“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is remembered as one of the most ingenious men to have walked the earth. Even those unfamiliar with art recognize his name as the painter of the “Mona Lisa” and the innovator of ideas ahead of his time. And yet, this man, the epitome of a Renaissance man, believed that simplicity was the highest level of sophistication, that simplicity was the most apt means of communicating the most complex subjects.
I agree with Signor Da Vinci.
You see, this week I have been thinking a great deal about the relationship between simplicity of expression and beauty of thought and have realized that, when it comes down to it, they are inseparable. I sang in my regional honor choir last week and one of the songs we performed was a stunning piece of music, but when our director asked us what the lyrics meant, nobody had a clue. Normally, I am quite good at either discerning or inventing a meaning for the words I read, but even I was at a loss to explain what bizarre lines such as “born of scorpion need” could mean. Although beautiful when obscured by strong piano accompaniment and rumbling bass voices, these lyrics made no sense on their own; they were too vague to effectively convey their message and thus their potential beauty was lost.
In contrast, my favorite song from our concert, a joyful piece by Dan Forrest titled “The Music of Living”, was a rather basic work of poetry when examined apart from its music. It reads:
Giver of life,
Creator of all that is lovely,
Teach me to sing the words to Your song.
I want to feel the music of living!
And not fear the sad songs,
But from them make new songs
Composed of both laughter and tears.
Giver of life,
Creator of all that is lovely,
Teach me to dance to the sounds of Your world.
I want to move in rhythm with Your plan.
Help me to follow Your leading!
This song is joy! It is praise to God sung by His creation! It is a jubilant dance and encouragement between the faithful and a confession of dependence on His infinite strength! But even more than that, this song is simple and through this blessed simplicity conveyed infinitely more meaning and beauty than any amount of obscure metaphors and “scorpion needs.”
Simplicity’s sophistication is found in prose as well. Take this quote for instance:
“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
I don’t know about you, but I read that and it took a moment to process. Even apart from the fault in this math (pun so intended it hurts…), this quote was wordy and unbelievably eloquent for a teenage character. I got the idea behind this passage: it’s a profession of love. But I was not left with any resounding emotion by this excerpt and within five minutes of reading it could not tell you what exactly it even said. I know many idolize John Green for his eloquence, but in this instance it seemed to get in the way of the raw emotion behind this scene. (Feel free
to disagree; this is just my opinion.)
“I don’t want diamond sunbursts or marble halls. I just want you.”
-L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
It does not get much simpler than that and yet in those two brief sentences, Anne shares her complete love for Gilbert; she no longer dreams of castles or fairy tales, just him. If that is not true love, what is? And somehow L.M. Montgomery conveyed all that in twelve simple words. Beautiful. Crystal clear in wording and beautiful in meaning.
In my own life, simplicity has won out as the most sophisticated art form as well. Although I do not generally share my drafts of stories or scribblings of poetry, they have grown, opposite of what most would expect, more simple over the years and even the last few months. Where I used to dream up complex compositions of passionate lyrics and “artistically” dissonant music, I now find delight in honest writing and pure melodies. Where once I would have generated philosophical-sounding gibberish, I now dream up simple refrains such as,
“Let the red roses grow and fade; I’d rather have daisies on a rainy day.”
Even this line from my writing journal attests to the superiority of simplicity: red roses for passion are elaborate but predictable and when it comes down to it, daisies for no reason are simple but sweet.
Granted, I should add as a disclaimer that I adore complexity within literature and music. I love speculating and analyzing, but I find that the most poignant pieces of art tend to be the most simple, as seen in the power of “The Music of Living” or Anne of Green Gables, both of which spoke to me on a personal level and will remain a part of my artistic soul forever, whereas other, more “refined” works of music and literature will be sang, read, and forgotten because in all their complexity, they failed to have the impact of pure simplicity.
To sum up, often overly-flowery writing proves unnecessary; use too much artistic license and the artistry itself is diminished, try too hard to be deep and you’ll end up sounding shallow.