Do valid reasons exist for writing unclear prose? Could elaborately complex convolution and almost impenetrable opacity, rather than signaling laziness, inability or disregard for readers, actually have legitimate purposes?
In Playing the Fool: Subversive Laugher in Troubled Times, former University of Chicago professor Ralph Lerner defends deliberate difficulty in works by Francis Bacon, Pierre Bayle, Robert Burton and Benjamin Franklin, Edward Gibbons and Thomas More.
Lerner contends that such philosophical tricksters intend not only to demonstrate their own cleverness but also to weed out readers not able or willing to cope with what they have to say. They disguise their real meaning to protect themselves from those who do not respond to intellectual challenges by entering debate but by attacking those who offend them – a problem in the 21st century just as it was in earlier times.
As someone who has written favorably about both repetition and digressions, two key tactics Lerner’s dissemblers use, I might look like a supporter of such an argument. (See “Write, Repeat” and “Going off Course with Melville & Liebling” in Fighters & Writers.) Besides, I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of transmitting truth via falsehood (also known as the art of fiction).
Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced, for reasons I explain in more detail in “Studious Deceptions,” my review of Playing the Fool for Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture. Consciously concealing arguments in tangled presentations may provide self-protection of a sort, but its effectiveness as a rhetorical strategy is almost laughable.