One of my favourite go-to bloggers, Stefanie (So Many Books), recently posted about a book by Ward Farnsworth titled Classic English rhetoric. (Her post, though, was titled for his second book, Classical English metaphor.) I was intrigued, particularly when she described the letter from the author himself that accompanied this second book. Stefanie writes:
Also in the package was a cheeky letter from Mr. Farnsworth expressing his disappointment when he saw that about a year after he sent me his book I had posted about A Tale of Two Cities and mentioned the book’s use of repetition wondering what it was called. He takes me to task in this letter because in his book he names this technique and uses Dickens to do it. He goes on to say that he has enclosed the paperback copy in case the hardcover he originally sent me was no longer handy because “Every household should have one in case of rhetorical emergency.” This made me laugh out loud.
Well, I had a rhetorical emergency earlier this year when I was preparing for my reading group’s discussion of a book, Steve Toltz’s Quicksand. It used a literary (or rhetorical) device that I knew had a name but I could not remember it. Eventually, through Google, I found it, but it took a little while. The device is asyndeton and yes, it is in Classic English rhetoric, which I have now bought on my Kindle – the perfect place for a dipping-into-cum-reference book like this. No more rhetorical emergencies for me!
However, this is not my main reason for writing this post. I have started the book and, while with fiction I always read the introduction last, with non-fiction I read it first. In this book, it’s called the Preface, and Farnsworth uses it to define rhetoric (“the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience”) and argue for the worth of his book. There is a decline, he says, in rhetoric. It is possible, he continues, to write well without using rhetorical figures “but most of the best writers and speakers – the ones whose work has stood up the longest – have made important use of them”.
The opposite also occurs, he says. That is, “rhetorical figures show up in a lot of bad speech and writing”. And here we get to the point of this post. He writes that:
When used in contemporary political speeches and read from teleprompter, figures often sound tinny – like clichés, or strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy. This is partly because today’s politician tends to be a creature of very modest literacy and wit who spoils what he touches, but there are more specific reasons as well. First, figures sound splendid when used to say things worth saying. They can show a worthy sentiment to great advantage. But they merely are grating when used to inflate the sound of words that are trite or trivial in substance …
Hmmm … “to say things worth saying”. Farnsworth is really socking it to our* political leaders. I do despair at the type of speech-making we hear today, at the lack of real oratory. Is it because of our sound-bite world? Or because politicians seem more focused on vote-getting or sniping at their opponents, than on presenting a vision to us who vote for them? Oh, for a leader who will inspire and lead.
I could go on and name a few of Australia’s good orators or great political speeches – we have had them – but my plan was to keep this post short, to just share this idea and ask what you think. Can you name a current politician who can regularly be relied upon to make a beautiful – and meaningful – speech? Do you have a favourite political speech, past (I’ll allow that) or present? I promise not to test you on its rhetorical figures.
* I’m not sure whether he meant American or something more global by “our”, but what he says can certainly apply down under.