I am currently reading War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, long considered one of the great novels of all time. Published in 1869, I am literally overwhelmed with impressions, almost all favorable.
One of them is Tolstoy’s ability to communicate through description. He extrapolates a mere impression into an expansive awareness and understanding.
“Helene was so good-looking that there was not only not a trace of coquetry to be seen in her, but, on the contrary, it was as if she was embarrassed by her unquestionable and all too strongly and triumphantly effective beauty. It was as if she wished but was unable to diminish the effect of her beauty.”
The reader knows Helene in an intimate way before she has even opened her mouth.
For a novel that communicates so much it is amazing how little is actually said through dialogue. And how much of what is said is oblique and suggestive. By today’s standards it appears that the characters are speaking in riddles. We are left with the impression, however, that they are riddles that all of the other characters understand completely.
How many more words we use to communicate today. We are drowning in words. Yet, our understanding seems to be greatly compromised.
What has been lost, of course, is our ability to both communicate and comprehend subtlety. Subtlety takes time and practice to master and our time is our most precious resource.
What came to be known as the 7/38/55 rule came out of late 60s research conducted at UCLA. It held that the words themselves only account for 7% of the effectiveness of communication. Tone and body language account for 38% and 55%, respectively.
Technology, of course, has revolutionized our ability to generate and deliver words, but actually impedes our ability to communicate through tone and body language. It’s no wonder that few readers today appreciate Tolstoy. He is speaking a foreign language (i.e. the language of subtlety).
Think of the implications of a world without subtlety. It obviously moves fast. But in doing so our day-to-day existence loses any sense of contour or texture. Everything is sharp edges and hard angles. A world without subtlety is a world without shades.
I wonder if subtlety isn’t also an engine of curiosity. In a world of sharp angles there is “know” and “don’t know”. There is little room for wonder. What will that do to future discovery?
And what about the arts? Can there be great novels without subtlety? And doesn’t the lack of subtlety explain a lot about modern music. Without subtlety is there anything between anger and sensual abandonment, both of which seem to define much of contemporary music?
And in the graphic arts, Warhol was modern in his approach, but he understood and appreciated subtlety. Many contemporary artists apparently do not.
Subtlety is under-rated. But subtlety takes time. Yet another reason to slow down. Yet another reason to sit down with a good book this summer. Preferably, an old classic.
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