Aristotle defends persuasion and poetry

The Rhetoric & The Poetics of AristotleThe Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle by Aristotle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I decided to incorporate rhetorical analysis in the courses that I teach, I figured that I needed to read the classic work on rhetoric. I picked up this edition a number of years ago at a rummage sale, and it had the Poetics as well. Reading these works and the introductory material helped me to see how integrated Aristotle’s ideas were across his works, since the Rhetoric related not only to the the Poetics but to his works on logic, ethics, and politics as well (I have not read these). The introductory material also pointed out Aristotle’s differences with his teacher Plato on rhetoric and imitative poetry.

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Over the summer, I have been and plan to read more about the discipline of rhetoric, and I hope to post my course materials on my blog toward the end of the summer.

Why did the Shire need to be scoured?

Brian Mattson:

It is no accident that the Fellowship’s journey from Rivendell begins on Christmas Day, the dawn of December 25th. Neither is it incidental that when Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee at long last struggle up the slopes of Mount Doom to destroy Sauron by way of the One Ring, it is March 25th, the traditional ecclesiastical date of Good Friday.

Tolkien’s story is framed by the liturgical calendar, and so the Shire’s scouring is not superfluous. After all, in the “true myth,” Easter victory did not instantly transform the world. The enthronement of the King of kings and Lord of lords had to be announced by his messengers to those kings and lords in distant places, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”…

Tolkien got it right. Christmas and Easter together do not spell “the end.” There is much work to do. Our own homes, relationships, vocations, thoughts, desires, inclinations, hearts must be scoured and healed by the good news of a new King. Gandalf says, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so shall the rightful king be known.

Briseis and force

When I first read The Iliad, I was struck by Briseis’ mourning of Patroclus (Book 19, starting with line 300 in Lombardo’s translation for Hackett). Briseis was captured after Achilles killed her husband and laid waste to her home city. Her three brothers also died in the battle. Yet Briseis praises Patroclus for assuring her that she would become Achilles’ wife. Not a very well-developed character, I thought; she’s just there to fall for the action hero even after he killed her husband.

Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” had a much more interesting reading of this scene. Weil begins her essay by saying that “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away” (3). For Weil, force “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3). Thus, Briseis is turned into a thing when she is enslaved by Achilles.

And what does it take to make the slave weep? The misfortune of his master, his oppressor, despoiler, pillager, of the man who laid waste his town and killed his dear ones under his very eyes. This man suffers or dies; then the slave’s tears come. And really why not? This is for him the only occasion on which tears are permitted, are, indeed, required. A slave will always cry whenever he can do so with impunity — his situation keeps tears on tap for him.

She spoke, weeping, and the women groaned,

Using the pretext of Patroclus to bewail their own torments.*

Since the slave has no license to express anything except what is pleasing to his master, it follows that the only emotion that can touch or enliven him a little, that can reach him in the desolation of his life, is the emotion of love for his master. There is no place else to send the gift of love; all other outlets are barred, just as, with the horse in harness, bit, shafts, reins bar every way but one. And if, by some miracle, in the slave’s breast a hope is born, the hope of becoming, some day, through somebody’s influence, someone once again, how far won’t these captives go to show love and thankfulness, even though these emotions are addressed to the very men who should, considering the very recent past, still reek with horror for them: [she then quotes the passage that I summarized above in which Briseis mourns Patroclus]…

To lose more than the slave does is impossible, for her loses his whole inner life. A fragment of it he may get back if he sees the possibility of changing his fate, but this is his only hope. Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature. (9-10)

I think I would say that slaves tend to find ways to preserve their inner lives in creative ways, though not on entirely their own terms, of course. So while there may be some oversimplification by Weil, I appreciated her interpretation.

* Lombardo’s rendering of the Iliad passage in Weil’s essay is “Thus Briseis, and the women mourned with her,/ For Patroclus, yes, but each woman also/ For her own private sorrows” (Book 19, lines 320-322).

Update (12/5/16): Weil also says in the essay that the wielder of violence is also transforms the soldier into a thing as he cuts himself off from his own humanness.

Comparing translations of the Iliad

Several years ago, Daniel Mendelsohn looked at how four different translators rendered lines 795-800 of Book 13. After giving a phonetic rendering of the original Greek poetry, he writes:

Note, first of all, how the last words of the first, third, fifth, and sixth lines of this passage all end with the same sound combination, loaded with liquid “l”s (aellêi, “maelstrom”; polla, “many”: ep’ alla, “others hard behind,” ep’alloi, “others hard behind”): these liquid “l” sounds (with some explosive “p”s thrown in in the third, fifth, and sixth lines) beautifully evoke the sounds of the roiling waters, even as the insistent repetition of the “p-ll” sound cluster from line to line gives a sense of whitecaps breaking on the beach, one after another. (In other words, the near-rhyming words do what the waves do.) And, as if to make the analogy concrete, the sixth line—which reconnects the imagined world of the sea to the narrated world of the Trojans at war—repeats the “some before … others hard behind” language of the fifth: the waves are all’ … ep alla; the Trojans are alloi … ep’ alloi. So the sixth line is packed behind the fifth, imitating its sound cluster precisely the way in which the Trojan ranks, packed together in battle formation, are massed one behind the other.

Also of note is the way that the two adjectives in the fourth line—paphladzonta, the “roiling” waves, and polyphloisboio, the “greatly-roaring” sea—replicate each other’s consonants: the “p”s, the “ph”s, the “l”s, the soft “s”s and “z” sounds. If you repeat those languidly unspooling words, you’re making the noises of the surf.

Romance and restrictions in Riyadh

Girls of RiyadhGirls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It kind of reminded me of Pride and Prejudice, but set in modern-day Saudi Arabia (which made for an interesting story) and not nearly as well-written. Fun overall, but not great literature. I assigned it for my Middle Eastern history course, and it made for a good discussion with the student taking it for independent study.

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Homer’s historical context

Reviewing a few translations of Homer’s epics in the 1990s, James Davidson gave an overview of the how scholars have thought about Homer and also included his own thoughts on the relationship of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the legend of the Trojan War:

The extent of Homer’s subtlety in the Iliad will always be debated, but it seems certain that he assumed his audience already knew the tale of Troy and that he plays against this background, using their assumptions to create effects of irony, suspense, pathos and surprise. What he did was not so different, after all, from what the great tragedians did, or what Ovid did, or Apollonius of Rhodes, putting a new spin on ancient tales.

Building on this assumption, we can begin to approach the question of Homer’s originality. From what we know of the other epics, they covered much longer periods and many more fantastic events in many fewer lines. The bards who entertain the court in the palace of the Phaeacians and the suitors of Penelope in Odysseus’ home also manage to get more action into a shorter space of time. Almost the whole of the immense Iliad, by contrast, covers only a few days in the ten-year saga of the Trojan War and it tells of only one episode out of many, the wrath of Achilles. It is a small detail from the big picture, blown up to monumental size. It should have been a short interlude, perhaps, a little entertainment between courses. The surprise that greets modern readers, therefore, when they discover that the Iliad does not in fact begin at the beginning and contains no mention of the Judgment of Paris or the fatal Horse, may well have been the reaction of Homer’s original audience. Instead of adding on other episodes, Homer brings a magnifying glass to the tale and fills the time by deepening his characters, by realising more fully their imagined world, by broadening the narrative, rather than simply extending it. The other storytellers in the epics are not models for Homer’s project, but designed to point up a contrast with his own more detailed, more lifelike work. He thus sets himself off against the balladeers, self-consciously highlighting his own originality.

The Odyssey seems to take innovation even further. Odysseus is a prominent figure in the Iliad and features in several Trojan tales that lie outside it. One story tells how he tried to avoid serving on the expedition by feigning madness and ploughing a field, until someone places baby Telemachus in his path, arresting his lunatic progress and exposing his folly as a sham. There is little sign, however, of a non-Homeric tradition of his return. Troy is a famous story and its fame resonates throughout the Odyssey. But when Homer begins the tale of Odysseus’ return he seems to have little idea of where the story is going, as if his audience have never heard it before. The earliest painted scenes, moreover, look like precise illustrations of Homer’s text, leaving the impression that he has a monopoly on the subject. Even the fabulous Phaeacians seem to crop up nowhere else. There must, therefore, be a distinct possibility that the story of the Odyssey is largely Homer’s own. With all their twists and turns and feints and illusions, both the plot and the voyage look like projections of the hero’s multivalent Iliadic personality (or inventions of his subtle imagination), his homecoming an extrapolation from his reluctance to leave his wife and son. There were traditions, to be sure, about other voyages. Homer already knows of the Argo, and both Hercules and Perseus were sent to the ends of the earth in search of exotic quarry. The Odyssey seems to have used some of this material. The witch Circe, in particular, looks like she is in the wrong saga. She really belongs to Aia (Colchis) rather than the island of Aiaia, being Aeëtes’ sister and Medea’s maiden aunt. Read against these other myths, the Odyssey looks not like another version but an inversion of the fantastic voyage. Odysseus’ journey is always being deconstructed. A favourable wind from Aeolus takes him in sight of Ithaca, but then he gets blown back off course. He visits and revisits Aeolus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis and ends up on Calypso’s aimlessly floating isle. His journey keeps unravelling itself teasingly like Penelope’s famous loom. His odyssey is not a linear journey to more and more peculiar realms; it is a quest without a quarry that spirals dispiritingly into time. Far from searching for a Golden Fleece or the Head of Medusa or the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Odysseus turns down the prize offered him of immortality. He just wants to go home.

The voyage itself, moreover, is related not by the poet’s voice but out of Odysseus’ own mouth as a guest of the Phaeacians, as if Homer was marking his distance from the more fantastic elements of his tale from the mythodes, from oral history. It has to be like this, of course, because Odysseus alone survives. No one else knows what he has been up to these past ten years. His cannot be a famous story because he has disappeared from the heroic tradition, out of sight of men and the earshot of bards. He has disappeared from fame. When we see him clinging to the pieces of his broken craft, close to extinction, the fate of the poem itself is in the balance. He alone carries with him the account of his exiguous history. Without Odysseus, the Odyssey is sunk. The contrast with the Iliad and the Argonautica could not be more profound. The Odyssey is presented as a new and terrifying venture in literature, a story that has never been told. If the Iliad is the first example of great literature built up out of old stories, the Odyssey, perhaps, inaugurates the bizarre tradition of making things up.

The whole essay was worth reading, even with his unnecessary shot at creationists. He comments on translations in general and several different English translations particularly at the end.