Something suspicious in obscurity

Thinking about these lines today, what is Marianne Moore saying about The Greek:

The Greek liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen.
Resolving with benevolent conclusiveness
“complexities that shall remain complexities as long as the world lasts.”

Let’s leave aside that “what was back of” is not regular English, and state the first lines another way: the Greek liked smoothness, distrusting what was behind [in back of] the obscure [what could not be clearly seen.]

A smooth thing has been set up in opposition to an obscure thing. A smooth thing is also a clear thing.

When I think of smoothness as a preferred attribute of something, I think of that something as being an object, a statue for example, whereas when I think of clarity as being the preferred attribute of something, I tend to think of a statement or argument.

When you think Moore is speaking here of the Greeks’ attitude toward objects and what’s behind them, these lines are opaque –why would you distrust what is behind an object when it is coarse but not when it is smooth? But if you think she is speaking of arguments — as in fact she goes on to do — the lines make considerably more sense, as there is something you can distrust behind arguments, and more often behind obscure ones than behind clear ones — namely, their motivations.

So the sense I make of these lines is — the Greeks did not prefer smoothness (clarity) or obscurity as such, but preferred smoothness, and distrusted obscurity, because they saw something suspicious in obscurity.

This said, I do believe Moore deliberately employs the language of objects and perception rather than of argument and cognition in these lines –using the word “seen” as well as “smoothness”– to suggest that their cognitive preferences informed their aesthetic preferences — the smooth statues and pillars of ancient Greek culture.

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