The truth behind the trope

Figuratively Speaking

October 26, 2007

The message of this book is that rhetorical figures can be used to sum up cultures. The author chooses four: Quintilianic Rome, 12th-century France, the 16th century and post-9/11 America. Rome gets two figures, hesitation and self-correction. The rest get one each: for the 12th century, commoratio or dwelling on a theme; for the 16th, chiasmus; and for the 21st, repetition. There seem to be two criteria for the choices. One is that the figure concerned should be highlighted in the rhetorical theory of the time. Second, it should be problematic in some way. For, in true postmodern style, Sarah Spence is trying to find the cracks in the fabric of each culture. The defining tropes of a culture are, in her view, those that threaten to undermine it.

So much for the rules of this particular intellectual game; and one cannot help speculating about other times and places (what would be the trope for 5th-century Athens, for example, or for Baghdad under the caliphs?). But the book does not seem to be just a jeu d'esprit : there is also a current of moral earnestness running through it. We are invited to reconsider seriously the Ciceronian or Quintilianic moralisation of rhetoric; the false rhetoric of US politicians after 9/11 is castigated, and like Plato's Socrates in the Gorgias or Phaedrus , Spence floats before her readers at various points a notion of truly ethical rhetoric that will cure us of our cultural malaise.

Even within four short chapters, the argument does not stick to one straight and narrow path. The Roman chapter devotes space to the Pyramus and Thisbe story in Ovid: the lovers' catastrophic mis-timing is configured as hesitation, and the mulberries ( mora ) by their death-spot interpreted as a symbol of delay. The 12th-century chapter gives us a good deal of troubadour poetry in the original Occitan: the intricate rhyme schemes are seen as a version of "dwelling on a theme" and the idealised love of the troubadours as a version of Cicero's ethical rhetoric. The 16th century turns out to mean Montaigne and a few English rhetoricians, and nobody much else; chiasmus turns out to mean the privileging of the marginal over the central. The modern chapter, titled "Weapons of mass creation", examines the theme of memory and memory loss (repetition and its absence) in a number of cinematic contexts, and the fall of the Twin Towers itself is characterised as a repetition. The observations of Baudrillard (who does duty for a modern rhetorical theorist) on cloning are taken as defining a modern attitude to repetition.

This is enough to give an idea of the kind of trains of thought this book explores. Although it has an academic-sounding title and belongs to an overtly academic series, edited by two distinguished classicists, it is difficult to judge it by conventional academic criteria. There are some who will enjoy and admire a selective epideixis of this kind. But others may be frustrated: it seems very reductive to suppose that justice can be done to whole cultures by labelling them with a single rhetorical trope, but on the other hand cultural values can indeed be expressed, revealed or subverted through preferences for particular modes of rhetoric over others, and the topic deserves thorough and reasoned analysis.

J. G. F. Powell is professor of Latin, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Figuratively Speaking: Rhetoric and Culture from Quintilian to the Twin Towers

Author - Sarah Spence
Publisher - Duckworth
Pages - 144
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 9780715635131

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