Encomium comes from the great tradition of classical rhetoric. Meaning praise, encomium ranks eighth among the fourteen graded assignments called Progymnasmata in classical rhetorical pedagogy, just before its harder opposite, ninth-ranked invective. Since the city of Baghdad has received much invective lately, I thought to share an ancient encomium of the place. It comes from Ahmad al-Ya'qubi, a ninth-century geographer who, having traveled to Baghdad in his youth, fulsomely praised the city in his Kitab al-buldan (published near his death in 897). I've foreshortened this passage from Bernard Lewis's Islam (published in 1974).
I begin with Iraq only because it is the center of this world, the navel of the earth, and I mention Baghdad first because it is the center of Iraq, the greatest city, which has no peer in the east or the west of the world in extent, size, prosperity, abundance of water, or health of climate, and because it is inhabited by all kinds of people, town-dwellers and country-dwellers. To it they come from all countries, far and near, and people from every side have preferred Baghdad to their own homelands. . . .
Its name is famous, and its fame widespread. Iraq is indeed the center of the world, for in accordance with the consensus of the astronomers recorded in the writing of ancient scholars, it is in the fourth climate. . . . Because of the temperate weather and rich soil and sweet water, the character of the inhabitants is good, their faces bright, and their minds untrammeled. The people excel in knowledge, understanding, letters, manners, insight, discernment, skill in commerce and crafts, cleverness in every argument, proficiency in every calling, and mastery of every craft. There is none more learned than their scholars, better informed than their traditionists, more cogent than their theologians, more perspicuous than their grammarians, more accurate than their readers, more skillful than their physicians, more melodious than their singers, more delicate than their craftsmen, more literate than their scribes, more lucid than their logicians, more devoted than their worshippers, more pious than their ascetics, more juridical than their judges, more eloquent than their preachers, more poetic than their poets, and more reckless than their rakes.
We are not likely today to heap much praise on Baghdad, but it is good to remember that when any human place suffers much, maybe it was once "the center of this world." Perhaps Baghdad still is.
You may recall that rhetoric derives etymologically from the Greek word "orator."The Times of London recently (and rightly) honored one such in the person of British Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, Commander of the 1st Battalion of The Royal Irish. In addressing his 800 troops last Wednesday at the Iraqi border, Colonel Collins, besides stirring his men to action, invoked an even larger, still more important rhetorical truth: that "words and deeds," as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "are quite different modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words." Without added comment, I give you Colonel Collins.
Today's war word is — for friend and foe alike — Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias."
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Behold all my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Today my hit counter reached 1000. I'm hardly impressed since my own visits count, though I am pleased. Indeed, I even found this link to "round out" my pleasure. My thanks.
With due respect for his considerable authority, I thought to cite a passage today by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I think Whitehead is doubly served by my Platonic footnote, as you can perhaps infer from my previous post For \ Four \ Fore:
A man really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course, if others like it, that is clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content.
With that I think I'll return to my neglected weekend paper grading.
· Toward a Definition of Style: Clarity, Emphasis, Tone, Rhythm ·
Jacques Barzun's The Modern Researcher (5th ed., with Henry F. Graff) includes a chapter — "Clear Sentences: Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm" — defining the term Style. I've thought to quote two paragraphs to prepare the ground for an analysis of some successively revised sentences also included. Together, Barzun's several passages offer stylish words for some substantive reflection.
Everyone's mind [Barzun writes], however eager it may be for information, offers a certain resistance to the reception of somebody else's ideas. Before one can take them in, the shape, connection, and tendency of one's own ideas have to yield to those same features in the other person's. Accordingly, the writer must somehow induce in that other the willingness to receive the foreign matter. He does so with the aid of a great many devices which, when regularly used, are called the qualities of his speech or writing.
These qualities go by such names as: Clarity, Order. Logic, Ease, Unity, Coherence, Rhythm, Force, Simplicity, Naturalness, Grace, Wit, Movement. But these are not distinct things; they overlap and can reinforce or obscure one another, being but aspects of the single power called Style. Neither style nor any of its qualities can be aimed at separately. Nor are the pleasing characteristics of a writer's style laid on some preexisting surface the way sheathing and plaster are laid on the rough boards of a half-finished house. Rather, they are the by-product of an intense effort to make words work. By "making them work" we mean here reaching the mind of another and affecting it in such a way as to reproduce there our state of mind.
With these two paragraphs in view, I have thought to cite Barzun's revisions of a sentence analyzed successively in the clear interests of "Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm." Only twelve words long, it marks a tightening vision — a movement of mind if not precisely towards Anatole France's single-minded goal of Clarity (D'abord la clarté, puis encore la clarté, et enfin la clarté: "First, clarity; then again clarity; and, finally, clarity"), then toward Barzun's more multi-valent definition of Style. For Barzun's aim is the difficult "inducement" of foreign matter, and his schoolbook example (drawn perhaps from his own education), of a domestic reflection of and on substance. In any case, below are his successive revisions, listed with his precise analyses blocked, truncated, and paraphrased for easy, intelligible reading.
Original Sentence: The wind blew across the desert where the corpse lay and whistled.
Analysis: The sentence is a howler, for we all laugh at how the short phrase "and whistled" makes the corpse whistle a sad, solo tune. Yet adding a comma after "lay" won't help, since we realize that our comma would just make the whistling but an afterthought. So the problem is, as Barzun explains, that "the parts that occur together in the world or in our mind" are not united.
Revision 1: The wind blew across the desert and whistled where the corpse lay.
Analysis: This is better, since the parts are so united, and our sentence is "no longer comic." But now, as Barzun says, the blowing wind seems to be "whistling" just near the corpse. So yet again.
Revision 2: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where the corpse lay.
Analysis: As Barzun now claims, "we have the limbs correctly distributed — no front leg is hitched on to the hindquarters." But say it aloud, he notes, and "it leaves the voice up in the air, and with the voice, the meaning, because the emphases are off beat." Simply, the stresses fall flat. So yet again.
Revision 3: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where lay the corpse.
Analysis: Now we've gone backwards since, in positioning the verb "lay" before the noun "corpse," we have learned that "to defy idiom is to lose force." As Barzun explains, "to sound natural we must stick to 'where the corpse lay.'" So yet again.
Revision 4: The corpse lay in the desert, across which the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: This is evidently a new route in the desert, as Barzun notes, the product of some frustration — if perhaps the "best [draft] yet." We discover, though, that the stiffness of the "about which" suits "a description of scenery rather than that of a lonely death." So yet again.
Revision 5: The corpse lay in the desert, and over it the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: This alternative is frankly "too weak for this gruesome vision," Barzun claims. As a compound sentence, it "separates what the eye and ear bring together in the mind. We have dismembered and reconstructed without success." So yet again.
Revision 6: Across the desert where the corpse lay, the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: Finally, Barzun writes, a two-part periodic sentence gives our topics proper stress. Indeed, "its suspensive opening phrase does not monopolize the emphasis we associate with beginnings," and its "second part . . . completes its own meaning by finding a main subject and verb," with our desert wind whistling. We catch, so to speak "The Spirit of Style."
So what then of Substance? It is little more than the "real things" we have so much in mind today: the thematic words sadly reverberating in Iraq: "desert," "wind," and "corpse." Soon, of course, they'll be beyond anybody's proper "revision."
Clearly, this is the foreign matter others, and events, are "inducing" us to see.
Because I do not hope to turn, as T. S. Eliot says in Ash Wednesday, "Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope," today I offer from the poem a small part without added comment:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
· Wilsonian Democracy, Finnish-Style: To the Finland Station ·
You may recognize my allusion to Edmund Wilson's 1940 text, To the Finland Station. It marks Lenin's 1917 return to St. Petersburg and Wilson's stylish examination of philosophical-historical utopianism in the West. It's fair to say, of course, that such utopianism is still with us. Some advocate "regime change" and "nation building" in the interests of poltical democrary now, not of proletarian dictatorship. So if Czar Nicholas has become Saddam Hussein, maybe Lenin has today become George W. Bush (though I'm aware of the danger of this analogy).
What interests me today, though, is Wilson's contrastive approach to utopianism. Tipping his philosopical hand by nodding to Giambattista Vico's The New Science, Wilson invokes early an intellectual figure bearing on my subtler, even deeper allusion: Finnish-Style Wilsonian Democracy. But what I've in mind, in the words of historian Paul Hazard, is a still deeper question:
If Italy had listened to Giambattista Vico, and if, as at the time of the Renaissance, she had served to guide Europe, would not our intellectual destiny have been different? Our eighteenth-century ancestors would not have believed that all that was clear was true; but on the contrary that "clarity is the vice of human reason rather than its virtue," because a clear idea is a finished idea. They would not have believed that reason was our first faculty, but on the contrary that imagination was.
What is significant here, of course, is the distinction between reason and imagination — between the political hardening of "state" arteries, as Vico would say, and the proper heartening of the "body politic." For Vico of course considered poetry, not dialectic (either material or otherwise), as the source of a people's unique national identity. That's the deeper idea underlying Edmund Wilson's book and the political emergence of another nation from Vladimir Lenin's storied 1917 trip: Finland.
Yesterday, February 28, was Finland's "Kalevala Day," the day Finns celebrate not the bloody start of their modern state, but their emergent, consciously democratic sense of national identity as prompted by a book of poems, Elias Lönnrot's Kalevala (1835). A compiled book of transcribed epic poems, Kalevala is called "The Finnish National Epic." Though I won't say what you can read about here, Lönnrot's significance to Finland's 1917 "regime change" and to its "nation building" before and after should not be underrated. To revise Shelley's great line, rather than being "unacknowledged legislators of the world," Finnish poets became — with Lönnrot's help — "the acknowledged legislators of a world."
Theirs, of course, is an an ongoing work, an unfinished work.