The Art of Rhetoric
Analogy and Narrative: The “Perfect Cheats”
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke,
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?
At some level we are all suspicious of language. A “man of few words” is a tough man, probably a good man. The “Silent Woman,” a family restaurant in Waterville, Maine, whose logo on its house china, apparently now quite collectible [http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/restaurant-ware-the-silent-woman-waterville] was an image of a woman whose head had been somehow removed. The restaurant was a Yankee favorite for three decades before Maine's expanding population of evolved down easters scorned it out of existence. Politicians, it’s true, are probably remembered more for what they say than what they do – except Jimmy Carter who spoke a lot but never uttered a memorable word – but don’t be fooled, the memorable words of Churchill, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Reagan were pointy crests clipped from a sloshing sea of blather. (Bill Clinton and George Bush may wish their signature lines were left in the slosh.)
We name that slosh Rhetoric and we properly regard it as dangerous waters, either for its stormy confusion or its breezeless doldrums. But is rhetoric, properly construed, to blame, or are we really talking just about bad rhetoric?
“If we would speak of things as they are,” John Locke warns in a famous passage from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them. (John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 3, Chapter 10)
Yet, in the 300 or so years since Locke philosophized on understanding, his successors in philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics have uniformly qualified his understanding of rhetoric. Roland Barthes, the French philosopher/semiotican writes, “No sooner is a form seen than it must resemble something: humanity seems doomed to analogy” (cited in Chandler and in Silverman & Torode 1980, 248).
Narrative, which in this sense can be anything that makes a sequential arrangement of data attractive to the human mind, includes all writing from epic poetry to grocery lists to Maxwell’s equations for the understanding electromagnetism. All are in some sense stories, and all are analogies. We see our lives and cultures reflected in epic poetry, our dinners lie implicit in our grocery lists, and the real activities of electrons are represented by analogy in the equations devised to understand their activity. That the electrons tend to follow the scripts laid out in Maxwell’s formulations more dependably that our dinners follow our grocery lists or our live “live up” to the challenges of our epics texts makes no real difference in narrative status of either the epic, the list, or the equation. All are narrative, algorithmic, and linguistic – and therefore rhetorical.
And as narratives, all are analogies, for a narrative is only an arguable and transmuted analogy between a sequence of words and a supposed sequence of events: Odysseus comes home. I will buy eggs, milk, and cheese. The electrons in the metals emit photons. [Study on the ubiquity of story in daily life.]
But Locke was no fool. If he didn’t see the deep unavoidable presence of analogy in all communication, he nailed the queasy dissatisfaction we all feel about that zone of misalliance between language and the world. They just won’t line up. Language itself then is the “perfect cheat” because no language, in fact no representation, is safe from the imperfections of analogy. (Mathematicians know well the stinging readjustment of the insular rock-solidness of mathematical systems brought to light by Kurt Godel’s incompleteness proof and well-read scientists are content to see the objective march of scientific knowledge controlled by the cosmic drama laid out in Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of a Scientific Revolution.)
Use it and loose it,” might be the right mantra to take with you when you write. Every effort will, of necessity, be a failure of sorts – an imperfection, brought about by the impossibility to represent thought perfectly in language. And that is why, as a writer, you should tread lightly in the realm of rhetoric, remembering, on the one hand, that it is always present, that all communication partakes of the “embellishments” of human symbolic re-presentation. But, on that same hand (because the distinction here is not binary) remember that readers are spooked (the queasy dissatisfaction) a the slightest whiff of embellishment.
And what is embellishment? Nothing more, perhaps, than what is unnecessary. You can happily employ all the firepower of metaphor, simile, metonymy, hyperbole, catecresis, epanados, anaphora, and all their kissing and analogizing cousins, as long as your reader does not perceive them as unnecessary. Or to put in another way, all of rhetoric is fair game for a writer up to the point that the reader senses it as rhetoric. Thus, the pejorative, connotation of the word in common usage: “Rhetorical flourish,” “That’s just rhetoric,” etc.
As the Prince of Poetry put it: “Words, words, words.” In the lexicon of formal rhetoric, repeating a word several times for effect is technically known as epizeuxis. The question is: Is the epizeuxis necessary to the occasion? Could Hamlet have just said “Words,” and left it at that? Left it to his actor to emote the proper degree of disgust at language in general that the scene calls for? Of course not. It required a rhetorical device, and an A-team one at that, to coin the most treasured smackdown of rhetoric in literary history.
But when we come to that passage in the course of the scene, we don’t register it rhetoric. We do not feel that our pleasure and excitement over Hamlet’s predicament has been imposed upon by an embellishment. It seems perfectly necessary for the occasion. A bean counter might tell us that we had to absorb two “words” too many, but we would disagree. “Words, words, words” is the perfect line -- and a perfect cheat.