An Ode to the Ostentatious
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
By Brett Nava
When I was in high school, my AP English teacher had us read “Why and How to Avoid the Passive Voice” by Stephen King. The essay, as its title suggests, derides the passive voice for its timidity, its unnecessary elongation of sentences, and its most heinous crime—a lack of agency and ownership of the subject. Every primer on academic writing cautions against its use. This I understand. When one only has 30 minutes to complete an essay during an exam, it is wise to use the style which arranges words according to clarity and efficiency, for our goal is to convince rather than preach. In other words, the active voice removes the superfluous. The passive relishes in it.
Students of English will have trouble finding value in the passive voice. No teacher will ever suggest its use. But, if we choose to wander from the confines of our tongue, we find that the passive voice’s timidity becomes flirtatious, its unnecessary elongation becomes Homeric, and the relinquishment of agency and ownership becomes the humble prioritization of the universe over the individual. Students of Spanish understand this. Their language is innately flowery. The Spanish Royal Academy, their tongue’s equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, proclaims the language to be one of “envied picturesque, expressive, a palette of multiple colors, magical in its brilliance and livelihood, melodious . . . which has validated it as the beautiful tongue of Cervantes.” The Spanish take pride in the ostentatiousness of their tongue. In their writing primers, the active and passive voices are equals. What is to be expected from a country that halts the day to nap? Efficiency and clarity are not their primary concern.
When I am feeling particularly arrogant, I like to consider myself as the inverse of the great Jorge Luis Borges. He an anglophile from a Spanish speaking country; I am hispanophile from an English-speaking country. Borges anglicized Spanish. His writings are revered for being concise. He tamed a “frivolous” tongue. In one of his musings on writing, he claims that “language is the efficient arrangement of that enigmatic, abundant world.” Or, language brings order to the disorder of the world.
For my argument to work, I must submit to the reader that I subscribe to the idea that the good writer will engage with the discourse of his time. Borges certainly did. He reached the height of his career during the 1940’s—a time infested with political turmoil. The world fell into another great war. Borges’s own country, Argentina, fell under the dictatorship of Juan Peron. Chaos was diffused into every sect of civil society. We are the subjects of our time. In a world inundated in disorder, Borges had an obligation to create the semblance of order in his writing.
Our time is characterized by its efficiency and convenience. Writers have engaged in the material problems of our age, no doubt. There are countless political and social narratives that rightfully resist societal oppressions. However, our tenets of rapidity are antithetical to language. The advent of smartphones and social interfaces have drastically altered our modes of interaction. The American President legislates with 140 characters. Our daily entertainment is a 14 second video. Our hunger is satisfied with the taps of our phones. Everything is easy. Our language has begun to reflect this efficiency, especially the so-called confessional poets. The popularity of Rupi Kaur and the confessional poetry genre that followed have degraded our poetry to the simplicity of tweets.
Within the Spanish academy, there is a novel reverence for the practicality of language, proclaiming it should reflect our reality. They call this the McOndo (McDonalds and Macintosh) Movement which holds an inherent disdain for magic realism. These movements consider language a tool to reflect a reality, as a mean to an end. I further submit that language should refract our reality so that we may gather truth from its distortion. Rupi Kaur, in her poem together, wrote, “the irony of loneliness / is we all feel it / at the same time.” I think this a noble sentiment—one we can all relate to. However, I would find it more interesting if she submerged this poem in a pond of metaphor. Her language would become part of the poem. Instead, the sentiment is the poem and nothing else. This makes the language disposable. If she were to find this pond, the truth of loneliness would be refracted in the words and form. If she were to talk about loneliness without explicitly mentioning the word then perhaps one would better understand its universality. McOndo writers commit the same crime. In Edmundo Paz Soldán’s Los vivos y los muertos, the story sacrifices word play for vivid descriptions of reality. Language is, again, reduced to a means. Words are the foundation of literature, and the use of words as a mean to an end ignores the possibility of literary art to create a story not only in its narrative but in its language.
Our time is fast, efficient, consumerist. I believe that writing should be ostentatious, shimmered in golden decadence. It should act with the consciousness of its own beauty. Know what it is. A word that reflects on itself and can flirt with the sentence simply for its physicality. I like the passive voice because it takes its time. It enjoys being an observer rather than an agent. It believes that perhaps the individual is not the most important object. In King’s essay, he disdains the sentence, “the body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa.” I think this is a great sentence. If the story was about a dead body, what better way to attribute agency to the dead? What a better way to ascribe solemnity to the occasion? I think it’s time that English learn from Spanish. I think it’s time we confront our convenience of all things and take our time, especially with words.