Thursday, January 15, 2009

Enthymeme pt.2

So, I haven't actually made much progress toward an explanation of what an enthymeme is, and since that's my goal in all of this, I'll get to it.

I was mislead by my reading of Aristotle last spring. I took a course on rhetoric, and the prof made passing reference to what Aristotle calls "the body of persuasion," the enthymeme. It intrigued me, as it reminded me of some part of the process a poet goes through in constructing a poem's speech act, so I wrote a paper on it, trying to flesh it out. My assessment was that it's a truncated syllogism, the syllogism of the rhetorician, which he uses to give the sense of logical demonstration to his speech. As Aristotle says, we are most convinced when we feel like something has been demonstrated. When we've seen it with our own eyes. But the Rhetorician can't bother with the exact science of logicians and philosophers -- he's talking to common folk, and even if they could follow him, it'd be boring from the pulpit, and the incandescence of his speech would dim. Therefore, he makes these quasi-syllogisms, that rely on a knowledge of what the audience already knows: I give you a premise, perhaps, knowing you will supply the other, so that when I add the conclusion, you feel like you're in the know, and I've saved time. I don't have to chase down proofs for what you already accept as true.

And that to me sounded like poetry: the way a poet heaps up tropes together, each associated with a set of cultural values, into a syllogistic sort of form, so that by the time the poems ends, a conclusion has been reached - an ideological conclusion. The reader has been lead to find convincing a certain emotional/intellectual stance - to find themselves standing the way the poet wants them to stand, within the field of possible ideological positions on any given subject. (Most often, I think, the ideology presented to us is an earnest agnosticism, sometimes kind & wonderstruck, and sometimes cynical and biting, leaning towards nihilism.) Each cultural trope used has some approximately known meaning, so that we can weave them together like a math problem, with prosody lending the rhetoric a helping hand, so that the sum of it resonates between emotion and idea.

Then I found Jeffrey Walker's book on ancient rhetoric; he argues that most contemporaries Rhetoric-scholars have it all wrong, because of a historical misreading of Aristotle. This misreading is really at the heart of his whole treatise. It's apparently the misreading that I had.

But I think that my way of taking the enthymeme into poetry actually produced an enthymeme closer to what Walker says the Greek's version of it was. By accident. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the lack of rigor in my studies will be the death of my scholarship, and then I remember that all I've ever made well has had, in some part of its development, an accident; has been somewhere founded on an unjustified, intuitive leap. And when I'm done thinking about that, I zone out and stare at the ceiling for an hour. Or read headlines. Headlines will be the death of my scholarship, if anything.

I love the way my painted Swainson's thrush sits in the window, with a perfect arc of California sun crowning his chesnut head. He looks eager to fly. (I'm still not a good rhetorician when I'm trying to be -- I was hoping to use that little interlude there with the reference to flying in much the same way a preacher uses humor -- to release, to cleanse, to regather the troops.)

Walker argues for a different, broader understanding of the enthymeme, and argues that originally, the enthymeme, though not yet refered to as such, was the heart of Greek poetry. But this is part of his larger argument, in the second half of the book: that lyric poetry is the most basic form of poetry, "synecdoche for 'poetic' discourse in general," and that "in archaic lyric we find embodied a poetic practice that predates the conceptualization of "poetry" and "rhetoric"" and is similar to what the sophists would call "epideictic" rhetoric; in other words, "as a fundamentally rhetorical practice, archaic lyric embodies a paradigm in which "poetry" may function (and did function) as culturally and politically significant civic discourse, that is, as an epideictic argumentation that can effectively shape communal judgements about dike, or what is "right" in various circumstances, and so can effectively intervene in, intensify, or modify prevailing ideological commitments or value-heirarchies."

I'm interested in this because of what I feel is a general squeemishness in American poetry toward admitting that poems do in fact embody specific ideologies.

And, with that, some left-over vegan pizza beckons. (Walker says that our misreading of Aristotle has lead to a grammaticalized poetics, so that a decorative representation of a subjective consciousness has become the norm -- its complicated -- but I'm thinking of what he might say about blogs.)

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