The Sublimity of Understatement

As mentioned, I’ve been reading through a series of books to get through my reader’s block. So far, this strategy is and isn’t working. I don’t feel defeated by the books sitting at the side of my couch, waiting to be finished. And yet, choosing to follow such a disciplined approach made me think that I should pursue some undisciplined reading as well.

The undisciplined came easily enough. Jack had borrowed the whole of the Psyren manga series from our local library and we both read through the series pretty quickly. Still, my mind kept returning to Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf and Sophocles’ plays (although I’ve finished those, I find that having made it my first goal-book of the year has set it quite firmly in my mental background).

Tolkien’s commentary on understatement posits that understanding its function in Old English myth is essential to understanding much of the glory and grandeur of Beowulf. His words stuck with me especially as I considered what it was about Sophocles’ plays and Psyren that I found so memorable.

In Old English understatement is not a mere colloquial habit, though it is, as it were, a linguistic mood. It comes very frequently at points of ‘high colour’ — where later (mediƦval) romancers would tend to heap up words and superlatives — as though the poet (and the linguistic mood that he inherited) suddenly realized that shouting merely deafens and that at times it is more effective to lower the voice (p. 188).

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2015). Beowulf: A translation and a commentary.

Though Sophocles highlighted the emotions of each character, more often than not, the splashy scenes of battle and gruesome death were little described. Only through listening to the emotion could the audience have a true understanding of the action that had taken place. While Sophocles’ choice may well have been, as with Beowulf, common to the writing of his time (and the function of the stage, since any spectacular or large-scale effects, especially those of battle, may not have been an option), still the effect is that his plays are relatable even today and will be far into the future.

Maybe it was the beard.

As to Psyren, I found my appreciation also tending towards what was understated, rather than overstated. Now to be fair, Psyren is an entirely different medium compared to Beowulf or Sophocles’ plays; manga is essentially a visual experience. Still, visual experiences need not overwhelm their audience until the time is right (if ever). I think of overly weepy manga (Fruits Basket) or manga that’s just bang-up scene after scene without purpose (thanks, Naruto), and they lose their impact because they are, as Tolkien says, shouting.

In Psyren, Iwashiro-san does a wonderful job in character development. His depiction of a ruinous future world is more a message about the current internal struggles of each character that traverses the landscape than anything else, and he avoids attempting to shock the reader with gruesome acts of survival. With exception to the last volume (unfortunately), the most obvious turning points in Yoshina’s character is shown below. Apart from that, his dark-side trajectory is shown more in the brief flashes of hope and despair created by plot rather than simply what he expresses.

That understatement is attractive is no surprise. Yet it seems so little used, or what is more likely, there’s so much poor quality entertainment/communication to sift through before I find something treasurable. I think the difficulty with understatement is that, besides requiring the right sort of touch (and isn’t that more often the mark of an expert in any area?), at some point the writer must forgo an attempt at words in favour of entrusting a story to the reader’s context and imagination. Certainly I will continue to be on the lookout for understatement and its function throughout the rest of my year’s reading, as I’ve discovered that I value its presence.

What about you? What is it you’ve been valuing in your reading, lately?


Featured photo by Amy Earl on Unsplash

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