We all have a way with words

In Defence of Rhetoric, by Brian Vickers. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 508 pp. $75. We all take pleasure in speaking and writing well, in turning a phrase, in bestowing praise and blame. We all try to tell the truth. We expect, and sometimes enjoy, feedback from others who enjoy doing these things as much as we do. We are all rhetoricians.

Still, rhetoric has a bad name. Poets try to avoid it, politicians promise to avoid it, lovers think they are beyond it. Rhetoric's bad name has a history, which Brian Vickers has now laid before us, along with its implications for literary studies.

It all started, of course, with Plato. Besides being one of the greatest rhetoricians of all time, in Vickers's rather literal reading of the dialogues Plato was also its cruelest enemy. His opposition was due to his awareness of its universal attractiveness and power. As Vickers shows, Plato announced the war between philosophy and rhetoric, the war between timeless truth and daily language, between the contemplative life and the active life, a war still being fought.

An unnecessary war, if Vickers is right. Beneath the rules of rhetoric - the five parts of compositions, the rhetorical figures like metaphor and simile - is the bedrock of our enduring emotional life, which, without rhetoric, would go unexpressed. According to Vickers - and anyone with the patience to read his detailed analyses of ancient, medieval, and modern texts would tend to agree - rhetoric deals with ``the crystallization of real-life emotional states.'' Why else would we shudder so when we hear a politician - or a consultant, or a salesman - ape sincerity by pausing like an actor, or repeating his message with variations, or reaching for a flowery exaggeration. We don't like to see rhetoric misused, precisely because it is dangerous, and lovable.

The alternative, clearly, is not to not use it, but to use it in the service of truth. Vickers argues strenuously against the Platonic separation of rhetoric and truth by saying: ``Truth is relative, as all important concepts and values are relative, their exact nature being the individual's task to discover and ratify for himself.'' This is Vickers's defense against the modern critics who have reduced rhetoric from its full complexity, so clearly and abundantly set out in these pages, to a few ``irreducible'' nuggets of philosophical gold that stand as the standard of all evaluation.

Real life is more complex than that, and the study of rhetoric is nothing if it is not a way of coming to terms with the complexity of real life, the judgments and perceptions we all make every day, small and large. In his chronological survey from ancient to medieval to modern, Vickers demonstrates another theory of his: ``the poly-functional nature of the figures.''

By the time we get to the chapter on rhetoric in the modern novel, we have learned not only about the war between philosophy and rhetoric, but also about the full realization of the scope of rhetoric in the ancient Greeks and Romans, the fragmentation and adaptation of bits and pieces of that edifice in the Middle Ages, the rediscovery of the wholeness of rhetoric in the Renaissance, the application of rhetoric to painting and music, and so on. We are not surprised when he shows us how characters in modern novels speak according to rhetorical rules, though it sounds natural.

One of the neatest exhibits is Randall Jarrell's ``Pictures from an Institution'' (1954). This comes after his demonstrations of how rhetoric rules in James Joyce's ``Ulysses'' and George Orwell's ``1984.'' Jarrell was known - and feared - for his sharp tongue. His characters illustrate how rhetorical figures of speech, even when used unwittingly, do make judgments and control perceptions, whether we know it or not.

``Every page of `Pictures from an Institution,''' Vickers writes, ``carries some new invention, some lovingly executed sentence - if I am allowed a pun - or new turn of phrase or figure.'' (Note how Vickers gets us involved in his own rhetoric!)

He notes that some of the characters are ``put down comprehensively.'' He lists the figures of speech (there is a handy appendix where these are defined and illustrated with quotations from Shakespeare) used in the process of putting down one character, a Mrs. Robbins, then produces a passage about Mrs. Robbins and her dogs: ``To understand what Pamela Robbins was, one didn't need to listen to what she said, to understand English, to understand human speech; the Afghans ... - they knew what Mrs Robbins was, and as she fed them they wagged their tails distrustingly.''

Ah, the rhetoric of dog tails! Reading Vickers's analysis, and resonating to his tuning fork, I noticed how this silent rhetoric is prepared for by the careful, seemingly casual, buildup of paraphrases of the words ``what she said,'' in slightly longer phrases, each one slightly more general, until the pause that hangs over the scene is Olympian.

Vickers not only covers the span of Western thought, not only teaches about a neglected subject, but also actually trains us to see rhetoric at work and enjoy it. His book is a powerful antidote to the pseudo-scientific approaches taken to literature today. It awakens in one a hunger for shaped speech, for eloquence, and restores to us a way of understanding the profound connection between art and nature, rhetoric and reality, so compactly defined by a Greek critic in the first century: ``Art is perfect when it looks like nature, nature is felicitous when it embraces concealed art.''

The only thing that nags about this solid, bright beacon of a book is the price. Oxford University Press should have had the foresight - and the grace - to publish it simultaneously in paperback.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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