Intensity so great, only qualifiers will do

When I was in Peace Corps, my boyfriend at the time was state-side. He would send me magazines and clippings every couple of months: Mother Jones, The Sun, Adbusters. I had just finished reading a piece in Adbusters by a writer in high school and was talking about the effulgence of descriptions, the merits of being selective with adjectives and adverbs, &c. One high school teacher taught that every description is meant to tell you something deeper, and he imparted this memorable description from The Great Gatsby:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

Fitzgerald meant something by the sugar.

“If a writer isn’t selective, then the reader doesn’t know what to focus on. The prose will have lost its impact,” I said.

After critiquing the young’un’s writing, I continued:

But as I was sitting there contemplating this writer’s style, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing if all your senses were bombarded so relentlessly you couldn’t even focus in? Where beauty and value were so abundant that every detail must be qualified? I don’t know if I’ve ever even been witness to anything so beautiful (I’m sure you must have, as you’ve been to so many places; ha funny, too, how that assumption [he’s outdoorsy] indicates that I believe such beauty can only exist in nature).

To this day, nothing immediately comes to mind. How about you, dear friends? What is it for you?


Filed under: Storytelling, , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. mark says:

    “Where beauty and value were so abundant that every detail must be qualified?”
    In the moment of such an event we are struck dumb. When you witness something of such awe, awe having such a great sense of onomatopoeia as we are left without syllables to express the experience of it, we are without words. The description of the experience falls away as we are engulfed in it. When something is so intense, so striking, so overpowering it occurs outside of language, outside of description, maybe even outside of classification. What can we qualify it against?

    • dennetmint says:

      Good point, Mark! In the moment, it’s true. After the moment? Maybe that’s where a divide happens:

      • There are those for whom the experience is enough, and they don’t need to tackle how ineffable it was
      • There are those who need to try to capture the experience in words, and they are wholly inadequate
      • mark says:

        It is the Sunset Painting Scenario (SPS). People are mesmerized by the sunset and then try to re-present it. Regardless at how much they work they are only left with a crude visual outline, never being able to capture the myriad of details. Somethings can not be translated into another form, like sunsets into paint.

  2. Magueycita says:

    Undoubtedly, words are wholly inadequate, especially in a description that is meant to accurately describe the beauty and value of an experience. Can you imagine a world in which we were able to completely identify with a writer’s description in the way that she meant it to be interpreted? Boring! Also, in the example of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes in blatant symbolism and imagery to express his social critique, not to attempt to describe an ineffable sense of beauty. I personally wouldn’t want to read Gatsby without the image of Jordan in her white dress drinking a mint julep in the summer heat. Mmm, I want a mint julep, but I digress. A symbolic “qualifier” isn’t finite and doesn’t need to be; it’s complex in meaning, and uniquely significant to each reader.

    • dennetmint says:

      🙂 I imagine you saying “BOOOOOOring.” Fitzgerald definitely knows when to use his description, and you’re right that he uses it judiciously. Your thoughts though when it comes to “truth and beauty:” Is it even worth trying to qualify the experience in the description? If it’s that ineffable, is it just as effective at that point to write a straight-up account?

      Ah, I am going on tangents. I suppose the measure for being effusive in a description is up to the crafter. If writers are satisfied with what they’ve managed to capture, then that’s the best they can hope for.

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