Monday, January 26, 2009

Triumph over rhetorical flourishes

Jan 25, 2009

Obama's inauguration speech was convincing precisely because he didn't aim to impress

By Janadas Devan

The expectations were too high.

Days before Mr Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, the usually sober MsMichiko Kakutani of The New York Times spoke of him as the most literate statesman America has had since Abraham Lincoln. The Financial Times printed a hagiography by Mr Sam Leith, the Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph, that assured us that Mr Obama was 'the inheritor of the oratorical and political traditions of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ'.

Professor James Wood, a Harvard University literary critic, produced a detailed analysis of one of Mr Obama's speeches in The New Yorker, treating it as though it were a poem by Shakespeare or John Donne. And Ms Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian's chief arts writer, wrote a much-circulated article that argued that Mr Obama was the first Ciceronian politician since - well Cicero himself it looked like, so rhetorically superior he seemed to every other statesman over the past 2,000 years.

Look, he uses the tricolon, they cooed.

The tricolon is a series of threes. Julius Ceasar's veni, vidi, vici ('I came, I saw, I conquered') and Lincoln's 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' are examples. So is 'rice, kangkong, blachan'. The ability to produce a tricolon does not by itself guarantee the possibility of a great thought.

Oh he uses synthetons, they swooned.

Synthetons are twos - like 'Shakespeare and Donne' or 'men and women'. The ability to deploy synthetons...

Oh look, he used a lovely anaphora, said one. Did you notice that delicious epistrophe, asked another.

An anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of sentences: 'Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!' (Shakespeare). An epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a series of sentences: 'There ain't any answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.' (Gertrude Stein).

The ability to deploy anaphoras or epistrophes does not by itself... - my repetition here of certain words I had used earlier are examples of both anaphoras and epistrophes, and proves what the sentence asserts: My ability to use these rhetorical figures does not by itself mean that I am the rhetorical, let alone intellectual or spiritual, equivalent of Lincoln, King or Christ.

The expectations were too high; Mr Obama was bound to fall short; he did - or so it seemed to his legion of literary admirers. The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, CNN and whatnot had to admit there were no equivalents of Franklin Roosevelt's 'nothing to fear', John Kennedy's 'ask not' or Lincoln's 'Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection', in Mr Obama's inauguration speech.

As Ms Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal observed: 'It was not an especially moving or rousing speech...There was not a sentence or thought that hit you in the chest and entered your head not to leave.'

All the same, it was a superbly crafted speech, even poetic in parts. There were allusions aplenty: To Winston Churchill - 'every so often the (presidential) oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms'; to 1 Corinthians 13 - 'We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things'; to Shakespeare's Richard III - 'America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember...'; even to his predecessor, Mr George W. Bush - 'For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror...we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you'.

The 2008 Nobel laureate in economics, Professor Paul Krugman, noticed an extensive lifting of something John Maynard Keynes had said during the Great Depression: 'The resources of nature and men's devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life...But today we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand.'

Mr Obama, in what must have been a conscious echo of Keynes, proclaimed: 'Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.'

Few, apart from professors of economics or literary critics, would have noticed these allusions to Keynes or Shakespeare or the Bible. MrObama - or his speechwriters, whom he reportedly edits closely - nevertheless worked them in. It shows a degree of literary consciousness, an assiduity of craftsmanship, that is quite rare among contemporary American politicians.

Were there splendid tricolons in the speech. Yes - beginning with the first sentence: 'I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.'

Were there anaphoras? Yes - plenty, for the English language, at least since the King James Bible, knows of no more effective device to convey a sense of uplift. Thus, we got:

'For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans...For us, they toiled in sweatshops...For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.'

(That last sentence, incidentally, also packed in a couple of synthetons.)

But these rhetorical figures were not the reason why the speech was convincing. Rhetoric as such cannot produce thought. The thought comes first; the appropriate form follows.

Ms Noonan was right: There was not a sentence in the speech 'that hit you in the chest and entered your head not to leave'. But it is precisely for that reason that I felt the speech was among Mr Obama's most successful. Unlike many of his previous blockbusters, it didn't aim to impress by reaching for an ersatz 'ask not' or 'nothing to fear'.

'Everything that can be said, can be said clearly,' the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said once. That happens to be an example of an anadiplosis - the repetition of a word in one phrase ('can' here) in the first word of the subsequent phrase. But Wittgenstein need not have known that (and probably didn't) in order to know that 'everything that can be said, can be said clearly'.

If Mr Obama becomes a good president, it won't be because he is a good rhetorician. Rather, it would be because he (and his team) thought things through clearly.

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