The Art of Understatement: How We Use Deception to Communicate Truth

“Understatement is not a trick, not a literary device: it is a way of life.”
George Mikes

A newspaper clip from the London Evening Standard, 6th of June 1944, hangs framed in a pub I frequent. Among other things, it reads “Landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time…”

The London Evening Standard front page for June 6, 1944.

A framed print on a wall is easily missed, but imagine these words on a paper between your hands, just picked up from the front step. You return to the table, slippers on feet, buttered toast congealing next to cold coffee, the house quiet because you just sent your son/husband/brother et cetera et cetera off to vanquish something they couldn’t describe, couldn’t articulate or in any way prepare for because they did not know themselves.

Neither did you. You are overwhelmed by the unknowing of it all.

Reread the words.

“Landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time…”

Furthermore:

“The obstacles which were constructed in the sea have not proved so difficult as was apprehended.”

It was D-Day, rewritten as an almost absurd level of understatement that provides minimum comfort to its reader, although to be fair, not too much discomfort either.1

The lines invoke a wonderful truism coined by Hungarian immigrant George Mikes in his exploration of the British culture: “The English have no soul: they have the understatement instead.”

Ah, the understatement. Something about war in particular pulls out literary treachery that is the understatement (and bombastic, nationalistic overstatement):

“Six feet tall was not an ideal height for airplanes” wrote Roald Dahl in his memoirs Going Solo upon arrival at the Royal Air Force training camp. Dahl was a whopping six feet six inches tall.

Photo of Roald Dahl in Dahl's "Going Solo" in the Examined Life Library.
Roald Dahl reporting to RAF flight school, Kenya, 1939. Photograph from the book.

Not only was height not “ideal”, his height forfeited any comfort the little airplane might have afforded and made it almost inoperable. While flying in active duty in WWII, Dahl could only breathe with a scarf around his neck and face, ducking down into the cockpit occasionally to take breaths.

Six feet tall, not ideal height for airplanes.

In the same period of time he wrote to his mother, an individual of warm importance to Dahl throughout his life, “I’m having a lovely time, I never enjoyed myself so much. Flying is grand, instructors are terrific…It’s all marvelous fun.”

“Really Good” by David Shrigley on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.

Far be it from me to take aim at anyone’s culture, especially one that I’ve come to love, so I’ll let Mikes do it instead:

The English have no soul: they have the understatement instead. If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world […] In England the boy pats her adored girl on the back and says softly: ‘I don’t object to you, you know.’

If he is quite mad with passion, he might add: ’I rather fancy you, in fact.’

If he wants to marry a girl, he says: ’I say . . Would you? . . .’

If he wants to make an indecent proposal: ‘I say . . . What about . . .?

From George Mike’s How To Be a Brit

Mikes (pronounced Me-kesh) was born in 1912 in Hungary but lived his adult life in England as a journalist and writer. His outside-in perceptions might be right. That is to say, he’s dead-on accurate.

In his insightful and occasionally self-excoriating memoirs, Englishman Stephen Fry also tosses out classically British gestures of affection and understatement like crumbs to pigeons. Like when his parents sent him off to boarding school, 200 miles away at age 7 (a dramatic event for any child, stiff-upper lip or not):

The loudness and hattedness of Other Parents were not conducive to the particular Fry tokens of love: tiny exertions of pressure on the hands and tight little nods of the head that stood for affection and deep, unspoken understanding. A slightly forced smile and bitten underlip aside Mummy always left the platform outwardly resolute, which was all that mattered.

From Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot

Is Fry being understated about the lack of understatement from his parents? One imagines his actual feelings in the moment were significantly bolder, deeper, messier.

“Afraid” by David Shrigley.

A desire to reduce emotions to minimal bland words rather than swim their fullness. I recall a particular poem by the American poet Robert Lowell on the death of his father. The latter being a man who never, ever, opened up about anything being remotely wrong, was heard to utter his dying words, “I don’t feel well.”

This gentle understatement not only caps off the poem, it caps off a life lived and extinguished.

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting,
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
His last words to Mother were:
‘I feel awful.’

From Robert Lowell’s “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”

And then there is John Steinbeck who wrote in his writing journals:

Let’s get down to earth. this book I’m working on is just a book like any other. Let’s work on it and not get wild. If it flops it flops, and that is that.

Journal Entry 45, August 2

The “book” (which Steinbeck did not refer to as a “novel” until after it was published) was The Grapes of Wrath, one of the great American novels and the bedrock of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize award two decades later. Was it understated grace or merely the dampening of expectations? What can we read into his words?

Perhaps it was expected that individuals add a dose of humility when writing personal journals. Even Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius introduced his personal Meditations with a self-description: ‘a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.”

The fact that we are still reading this “ruler” today suggests more than this quick byline ever could. Perhaps he knew that.

The understatement can indicate humility, thrift of one’s self, subterfuge based on the need to appear less (while all the while knowing the opposite to be true).

At the same time, I wonder if the use of understatement, at least in Western cultures, owes less to cultural instinct and more to the fact that our human need to self-express is paired with language that lacks sophistication to meet these self-expression needs.

“I’m fine, it’s fine” means the exact opposite. Do we have the language to say more? Do we have the language to listen?

There is a beautiful Welsh word hireath, which loosely means an intense longing to return to a place of memory, an almost paralysing homesickness towards an inexpressible object. (I’m informed by a Welsh colleague that even all these words do not come close to its meaning and hireath simply does not exist in English.)

The French have a similar phrase mal du pays. Which again refers to an impossible longing. I wonder how those soldiers approaching D-Day landings would have described their emotions towards home, towards what was to come.

With image rather than words.

Marc Chagall’s “Memory, painted in 1914.

Language is a barometer of emotion, both felt and repressed, conscious and unconscious. It measures the rise and fall of the human spirit through all the terabytes of time we call a life. It uses meaning, subtext, subterfuge and precision. It is a sophisticated and complex thing practiced by billions of people simultaneously to connect, commune and exhale our self into one another.

What do we say when words fall short? When we cannot accurately convey the full embodiment of a situation?

We bury this complicated, muddy, hairy, fungy thing that is the entirety of emotional truth in mundane words and innocuous phrases. We verbally shrug off any hint of importance.

“I’m hanging on quite comfortably” from David Shrigley’s perfectly absurd and completely accurate portrait of unhappy humankind.

Or so it would seem.

What the British (and other cultures that regularly use understatements as a way of life) know is that often the understatement is so monotonous, so utterly stripped of accessory, that it’s very presence suggests – no, proves – something of great meaning.

“Landings on the beaches are proceeding…”

“Six feet tall was not an ideal height for airplanes…”

“Don’t do this” by David Shrigley.

“Is it any wonder that since then, sleep tends to elude me?” the words written by Elie Wiesel about his first nights in Auschwitz after becoming aware that human beings were being thrown into furnaces. The entirely of this knowledge, even writing years after the fact, eluded full expression. The first time I read that the stark lack of emotion, the limited expression was so jarring, so unbelievably not enough.

The understatement, quite unique in this way, takes that rising and falling barometer of human being and sets it to naught. No one would read these lines and imagine anything but a giant truth hides behind the paltry wall of words. A giant truth so beyond comprehension that language – Wiesel’s or anyone else’s – ill-prepared him to communicate. No one would fall to feel deeply upon hearing/reading Wiesel’s understatement “sleep tends to elude me”.

His words were enough after all.

The understatement is fine.

Do we do it in treachery? In cheek? Do we know that the understatement, by its very existence, suggests the presence of something even bigger unsaid? So is it laziness, or rather habit? An amygdala shutdown that overrides our articulation?

Yes? Yes. Some. All? Does it matter?

The understatement is fine. That is to say, it does the job.

Existing in Uncertainty and Doubt

“We must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. This dialectic relationship between conviction and doubt is characteristic of the highest types of courage.”
Rollo May

There is pleasurable existence in being certain. To be rid of doubt. 

“There was once a man who went into church and asked, ‘Can it be that my ardour has deceived me, that I have taken a wrong turning and managed things badly? Oh, if only I could be rid of this doubt and know for certain I shall come out victorious.’ A voice answered him. ‘And if you were certain, what would you do then? Act now as if you were certain and you will not be disappointed.'”

This little parable was told by Vincent van Gogh to his brother in 1878. Van Gogh, whose own crisis of self-actualization was life-long, imagined if only we could hold to these “thoughts and deeds” peace would follow.

Writer Annie Dillard suggested we build a protected space where we can meet our most adept consciousness, and thus, be certain. Even Rilke, who advised “live the questions” admits needing to feel at home in order to write, presumably a comfortable, known space.

Those who smooth the wrinkled space of doubt like a cloth under flat palms are really just wanting to solve the horrific state of uncertainty.

Is that what we should be doing?

Owen Normand's "Now and Then" 2019, oil on canvas.
Owen Normand, a Scottish artist of intense restraint, shows rather than tells this state of uncertainty. His figures – eyes closed, thinking, unavailable – exist in their own in-between. Now and Then, 2019. Available as a print.

There are some instances where certainty seems sublime and natural. I think of Jan (born James) Morris’ conviction related to her essential physical being. It is unequivocal:

I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.

[…]

To myself I had been woman all along, and I was not going to change the truth of me, only discard the falsity.

From Jan Morris’ Conundrum

The purity of knowledge as it pertained to herself and body was resolute and Morris’ arrival – or rather, departure – from the falsity of her body was perfect.1

But certainty does not always arrive thus.

Certainty itself is uncertain and it has many fittings. It can be something false we project to protect, or something we embrace for comfort. Of what are we certain? And of what, in doubt? And what does it mean to exist in uncertainty and doubt?

Rollo May, in his clear guide to existing as a creative being discusses the paradox of uncertainty and the courage it demands:

The seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. This dialectic relationship between conviction and doubt is characteristic of the highest types of courage, and gives the lie to the simplistic definitions that identify courage with mere growth.

People who claim to be absolutely convinced that their stand is the only right one are dangerous. Such conviction is the essence of not only dogmatism, but of its more destructive cousin, fanaticism. It blocks off the user from learning new truth, and it is a dead giveaway of the unconscious doubt.

From Rollo May’s The Courage to Create

May not only slips a toe in that closing door of certainty, he props it open. He even argues one’s commitment to a cause or belief is higher when we allow for doubt and is not a contradiction: “it presupposes a greater respect for truth, and awareness that truth always goes beyond anything said or done at any given moment.”

Owen Normand's "Stop Motion" 2019, oil on canvas.
Normand’s metaphoric use of black in these works, is it an abyss at the edge? No, black isn’t nothing, it’s everything. Like Malevich’s Black Square, Normand’s void is space into which you can expand. That is what we all need, not certainty, but space – nay permission – to be uncertain. Stop Motion, 2019.

“To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis.” continued May, illustrating so perfectly what sculptor Barbara Hepworth knew intrinsically and expressed fearlessly throughout her work.

It is the mystery that makes such loveliness and I want to project my feeling about it into sculpture – not words, not paint, nor sound; because it cannot be a complete thought unless it could have been done no other way, in no other material or any different size.

From Unit 1: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture’, ed. Herbert Read, 1934.

Hepworth’s sculptures, characterized by materials tucked around open space, or forms pierced with holes and fissures, left actual physical space for the unanswered, the unknown. At the same time we were to mentally enter her work, we might feel sheltered and held.

Is that what we feel in the gaze of scientific certainty?

“Science is not the only means to arrive at knowledge,” countered Alan Lightman, a physicist and human who has, for generations, poked holes in some of our most steadfast bodies of knowledge. Everything is changing, nothing is still, nothing is certain. So much knowledge pouring in, accelerated and relentless, inundated by the constant flux, powerless against change.

Is that why we cling to certainty?

Lightman thinks so:

Now isn’t enough. We want to go beyond the moment. We want to build systems and patterns and memories that connect moment to moment to eternity. We long to be part of the infinite.

From Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

If we step out of that infinite, we face an edge. What is it like to stand at the edge of knowledge?

For many, this is where faith comes in, formal religious faith or simply a structured set of beliefs.

I needed to place my faith in something… I wasn’t exactly a nonbeliever. Nor was I a believer. Where did that leave me? Anxious, fearful, lonely, resentful, depressed – troubled by a powerful and, some would say, deeply irreverent sense of futility.

From Dani Shapiro’s Devotion

Writer Dani Shapiro stands at this exact position, facing that edge, sorting through the muck of uncertainty, pulling up faith, religion, and memory for comfort.

What she ultimately found looked like this:

Something that was here before we got here and I will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousness are bound up in that greater consciousness … That was as as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in that direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this is what I felt. Something – rather than nothing.

From Dani Shapiro’s Devotion

Faith and religion give comfort as we stand at the edge of knowledge and confront not knowing. But neither are the answer to not knowing, merely a means to accept it.

What is it that we are afraid of not knowing?

Not knowing if our future self will do our current and past self justice. Not knowing if God exits. Or does not exist. If we are alone. Not knowing if our lives will mean something, anything. Not knowing when pain will come.

Owen Normand's "Sending Messages" 2019, oil on canvas.
Notice how quickly our mind spins stories, building a fabric of life from a single shot. In Sending Messages, the protagonist taps the pineapple like a Morse code telegraph. Is the pineapple real, or a kitschy flare to show hospitality? Is he a guest? Does he feel welcome? Sending Messages, 2019. Oil on canvas. Available as a print.

Not knowing what an artist intended with his work.

I feel deeply soothed by Lydia Davis’ (a short-short story writer of tremendous imagination) confrontation with Les Bluets, by Joan Mitchell.

It was what it was, shapes and colors, white and blue. Then I was told by Joan or someone else that it referred to the landscape here in Vétheuil, specifically to the cornflowers. Apparently I had not known before that an abstract painting could contain references to concrete, objective, identifiable subject matter. Two things happened at once: the painting abruptly went beyond itself, lost its isolation, acquired a relationship to fields, to flowers; and it changed from something I understood into something I did not understand, a mystery, a problem.

[…]

I like to understand things and tend to ask questions of myself or another person until there is nothing left that I do not understand. At the time, in the midst of a period when I was training myself so hard in another kind of representation and seeing more and more clearly into the subtler workings of my language, I was confronted with this experience of opacity.

From Lydia Davis’ Essays

When Davis fixes herself in this space – confronting art as an uncomfortable abstract of our unconscious reality – she begins to warm to it, even like it, need it.

If the lighter, scattered, or broken areas of blue referred to cornflowers, what did the blocks of darker blue refer to, and the opulent white?” Davis instantly assumes meaning in the piece, as we must from Davis. And yet… “Eventually I began to find answers to my questions, but they were not complete answers, and after a time I did not feel the need for complete answer because I saw that part of the force of the painting was that it continued to elude explanation.

From Lydia Davis’ Essays

I did not feel the need for complete answers.

When did you last feel exactly that? When did you let yourself feel like that?

If it is knowledge and certainty you seek, then seek all of it. Collect all the comingling contradicting bits. Let everything dance around, spill over and gush onto the floor and out the door. This endless fount of wonder, curiosity, and being that is true, false, everything and nothing all at once.

And then? And then… I have no idea what happens next.

Unpacking My Library: Impenetrable and Uniquely Itself

“The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience.”
Walter Benjamin

I recently spent some meditative, physical moments unpacking boxes of books. I moved offices, or locations of work, rather, the word “office” is fungible. The books are now lined up, their crenellated spines showing lots of blacks and red. Are those more attractive to book buyers? I do love red. Do I read them first? The slim ones, those are the ones I read first. Sorry Proust.

After a lifetime of reading, novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz revisited the expended time, energy and passion, asking How should a life be spent? Was this enough?

Lying in the shadow of books, I brood on my reading habit. What is it all about? What am I doing it for? And the classic addict’s question, What is it doing for me? … I’m not sure my mind could be free without reading, or that the action books have on it is properly termed “interference.” I suspect the interaction of the mind and the book is something more complex. I can see it encompassing an intimate history and geography: the evolution of character, the shifting map of personal taste.

From Lynne Sharon Schwartz’ Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

I brood on my own reading habit, the ultimate freedom of books. “What more felicity can fall to creature than to enjoy delight with liberty?” asked C. S. Lewis, I think he meant books. Novelist Marilynne Robinson confessed to a childhood of reading, and like Schwartz, an unretractable lifetime of reading.

I brood on my Dad’s collection of books – a 60/40 balance of read and to be read. For his birthday one year I transferred sheets and sheets of handwritten titles, page numbers and dates read to a computer. He loved seeing the page count, it was indeed astounding. I couldn’t help notice how many books were read on my birthday, Christmas, other days of family.

Was it enough?

Now my Dad volunteers at the local library, blessing this local institution with a talented, well-read mind, and ensuring a pipeline of orphaned books directly to his shelves. “Look what they were getting rid of today!” he presents to my mother’s cringing face, no doubt weekly. Piles and piles, lists and lists. On and on he reads.

C. S. Lewis had a mindful obsession with books and imagination in his childhood that owed much to his father’s book hoarding habit.

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

From C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy

Unordered books on shelves.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I order these things on my mental shelves: books, reading, collecting, and above all, the concept of a library. What turns a pile of books into an inclusive space of wonder and knowledge?

“The books are not yet on the shelves…” writes philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in his 1930s essay “Unpacking My Library”, which dives into the books, the collection and, most importantly, the collector.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood-it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation-which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself. Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer? I, for one, have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions.

From Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”

A lamentation of swans is more than a few swans that swim up to the unsuspecting tourist holding bread. A murder of crows is more than the flurry of black feathers that pounce on the remains of a picnic. These things, these words, mean some level of social gathering, some interaction, some emotional give and take.

A library is more than books, it’s a collection of books that are held and read and loved and, or, even hated by many.

To Benjamin the space of books, his library as he called it, was the insurmountable feature of his daily life. He wrapped its comfort around his shoulders and dived into its depths for inspiration.

Walter Benjamin's card for Bibioteque nationale de France. Featured in Walter Benjamin's "Illuminations" in the Examined Life Library.
Walter Benjamin’s library card for the Biblioteque Nationale de France, 1940.

One of Benjamin’s unachieved but life-long pursuits was to make a work that existed entirely of quotations. Imagine that, in the time before the computer, before data aggregation methods, even before Post-it notes, he catalogued, memorized and collected thousands of quotes into a body of knowledge.1

The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself. Anyone who buys from catalogues must have flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned. Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something-not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not. An auction requires yet another set of qualities in a collector. To the reader of a catalogue the book itself must speak, or possibly its previous ownership if the provenance of the copy has been established.

From Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”

When choosing what to read I pull the slim books first, but start with the thick ones when shelving. They anchor and define the space. I pay particular attention – deliberate or not – to the unread books. Unrelenting thoughts that I am not smart enough to understand them. Yet. Their words and wisdom set aside until some future, intellectually improved version of me arrives.

Then I recall – deliberately – something one of my imagined mentors, film-critic Roger Ebert, said. When watching a movie he didn’t understand, 2001: A Space Odyssey was his example, he simply wrote about how it made him feel.

There is knowledge in feeling, meaning in emotions. My Dad reads books and will tell me timelines and dates and connections of individuals, but rarely speaks of how the books make him feel. I know he has an emotional dialogue with the books, we all do. Even if it’s unspoken.

Unordered books waiting to be shelved.
Unpacking my library in a room of my own. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I love the openness of Benjamin’s essay, the invitation: “I must ask you to join me…” He longs to share this vast collection, to discuss.
.
I wonder sometimes if that’s my Dad’s aim too, talking about books he’s finished and purchased, to invite me into the collection.

To the question of whether a life spent reading was worth it, Lynne Sharon Schwartz answered simply “It didn’t replace living, it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in a bead of water.”

If that is true, what happens when reading and life are separated? When the books are torn from us?

Walter Benjamin died in 1940. He was a German-Jewish exile in Europe when such a thing meant death. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Benjamin fled to Spain. Without his books, without his quotes. Heavy with loss, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine and was found in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border.

A library is a collection of books that are loved and a home for the spirits who loved them.

I’ve created a library on my shelves and I try, every other day, to create a library on The Examined Life. To turn a digital space into something penetrable and unique. It requires care, certainly. And something else: obsessiveness, a competitive mindset and constant existence in a state of wonder. It is more than enough.

But first things first, I need to order the books.