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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Wherein I Pick Up, Conservatively, Where I Left Off ·

Well, my summer completed, I'm back online. I've had a good time, and although you'll likely hear little about it, suffice it to say I've crossed and recrossed the continental divide twice, been happily diverted by family, and returned to chores like the one I left you with in June — trying, judiciously, I hope, to assess American political speech.

Today I've just finished following Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings. Quite fascinating! You know their upshot: toe the straight line of judicial restraint, his supporters counseled, and let your feelings out, detractors begged. Lest you think the battle just a fight between conservatives and liberals, I thought to offer one good counterexample — one aptly invoking Kenneth Burke's thought within the context of the conservative Richard Weaver's rich work on rhetoric.

Weaver's essay, "The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric," provides my text. Analyzing Plato's love speeches in the dialogue — in Weaver's view, each standing in for throughtful language, rhetoric, and style — Weaver aptly judges of Lysias's praising nonlovers, Socrates' abusing impassioned lovers, and the Phaedrus at last advocating "noble" lovers. The first, vis-à-vis speech, falls for the neutral ideal of objectivity, the second for the sad extreme of impassioned subjectivity, and the third for the well-tempered reality of just eloquence. In that light, you might appreciate Weaver's conservatively pointed take on good dialogue — not only Platonic, but "senatorial."

The pure dialectician is left [Weaver begins] in the theoretical position of the nonlover, who can attain understanding but who cannot add impulse to truth. . . . Now the question arises at what point is motive to come into such language? Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives has pointed to "the pattern of embarrassment behind the contemporary ideal of a language that will best promote good action by entirely eliminating the element of exhortation or command. Insofar as such a project succeeded, its terms would involve a narrowing of circumference to a point where the principle of personal action is eliminated from language, so that an act would follow from it only as a non sequitur, a kind of humanitarian afterthought."

The fault of this conception of language [Weaver adds] is that scientific intention turns out to be enclosed in artistic intention and not vice versa. Let us test this by taking as an example one of those "fact-finding committees" so favored by modern representative governments. A language in which all else is suppressed in favor of nuclear meaning would be an ideal instrumentality for the report of such a committee. But this committee, if it lived up to the ideal of its conception, would have to be followed by an "attitude-finding committee" to tell us what its explorations really mean. In real practice the fact-finding committee understands well enough that it is also an attitude-finding committee, and where it cannot show inclination through language of tendency, it usually manages to do so through selection and arrangement of the otherwise inarticulate facts. To recur here to the original situation in the dialogue, we recall that the eloquent Lysias, posing as a nonlover, has concealed designs upon Phaedrus, so that his fine speech was really a sheep's clothing. Socrates discerned in him a "peculiar craftiness." One must suspect the same today of many who ask us to place our faith in the neutrality of their discourse. We cannot deny that there are degrees of objectivity in reference of speech. But this is not the same as an assurance that a vocabulary of reduced meanings will solve problems of mankind. Many of those problems will have to be handled, as Socrates well knew, by the student of souls, who must principally make use of the language of tendency. The soul is impulse, not simply cognition: and finally one's interest in rhetoric depends on how much poignancy one senses in existence. Richard Weaver, 'The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,' in Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990, 1063-64.

Of course, where you see words like "theoretical," "scientific," or "nuclear" above, you can substitute the word "legal." Meanwhile, I do wish Judge — soon Chief Justice — Roberts the best. I'll be part of an American "attitude-finding committee" soon — one looking, in my Washington, for some "humanitarian afterthought."

By chance, President Bush has delivered himself, tonight, of such an "afterthought"; his end-of-summer speech given in New Orleans you can find here.

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· Wherein I Briefly Invoke Kenneth Burke's Take on Political Style ·

I've taken a quite personal interest in the Iraqi War. My son recently received an email from an old college friend — a Chicago honors graduate who, after working some time in New Orleans and gardening for Harvard, decided to join the Special Forces. He is now facing some new duties in Baghdad.

I can assure you that Chris is an intelligent, courageous, honorable young man, serving us all well. Doubly ready not only by education but by training, he may possess, indeed, academically and militarily, even more than our President, so I'm looking forward to what our Commander in Chief will have to say on TV tonight.

President Bush is now facing some tough political realities himself, some represented historically in a chart I've included here — all widely cited from the Wall Street Journal just before our 2003 invasion:

From the WSJ, March 19, 2003

Invasion Proclamation Real Goal Result Lessons for U.S.
Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest of Egypt, 1798-1801 Egyptians have been "tyrannized ... I have come to restore your rights ... we are friends of the true Mussulmans Personal carving out of glorious new empire that would cut France's main enemy Britain off from India France driven out by revolts and British attacks. But in turbulent aftermath Egypt gets a modernizing dynasty Muslim mobs are easily stirred up against foreign occupiers; France gained nothing, and soon had to confront the next Egyptian regime
British conquest of Iraq, 1914-18 Our armies come as liberators from strange tyrants ... it is the hope and desire of the British people that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness Initially vague World War I plan morphs into neo-colonial domination to secure oil Britain keeps military bases in Iraq for first half of 20th century and oil flows. But thousands die in repeated revolts as Britain sets the political stage for the past half-century of strife in Middle East Even with international legitimacy, controlling Iraq required the use of brutal force and acceptance of previous ruling elite
British, French and Israeli Attack on Suez Canal, 1956 Reverse Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal To oust Egypt's charismatic leader and Arab nationalist hero, Gamal Abd al-Nasser Israel achieved war aim of international sea access to port of Eilat. But Nasser bounced back to challenge Western goals. Britain saw its domination of the Middle East eclipsed by the United States, and Prime Minister Anthony Eden lost office Without international legitimacy, the best-laid war plans crumble
Israeli Invasion of Lebanon 1982 To crush Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian guerrillas and to force Lebanon to sign peace treaty with Israel. First, to end rocket attacks on northern Israel. Then: "resistance ... is tantamount to suicide" -- Israeli leaflet dropped from the air on Beirut Arafat and his men survive Beirut siege. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is disgraced. Iran- and Syria-linked suicide bombs and kidnappings hit U.S., French and Israeli targets, and Israeli occupiers were forced out by radical new Hezbollah militia. Rocket attacks on northern Israel continue Even poorly armed guerrillas can hold back superior armies in big cities; domestic support evaporates when leaders exceed stated war aims and casualties mount; hostile nearby states can spell disaster for foreign occupiers

This is by way of preparation today for my main theme. Turning on Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), it adduces but one chapter, "Types of Meaning: Semantic and Poetic Meaning," distinguishing between what we'd perhaps call "denotation" and "connotation." At its heart is a clear grasp of what, citing Arnold Toynbee, Burke calls "withdrawal," a "transition from a system of social values grown unfit for the situation they would encompass, to a new order of values felt, correctly or not, to be a more scrupulous fit for the situation."

Toynbee [Burke writes] has laid stress upon the period of "withdrawal" undergone by founders of religious structures. It is a period of hesitancy, brooding, or even rot, prior to the formation of the new certainties they will subsequently evangelize and organize.

Although I can't begin to mark the fullness of Burke's point — turning on yet another distinction between our going "through" and "around" such structures — I can quote, at least, from one stylishly Burkean passage:

If a dismal political season is in store for us, shall we not greatly need a campaign base for personal integrity, a kind of beneath-which-not? And I wonder whether we might find this beneath-which-not in a more strenuous cult of style. This effort has been made many times in the past — and as regularly has been despised at other times, when there was no longer any need for it. Style for its own sake? Decidedly, not at all. Style solely as the beneath-which-not, as the admonitory and hortatory act, as the example that would prod continually for its completion in all aspects of life, and so in Eliot's phrase, "keep something alive," tiding us over a lean season. . . .

Do not get me wrong. I am pleading for no "retreat" to anything. . . . Let our enlistments remain as they are. I am asking simply that the temper of our enlistment undergo a change of emphasis. That the norm of our tone cease to be the insulting tone that "talks down" to people. Nor would it be a presumptuous tone, that laid claim to uplift them. But rather a tone that would plead with us all, with the writer-to as well as the written-to. As quoted in Kenneth Burke, On Symbols and Society, ed. Joseph R. Gusfield, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, 102; above 86.

I'll be eager to see which tone Mr. Bush — or his several political speech writers — will take with us tonight.

Besides Chris, I have some millions of other Americans also in mind.

Mr. Bush now having delivered himself of his speech, I'll let you assess his own political style.

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· The Last Acquirement of the Educated Mind ·

The Aims of Education Address occurs tonight at The University of Chicago. If you're perhaps unfamiliar, it's a fall tradition, part of student orientation, given annually in Rockefeller Chapel by Chicago faculty stirring intellectual ambition in the young. Having read many of Chicago's best — their College published a handsome collection in 1997* — I envy fresh young minds there. I could profit from stirring oratory myself.

But I am rather stuck at home reading, without even the print version of the essay that, in 1916, prompted the university's academic tradition: Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education (1929). It's still a thoughtful text. Its triple demarcation of learning's stages — up to sixth grade, then twelfth, then beyond (Romance, Precision, and Generalization) — alone justifies its study.

You may already be familiar with Whitehead's peroration, but what interests me is rather his seldom-included addition, wherein he introduces us, through Style, to something larger, Power.

 · Alfred North Whitehead · Finally, there should grow the most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. . . .

Here we are brought back to the position from which we started, the utility of education. Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.

Although I like Whitehead's concluding sentiment — well and rightly quoted in English composition handbooks — it is not, however, his last word on education's stages. Clearly, we can see as much in what he adds:

But above style, and above knowledge, there is something, a vague shape like fate above the Greek gods. That something is Power. Style is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power. But, after all, the power of attainment of the desired end is fundamental. The first thing is to get there. Do not bother about your style, but solve your problem, justify the ways of God to man, administer your province, or do whatever else is set before you.

I do like his advice, and urge folks to follow it, suggesting also that they ask along with Whitehead: "Where, then, does style help?"

In this, with style the end is attained without side issues, without raising undesirable inflammations. With style you attain your end and nothing but your end. With style the effect of your activity is calculable, and foresight is the last gift of gods to men. With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object.

Not bad advice — not just for the young, but also for the young-at-heart.

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· "We Hold These Truths" on the First-Person Plural ·

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial 'we,'" Mark Twain once said — apparently ending discussion on the pronoun "we." We beg to differ here, since whatever I might say plurally you might of course interpret singularly, and vice versa. One doesn't have to be George W. Bush to know as much since, whether Texan or not, you-all and we-all are both, of course, "plural."

Take, for instance, these uses of the first-person plural "we":

The Principal Uses of the Pronoun "We"

  • "We" as a familiar rhetorical agent, including writer and reader ("We must, of course, both agree").
  • "We" as the spokesperson for a group, "the editorial we" ("We [The National Review, The Nation, AARP] endorse presidential candidates").
  • "We" as a representative of a group, possibly excluding the reader ("We Republicans," "We Democrats," "We Geezers").
  • "We" as humankind ("We are all doomed").

Now don't get me wrong. Like President George W. Bush, we might, by law, be pluralized someday into office — moving from obscurity into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through a rare vote count in an election. But anyone might still agree that we might have a long way to go, especially when measured stylistically by the most honored of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Consider, for instance, these two paragraphs from a student essay on "The Gettysburg Address" — an essay analyzing President Lincoln's subtle shadings of the plural pronoun in his dedication of a battlefield cemetery (a rhetorical task sometimes, I think, of necessity falling upon presidents):

Lincoln's second paragraph not only locates the ceremony temporally and geographically in the midst of "a great civil war" and on "a great battlefield of that war," but in relation to an ambiguously specified "we," a pronoun referring to a much larger audience than that physically present. The word is enormously complex, for its most obvious referent initially shifts from all the citizens of the nation only to those present in Lincoln's audience. To illustrate, the first instance of "we" in his second paragraph ("we are engaged in a great civil war") refers to the nation as a whole, while the second, third, and fourth instances ("We are met on a great battlefield," "We have come to dedicate . . . ," and ". . . we should do this") refer only to Lincoln's own battlefield audience.

Admittedly, Lincoln's contraction of pronominal reference is a subtle one, yet his subtlety is what effectively blurs the referencing of "we" so that, on the one hand, "we" — the audience — might be present not just at the ceremony but at a genuine war (the great "testing"), and on the other, so that "we" — citizens — might also be present at the ceremony (hearing Lincoln's words and sharing his grief). The effect of such pronominal contraction is essentially to mythologize the ceremony, to make it much larger than life, to expand its importance beyond that of any single ceremony, any single battle, perhaps any single war. Obviously, Lincoln's final sentence ("It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this") becomes thereby a powerful, sympathetic acknowledgment not only of his own mourning, but also that of his audience and that, equally, of his entire American nation.

Having heard George W. Bush's lengthy State-of-the-Union speech last week, we might ask if anyone serves us now as a good president, editor, or "tapeworm" even. Happily, with Thomas Jefferson still, we might all fittingly say: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . "

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is, of course, our challenge.

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· Simeon Strunsky "Edits" Lincoln ·

Among American speeches none is more famous than the Gettysburg Address. At 271 words, it remains the standard of economical presidential speech-making. Less often recited now than in years past, it is a model, of course, for school study and inquiry. But as Simeon Strunsky has remarked, editing presents problems — mostly by way of killing the spirit.

To be a model, a classic, means to be "edited," Strunsky claims, "with twenty pages of introduction and" — you'll like this part — "I don't know how many foot-notes." As I've already counted two footnotes here, the chance to lighten that task is especially appealing. So with Willard Espy's help, from An Almanac of Words at Play, I offer you Strunsky's helpful "foot-noting" of Lincoln. "He speculates," Espy writes, "that somewhere in the high schools or the colleges this is what the young soul finds in the Gettysburg Address":

Four score and seven years1 ago our fathers2 brought forth on this continent3 a new nation,4 conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition5 that all men are created equal.6 Now we are engaged in a great civil war,7 testing whether that nation,8 or any nation so conceived and so dedicated,9 can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield10 of that war.

1i. e., eighty-seven years ago. The Gettysburg Address was delivered Nov. 19, 1863. Lincoln is here referring to the Declaration of Independence.

2Figuratively speaking. To take "fathers" in a literal sense would, of course, involve a physiological absurdity.

3The western continent, embracing North and South America.

4"A new nation." This is tautological, since a nation just brought forth would necessarily be new.

5"Proposition," in the sense in which Euclid employs the term and not as one might say now, "a cloak and suit proposition."

6See the Declaration of Independence in Albert Bushnell Hart's "American History Told by Contemporaries" (4 vols., Boston, 1898-1901).

7The war between the States, 1861-65.

8i. e., the United States.

9See Elliot's Debates in the several State Conventions on the adoption of the Federal Constitution, etc. (5 vols., Washington, 1840-45).

10Gettysburg; a borough and the county seat of Adams Co., Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg. Pop. in 1910, 4,030. Simeon Strunsky, as quoted in Willard Espy, An Almanac of Words at Play, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975, 41.

Perhaps you may recall that Strunsky's most famous remark is: "Famous remarks are very seldom quoted correctly." Maybe that's why in one of his essays, "Nocturne," one soul reflects — stylistically and substantively — on the old difference between literature and life, between "newspapers" and "Night Court." Could Strunsky really be saying, "Bring Back Recitation"?1

1It's an equally open question, of course, whether Jacques Derrida — the oh-so-quotable Deconstructor — should be called in to testify.

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· English Eloquence ·

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. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'The Poet,' The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Wm. H. Wise, 1929, 240.

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· A Lost Eloquence ·

An op-ed piece in The New York Times prompts my post. A creative writing teacher makes a case for our memorizing and reciting poetry in public school. What has attracted me to her piece, "A Lost Eloquence," is the example Carol Muske-Dukes makes of her own mother, "who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson." She writes:

She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) "quote." Poems are still memorized in some classrooms but not "put to heart" in a way that would prompt this more quotidian public expression.

Muske-Dukes' recollection has put me in mind of my own father's example. Though he didn't get a high school education "on the prairie of North Dakota during the Great Depression," he did get, on the prairie in Alberta during World War I, schooling enough to make an elementary difference. I recall with delight his reciting Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal" over his morning breakfast — this when his short-term memory from multi-infarct dementia was nil. During his last three years with us (till 88) Dad "quoted" just enough to make a good case for Muske-Dukes' larger implication, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Quotation and Originality":

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.

Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Wm. H. Wise, 1929, 781.

Of course, Carol Muske-Dukes recommends here what Emerson only observes, that, indeed, "we all quote."

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