I recently took up one of my favorite volumes of Belloc’s essays, A Conversation With an Angel, which contains the piece “On Lucidity.” It was especially pertinent since the other day a friend sent me an article on Nietzsche which, though interesting and even humorous in parts, was very opaquely written. In all fairness, I may not be the most lucid writer either, but that is no reason not to admire the qualities that Belloc sets forth:
When [man] imitates the human form or landscape in the plastic arts his object is to record an impression and to fix the passage of life; to defeat time. When he writes his object is to express a conception; that is, to give it such exact substance as shall permit him to convey it to others…. Whatever he makes in building or in delineation or in written expression approaches perfection through the recognition of… limitation and the unity inseparable from an individual soul creating. If in his eagerness he neglects limit, his effect is spoilt. If from whatever influence of fatigue or of confusion he loses unity, his effect is spoilt.
Belloc’s definition of creativity reminds me of what his contemporary Irving Babbitt said on the subject. He notes two extremes to be avoided in literary activity – loose construction and contrived finesse. Both can be detrimental to the real aim of prose, which is communication. Nor is lucidity to be confused with simplicity or the dumbing-down of language.
It means that quality in prose whereby whatever you have had in your mind, however difficult to convey, however unusual… shall in the highest degree of clarity possible reappear in your reader’s mind. Not all things can be conveyed with an equal degree of lucidity, but the highest degree of lucidity proper to each is the goal.
The true test of clarity is that it survives the passage of time. That is not to say that an author cannot possess personal traits or quirks. Belloc mentions Carlyle and Meredith in that vein. But one must be able to express ideas so that they immediately interest or instruct the reader. By comparison those authors who sacrifice their craft to novelty or pomposity are doomed to be forgotten.