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A Soupçon of Catachresis

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 1/23/09

An inaugural address is like an Olympic equestrian event, where the course and maneuvers are precisely spelled out and marks are given purely for form and execution. Obama’s speech made all the required moves: it was grave but not doleful; resolute but not belligerent, eloquent but not grandiloquent. Its acknowlegments were eclectic: Biblical allusions, a nod to Tom Paine, a shout-out to Jerome Kern.

But it wasn’t especially memorable. If we still lived in an age when people compiled collections of great speeches for pupils to memorize and declaim on national holidays, the editor would more likely go with the moving speech that Obama made in Grant Park on the night of the election.Declamations

But that isn't necessarily a weakness of the speech. Ceremonial speechmaking is an unnatural, anachronistic exercise, and I’m not sure whether anybody will ever again give an address as memorable as Kennedy’s in 1961 or Roosevelt’s in 1933 -- or that it's a good idea to try.

People often cite Reagan’s 1981 speech as the best address since then. It  may have been the clearest and the most coherent, and was certainly the best delivered up to now. But its language was unremarkable and even clunky at times. ("Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic 'yes.'") The only line people associate with it is "government isn’t the solution," though they usually misremember it as continuing "... it's the problem," which actually didn't appear in the speech but was part of the version Reagan had been using on the campaign trail since 1975.

In fact when you reread Roosevelt and Kennedy’s speeches you realize how rhetorically distant their age was. Take the famous sentence from Kennedy’s inaugural that begins: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out…”

It’s still a stirring line, but you can’t imagine any recent president trying to get away with it. Kennedy was the last president who could comfortably dip into the rich stew of classical figures of speech. “Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are” -- that would be both chiasmus and polyptoton. Rhetoricians have been botanizing this stuff for millennia, and by now there's no way to put two words together that doesn't have a Greek label, kept alive by a thin line of English department pedants. There are 67 people in America who live for this stuff.

The medieval scholars called those figures of speech the rhetorical colors, from a Latin term for ornament. (That’s what Pope was alluding to in the “Essay on Criticism” when he compared false eloquence to a prism that "its gaudy colors spreads in ev'ry place.") They flourished over the centuries when the proper role of literature and oration was the decorous ornamentation of thought, and when politicians and poets drew from the same rhetorical well.

You can still turn up moves like those if you rummage around in T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, but rhetorical ornament is alien to the spirit of modern literature. It still survives in some religious traditions; those flourishes come naturally to a Jesse Jackson or Joseph Lowery, though they sound a bit more forced coming from the energetically affable Rick Warren. But for the most part, the figures are reserved nowadays for advertising slogans, bumper stickers, and the titles of country songs -- they’re the linguistic equivalent of stunt riding.

Take the figure in Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and "we must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate." The classical rhetoricians called it antimetabole, though modern speechwriters prefer to refer to it as the reversible raincoat. Politicians are still irresistibly drawn to it. Bill Clinton had his "People are more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power." John McCain had "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” while Sarah Palin contrasted the candidates who used change to promote their careers with the ones, like McCain, who used their careers to promote change. And Hillary Clinton went with "The true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it's whether the president delivers on the speeches” (an example not just of antimetabole but of antanaclasis, where the same word is used twice in different senses). 
The figure has its roots in Shakespeare and Milton. It's in Blake’s "Never seek to tell your love/Love that told can never be" and Kipling’s "What should they know of England who only England know?” Frederick Douglas used it when he said "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man."

But to modern listeners, the pattern is more likely to bring to mind the syntactic two-step of slogans like "When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns" and "I am stuck on Band-Aid, and Band-Aid's stuck on me.” Or in its pure classical form: "Starkist doesn't want tuna with good taste, Starkist wants tuna that tastes good." It’s as catchy as ever, but it can’t be the vessel for a deep idea anymore.charlie tuna

Of course Obama’s speech was dotted with some of the other turns and  figures that ceremonial addresses require. "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous” -- that was polyptoton, where a word is used in two different ways, as in FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself.” It’s a tidy aphothegm; you had the sense somebody fought hard to keep it in there. And there was a soupçon of catachresis in "the bitter swill of civil war and segregation," in a passage that Obama read with rising intonations that evoked the language and speech of Martin Luther King. But Obama didn’t do a lot of rhetorical overreaching -- he did just what he needed to do to nail the event. No, it wasn’t a speech for the ages. But I was reassured that he kept his coat on right side out.

Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.