Will Self: The business of clarification through the Perspex space-helmet of clarity

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

"This all seems a little involved to me." Photo: Getty

Scrutinising your own fuzzy face in the misty morning mirror, you hear this bewilderingly obscure dialogue emanating from the radio:

“Let me make it perfectly clear –”

“I’m going to have to interrupt you there: when you say you wish this matter to be perfectly clear, how clear do you mean?”

“As I said, I want there to be no confusion on this matter –”

“So, total clarity?”

“Absolutely.’’

“The metaphor is a visual one, is it not?”

“I’m sorry?’’

“The metaphor you use to express the idea that you wish your statements to be entirely comprehensible, and without any ambiguity, works by analogy with the visual field.’’

“Um . . . yes . . . well . . . s’pose so.”

“So, if I may pursue that analogy, should we think of this visual field as clear in the way a car windscreen might be clear?”

“Um . . . possibly.”

“In which case is your clarity a function of there being no object blocking the windscreen; or is it a matter of there being no opacity?”

“Ah. This all seems a little involved to me.”

“But minister, you’ve made it perfectly clear that you wish to be perfectly clear, and I’m only seeking to clarify that clarity.”

“You seem to be making the whole business rather murky to me.”

“Would it therefore be fair to say that the windscreen through which you perceive your own clarity is in itself rather murky?”

“That’s not what I meant –”

“But wait just a minute: you granted me the initial metaphor, I then extended it a little, but now you say that your understanding of that image is itself imperfect – ‘murky’ in fact.”

“Look, you aren’t going to bamboozle me – I stick to my initial point: I wish to make it perfectly clear.”

“I think everyone listening understands that, minister – what concerns them is that someone entrusted with such a serious matter is unable to assure the public that he himself is perfectly clear about his own clarity. That is all I wish to establish: are you?”

“What?”

“Are you clear about being clear?”

“I believe I am.”

“So, there are no splashes of birdshit on your windscreen or any other obstructions ?”

“None whatsoever.”

“And you are looking at this windscreen through a second windscreen that is also free from smut or grime?”

“Yes . . . yes, I am.”

“How do you fit this second windscreen inside the first? Is it warped around your face, like the Perspex of a space helmet – or is it mounted on a curious little frame that’s suspended a few inches in front of your eyes by aluminium struts secured with nickelalloy bolts that are counter-sunk in your cheekbones?”

“I think . . . you’re being rather ridiculously literal-minded about this metaphor –”

“Would you concede that to be literalminded is, in a manner of speaking, to spell everything out?”

“Yes – yes, that’s true . . .”

“Which is surely only another way of being perfectly clear?”

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

“Is it complexly the case?”

“Now you’re being facetious.”

“No, no, please . . . nothing was further from my mind – ”

“Is it, I wonder, so far from your mind that you can’t in fact see it with any clarity?”

“Are you being rhetorical, minister?”

“Possibly – although I do find this image amusing: you looking in the rear-view mirror at your own facetiousness, which is hundreds of yards off and speedily retreating, when suddenly you’re broadsided by me, because with this complicated visual prothesis attached to my face, once the bright light of reason begins to shine I’m unable to see anything at all.”

“That’s as may be, but all I’m seeking to establish is that objects – such as my facetiousness –may appear larger in the mirror.”

“I accept your apology.”

“Thank you very much, minister.”

“Thank you, John.”
 

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