The other day I had to have my eyes dilated. As they slowly came back into focus, I tested them on this week’s issue of The New Yorker. One of the essays focused on Allison Janney, currently starring on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Janney’s character in the play owns a Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists of the early 20th Century), and in the New Yorker essay Janney was viewing a Kandinsky at the Guggenheim as she gave the interview:
On her phone, she pulled up a Kandinsky quote from the play: “It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” She grimaced. “A sentence like that is so hard to understand,” she said. “It’s like an ice cube that hasn’t melted. That’s the way my father used to talk about learning the piano or learning a language. He said, ‘It’ll melt, just give it time.'”
Kandinsky’s actual quote seemed like a legal writing professor’s dream, in terms of editing issues to attack:
- throat-clearing language (“It is clear that…”)
- a gaggle of prepositional phrases (“of…of…in…of…by…in…”)
- passive voice, of course (“must be decided only by…”)
But underneath the verbiage is the artist’s essential concept. How could that wordy sentence be rewritten without changing the concept? I came up with the following:
“The artist must decide on elements in the harmony of form only by seeking a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”
This edit cuts 10 words. Is it better? Even though it reflects standard writing edits, it changed some of the original. Most obviously, obliterating the passive means adding an actor. But maybe Kandinsky wanted to hide “the artist” by using the passive. The most concrete thing in the whole sentence is the last thought—“a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Using abstract, passive, verbose language leading up to the final culminating moment—“the human soul”—is itself a form of verbal artistry.
This conceptual verbal artistry is at home and welcome in art-theory discourse, not so much in legal writing. The values of plain language and efficient writing have little use for a quote like “It is clear that the choice of objects . . . blah blah blah.”
So after reading Kandinsky’s quote in the essay, I was ready to move on to another portion of the magazine. But luckily, I finished the paragraph, catching Allison Janney’s wonderful turn of phrase quoted from her father:
“It’ll melt, just give it time.”
I think she meant that after effort and thought by the person approaching this sentence, the sequence of words will break down. They will “melt” into meaning in the person’s mind. The sentence itself doesn’t change; after all, that’s what Kandinsky meant for it to say. But the person encountering the sentence can melt it in their own mind so it’s not so rigid and foreboding.
How does this melting occur? As Janney’s father advised her, through time and patience. Not through focused effort directly lasered onto the ice cube. An ice cube melts effortlessly through the passage of time.
This ice-cube metaphor seems to me a wonderful metaphor for learning the law as well. For new law students faced with old cases and new concepts in arcane and twisted language, at times the only logical reaction is to grimace—just as Janney did when she read the Kandinsky quote. And of course you can apply techniques, tips, and tricks (as shown earlier in this post) to break down what you hear and read into something you can actually understand and use.
But really, ultimately the only valid long-term strategy is letting the ice cube melt. It melts slowly and imperceptibly. But then, at some point, something has happened. You can speak the language, and you can play the instrument. The ice cube has melted. You are thinking like a lawyer.