beauty of expression that I hold in highest esteem. In my mind, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell possessed this very rare talent in which they could discuss war and politics with the rigor of a medieval scholastic, but with an eloquence that could send shivers down the backbone of even the most jaded reader.

Were I to devote the rest of my days to writing, I am rather certain that I will never cultivate the kind of eloquent and refined pen that my literary heroes wielded. But, as long as my message is clear, my objective is Him, and I have not compromised on truth, I have met my purpose, ins sha Allah.

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One Response to Personal Reflections on Knowledge, Writing and ‘Eloquence’

  1. Spencer J Follows says:

    Superb piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recognized your experiences as a young man and student as being analogous to my own.

    I would agree that self-aggrandisement is a foremost motivation for the writer but would add that the noble seeking of a “higher purpose”, of which you speak, is also part of this narcissism. After all, what is more self-regarding than a belief that one has a connection with some sort of higher intelligence or an intrinsic understanding of what is universally “moral” or important?

    Content will always trump ornateness, as it is vital we actually have something to say before we say it – the floweriness of our words having, of course, no bearing on their worth. But that should never prevent us from striving, as you so evidently do, to package our message in the most alluring and beguiling wrapping we can muster. I think we can agree on that.

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