Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Complexities of the Simple Life

Simple things aren't easy.  They may be crafted to seem simple, which is to say uncluttered, perhaps even unornamented.  If they are living things, they may have evolved without the need for defensive protection or even structural sophistication.  Eric Satie's Gymnopédies may sound simple, but then the question arises, Simple in comparison to what?  Does their lack of complexity make them easier to understand?  Do they, because of their simplicity, lack the inherent ability to convey complex emotions.

An egg--say a chicken's egg--is quintessential simplicity.  And yet.  That entire egg contains a degree of biological, engineering, and nutritional complexity that represents an exquisite order of evolution.

A story--say something as simple as Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" or Jack London's "To Build a Fire"--appear to be unvarnished narrative lines.  They engage us as a tale should, with an intriguing event.  The event is much like an unresolved musical chord, triggering our emotional need for a response.  True enough, the authors in both cases have, through judicious choices of included materials, led our expectations as readers from mere observation to anticipation, at which point the dramatic reflexes take over to produce the emotional effect we have come to associate with successful story.  But is each tale as simple as it seems?  Are there other potential readings, assumptions, questions that inhere with each.  Is, for example, "Cask" merely a recitation of events leading to the revenge visited upon Montressor's nemesis, or is it possible to conclude that Montressor has been dining out on this story for some time, refining it with each telling?  Is it possible to conclude that this particular act of revenge upon Fortunato was--and now is--the high point of Montressor's life?
And what was the protagonist of "Fire" doing in such a remote area? Had he no sense of the dangers?  A thoughtful reader could come away from a close reading with more questions than answers.

Difficult things are simple things with rampant cancer cells; some ghost in the machine has deleted the one serial comma in ten thousand that lets in confusion or double meaning.  Difficult is a recipe with too many ingredients, a beginning of a story too soon, a logistical problem of which room should get what dramatic furniture; difficult is the newlywed hostess at a first dinner party, having too many guests, becoming overwhelmed, settling on more courses, more dishes.  Difficult things are often made to seem difficult out of fear that they are in fact simplistic, reductionist, somehow not serious enough or, perhaps, too intellectual.

Things in the middle--the so-so things--are like the one-use cups you get with take-out coffee.  They're gone before you know it.  Who ever regretted a paper cup, unless it contained a fluid that spilled on a shirt?

It is easier to take on difficult things than the simple ones.  With delicious irony, we take on difficult things by breaking them down into simpler components, by which point we see the elegance and potential for evolution resident in the simple.  What, after all, are the two- and three-part inventions of J. S. Bach but the artistic placement of simple things on the same track, leading to the same discovery.  If quantum physicists are successful in determining the moment of creation and the logic behind it, they will discover these things bear an uncanny resemblance to the Inventions of Bach.

It is not so easy to take on simple things; we tend to want to complicate them, top-down and bottom-up.  We have allowed snobs and critics to put us on the defensive about simplicity in a manner similar to the Democrats allowing themselves time after time to be put on the defense by those Puritans we have by euphemism come to think of as GOPs.

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