Rhetoric. The most often time we hear that word probably is in context to politicians. when a world leader makes a dramatically grand, yet sweeping statement, there will always bee someone around to exclaim grumpily (and it’s usually me, I admit) “Oh but it’s all rhetoric! Nothing was said there at all!”.
With an opening comment like that, I couldn’t possibly be a supporter of excessive exposure to special rhetorical twists of the tongue, could I?
Maybe that sentence shows where my allegiance really lies. I’m quite a fan of rhetoric and today I want to talk about it a fair bit. Here’s why…
I have a pretty hefty tome of a book stuffed with essays, quotes, speeches and such similar things of important figures from modern Chinese history. I was reading through this the other day, when I came across a quote on rhetoric from a fellow called Yang Xiong, a poet of the Han dynasty – in other words, not modern in the slightest. Here’s what he had to say on rhetoric:
“A woman has beauty; does writing have beauty also? The answer is yes. The worst thing for a woman is to have her inner beauty clouded by cosmetics; The worst thing for a piece of writing is to have its rules and proportions confounded by excessive rhetoric.”
Obviously one must take into account that this has been translated from traditional Chinese (not by me – I won’t take credit for that!) but Mr Yang Xiong seems to have not noticed just how much rhetoric he used on his attack on rhetoric. Even if you excuse that unbelievably obvious rhetorical question, there’s still all the slightly more subtle additions to his hypocrisy; usage of strong superlatives (the worst), repetition of phrases (The worst thing for a…), the comparison between a beautiful woman and literature…that’s a lot of rhetoric for someone that allegedly doesn’t like it very much.
Oh, and the translator hasn’t helped either, by adding alliteration (clouded by cosmetics).
The fact is, it’s pretty tricky to get away from rhetoric, as it’s essentially any element that makes writing catchy. If your text has no rhetoric, considering you would almost have to be a genius to avoid it in most types of writing, it’s probably your shopping list for the week.
And although your shopping habits may be genius, that is not me trying to insinuate that a shopping list is the greatest form of literature man has ever devised. That’s a bit out there even for me I’m afraid.
What might strike some as odd however – at least those who were paying close attention to Yang’s chosen profession – is that a poet who despises ‘excessive rhetoric’ is a rather singular poet. Poetry is the kind of writing where some readers could justifiably wave their arms up in despair, begging for mercy from the onslaught of hyperbole and hyperbaton..and apparently alliteration (that second one was unintentional, honest). Yet here is a poet declaring war on excessive rhetoric…strange man.
Now, the other reason I’m possibly writing on this particular topic today is the book i’m reading currently – “The Elements of Eloquence”, by Mark Forsyth. This lovely little book could be considered a crash course in the art of turning a phrase that makes people go ‘oooh’.
I recommend the book highly, but the main reason I’m mentioning it is that it makes something very clear: You will struggle to say anything at all without a certain element of rhetoric. It seems to me as if it were its own branch of semantics, as essential to why a sentence works as the main underlying rules.
Although the aim of Forsyth’s book doesn’t seem to point out that almost everything is rhetoric (I haven’t finished it, so this is all supposition. It has more of an aestheticism feel to it currently.), that message shouts out of the pages. The sheer number of excellent terms to describe all these techniques you probably have never heard of really highlights just how many techniques there are that we all use unwittingly. Antithesis and assonance will be common to plenty of us, but anadiplosis and scesis onomaton will not only be all greek to most, but also send every word checker in the universe into a frenzy of red underlining.
So dear readers, don’t reject rhetoric like Mr Yang up there. Mr Yang Xiong was silly. You need it. It would put me out of a hobby, humble me typing away trying to fit in as many memorable bits as possible.
And anyway, You’re going to struggle to get away from rhetoric if you decide you don’t like it!…
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!