Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rhetoric at the Democratic Convention

Like many Americans, I will not vote, if I vote, on the issues; if we are to base our government on the undisciplined judgments of laymen, I am of the opinion we should go all the way. But unlike the many who will surely decide from the appearances of debates or the trust of party, any decision I make will be based solely upon a candidate’s skillful execution of the noble art of oratory. Nor is such an emphasis unreasonable when we consider how few are the men of real greatness in our nation’s history who have not possessed great command of words, and with how much contempt our most recent governments have held the power of speech.

In light of these sentiments it should appear as no surprise if the early palm of my estimation were Senator Obama’s. Indeed, one cannot follow this election for a moment without hearing praise of his oratory. It is so good, say some, that the artifice could hardly be that of an honest man; it is so lofty, say some, that he finds no time for policies and plans; so inspiring, say others, that he needs none. Judgment, it seems, has been already passed upon the quality of his rhetoric, and a Vice President of the United States had no shame in comparing him to Lincoln; yet a man of taste must surely find him wanting in those most particular felicities of speech which have always divided competency from eloquence.

It is not so much that Obama is a poor speaker, as that he performs poor speeches; indeed, the dictum of Cicero should be ready among the defenders of today’s rhetoricians, that the greatest part of oratory is performance. The senator has a fine voice and is not prone, as many are today, to stumble like an anxious child when he speaks; yet the words that pair with this talent are hardly of equal stature. So it was that I was often compelled during his great convention speech, when unbecoming motions of patriotism were stirred by the good packaging of drivel, to say, with the seduced Hero of Marlowe’s poem,

“Ay me! such words as these I should abhor,
And yet I like them for the orator.”

The principal deficiencies of Obama’s style are shared with all the orators of our age: a persistent lowness of expression, manifesting itself not only in an avoidance of imagery and metaphor, but also an impoverished vocabulary; a refusal to vary the naturally monotonous syntax of English, and to emphasize a balanced phrase with strong correlatives; and the overuse of the few tired devices of anaphora, asyndeton, and rhetorical question. The first of these flaws will not accept of real examples from the speech, for it is a deficiency of absence, and can be demonstrated only by an examination of the whole; yet I trust that those who examine it with the same eye that I have will find there is no real use of metaphorical language (beyond the commonplace) in the whole performance. As to the second, a brief consideration of any part of the speech will reveal that Senator Obama and his writers are very loathe to interrupt the steady progression from subject to verb to object, never staying too long between any one of them. Only once, in my observation, have I found them daring to delay the verb for any length of time:

“And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush Administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we're wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.”

The uniformity of the rest produces that unpleasantly homogenous quality of which Pope has written,

“But in such lays as neither ebb nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenor keep,
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.”

The last shortcoming of my enumeration, the reliance upon a few worn techniques of rhetoric, produces a similar effect; in fact it often helps to produce the same effect with greater vehemence. It is not so much that the speech is impoverished by the overuse of a few favorite tropes, for every orator is entitled to his favorites, but that they are very simple and emphatic tropes, useful at moments of great importance, which have been so densely peppered about the speech as to leave an audience as exhausted as they are bored. The paucity of connective words (asyndeton) throughout a speech comprised, as was Obama’s, of so many small and simple sentences, produces an effect of sustained emphasis, as though nearly every point, small or large, were the object of long anticipation. Anaphora, perhaps most memorably, if not most felicitously employed at the Convention in Senator Clinton’s “No way, no how, no McCain,” has a similar effect in its overuse.

Yet it is not only the problems that can be ascribed directly to these tropes at the level of phrases and sentences, but the deeper structural issues intimated by their presence that should concern us. For it is not by an unhappy accident of overzealous verbal art that a speech comes by so many points of great emphasis one after another; the matter of the speech must be distracted to some degree if the style of its presentation is so. Indeed, evidence for a superfluity of subjects is hardly to be hunted for in Senator Obama’s speech, and hardly unexpected in the politics of our age, but when one considers such inclusion oratorically, taking care for the necessary swells and expositions, it ought to be lamented, although he spoke for the interminable (to a modern) time of forty minutes, that he did not speak for more. Like Götterdammerung, though it is long, it really ought to be longer. Many subjects are treated neither in passing nor with adequate development, so that the procession of short subjects, especially in the middle of the speech, surrenders the burden of coherence to the mechanical progress of a list, when, as in all arts, the organic effusion of nature is much to be preferred.

Although it may appear, at this point, that I found nothing to praise in Senator Obama’s speech, I must admit one section caught me as I watched it:

“In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.
Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.”

The string of colloquial questions is certainly beneath my approbation, but the play on the word ‘own’ is actually quite ingenious, and shines through even so inelegant a presentation as this one.

Probably the only fine phrase in the whole convention came in President Clinton’s speech:

“Most important, Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

A forceful specimen of chiasmus in the Kennedian vein, praiseworthy for its expansion of the sense of ‘example’ into something more like ‘exercise’ or ‘employment,’ and soon to be forgiven the plebeian phrase “most important.”

The rarity of such episodes of high rhetoric in today’s politics should be a source of great sadness in the country of Jefferson, Webster, and Lincoln. Even more lamentable is the seriousness with which our statesmen deliver their mediocrities, and the hyperbole with which our most prominent commentators are wont to flatter them. If a candidate is to deliver a speech in the utmost strength and solemnity of purpose and demeanor, it is embarrassing to find in his words the sort of simplicities and informalities no English teacher would allow in formal writing. For this reason I might well say Governor Schweitzer of Montana was the most effective and pleasant speaker of the convention, for the provincial jocundity of his manner accepted all vulgarity of expression.

Perhaps I am too harsh, and am speaking, as Cicero said of Cato, “to the republic of Plato, not the dregs of Rome.” But if Senator Obama is truly to be a great orator, and, more than that, if he is to make good on his pledge to change the tone of political discourse in this country, he must have more than merely ideas: he must have words.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Classical Wisdom for Everyday Use

It is an elegant and most desirable skill in conversation to escape cliche while maintaining simplicity, and conserve the wisdom of the commonplace in a better guise. Among the learned this is easily done with allusions to literature, and is not infelicitous even among the vulgar, so long as they are apt to be impressed. Yet where one's company possesses both the shapely mind of a good education, and an open character that neither marvels nor is haughty, the choicest adornments of an elevated exchange may be found in the words of the ancient writers. Every sentiment is weightier in Latin, nothing glimmers like a touch of Greek. One should therefore always have some phrases ready; I give you some examples.

Cliche: "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Classical Solution: "Nimium ne crede colori" (Vergil, Eclogues II.17; "trust not too much to color.")
Implications to bear in mind among the exceeding learned: The first half of the line is "O formose puer" ("O pretty boy!"); one may therefore deploy the line admonishingly with a subtle grin in the right company.

Common Phrase: "Child Prodigy"
Classical Solution: "Non sine dis animosus infans" (Horace, Odes III.4.20; "An inspired infant, and not without the patronage of heaven.")
Secondary Use: Horace is describing himself as a child, and one could therefore use the line ironically of the self-impressed, although this may lose some sting if the subject, like Horace, is at all worthy of the line.

Political Opinion: "We ought not to appease, Munich, Chamberlain, etc."
Classical Solution: "...χειροτονήσετε ὦ ἄνδρες ᾿Αθηναῖοι ἴνα μὴ μόνον ἐν τοῖς ψηφίσμασι καὶ ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς πολεμῆτε Φιλίππῳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις." (Demosthenes, 1st Philippic, section 30; "Now vote, O men of Athens, so you may be at war with Philip not only in letters and resolutions, but in your actions as well.")
Problems of Employment: The sentence is elegant if not pithy, and long enough that quotation in the original is rarely to be advised. A more general allusion is preferable: "As Demosthenes said, you must fight tyrants with deeds as well as resolutions."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Poetry and Elitism

Dana Gioia, the current president of the National Endowment for the Arts, is probably the most visible representative of a movement in English poetry of the last few decades dubbed Formalism or New Formalism. The main unifying motive of this rather vague grouping of contemporary poets is the revival of meter and rhyme in serious poetry, certainly a valuable endeavor after all the damage that has been done since Walter the White Man took an ax to the English Muse. In Gioia's eyes, however, one of the main culprits in this has been the inability of contemporary poetry to be popular enough (a rather general expression of this thesis can be found in his 2007 Stanford commencement address). Although Gioia lays some blame on the failure of American education to establish cultured readership, his usual object of declamation is academic elitism.

Now, it may be that I would agree with Mr. Gioia if we broke things down, but it seems to me most unfortunate to associate a current disaster for good literature (the taste of the modern academy) with a necessary precondition of it (elitism). In fact, although serious poets are still a sort of elite within society itself, the problem with their verse is a democratization of aesthetic, whose causes must be found farther back than even the last century. By democratization of aesthetic I mean, essentially an aesthetic that falls easily in line with the dominant ideologies of bourgeois democracy and modern capitalism: self-expression and empowerment (as well as the consequent rejection of tradition and authority), a lack of artifice, and the exaltation of the mundane. Democratization of aesthetic, when taken to extremes, as it has been for about the last century by various avante-garde movements, cannot produce acceptable art; to me, this is a self-evident fact. It should not surprise us then that for a long time artists have had to redefine the critical vocabulary to make their innovations "good," even to the point of institutionalizing redefinition itself as a virtue.

The most interesting consequence of this democratization, however, is that the people (the demo- of democracy) didn't react very well to its first manifestations, and have responded to its establishment with the disinterest Mr. Gioia so often laments. It is this strange twist which has led to the intellectual elite (a social element that will probably always exist) supporting a popular aesthetic, although disliked by the people, solely because the value of that aesthetic are more in line with the generally dominant ideology, itself popular, vulgar, and, to bring in the Greek analogue of those terms, democratic. It can only be with democracy as the ruling ideology that the poets are noble while the poems are base.

Mr. Gioia is fighting an uphill battle in the poetic world, and he seems to have used his time at the NEA well, especially in being vociferous about humanizing public schools which often nowadays lack any real instruction in music or the arts. I admire his efforts, although I think they will eventually change little: the contemporary arts can be revived only by the most minimal compromises with the aesthetics of democracy, and, for all their good intentions, New Formalists like Mr. Gioia aren't really radicals in any direction.