Rhetorical Whiplash

January 29, 2004


Right now I am suffering from rhetorical whiplash. It has been a reading day and I have read about 200 pages of 1834 legal briefs from the Abner Kneeland blasphemy case, about 150 pages of a crappy Star Wars novel, and both volumes of Tom Paine's Rights of Man so that I could write a more coherent answer to a student question. I also listened to about an hour of Tolkein Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook - thus the Tom Bombadil post below.

They are four completely different ways of using language, five if you count the very different rhetorical styles of the two lawyers I waded through. My head spins.

For the first two, Abner Kneeland was tried for blasphemy in Boston in 1834 for printing a cheap newspaper that challenged Christian verities, including the standard atheist mocking of the virgin birth and a forthright declaration of Kneeland's own disbelief in God: "The Universalists believe in a God, which I do not."

In his defense, Andrew Dunlap writes:

But if the defendant, who does not profess a belief in Christianity, is to be condemned, what shall be said of those, who, professing a belief in Christianity, have employed much coarser language when attacking the beliefs of their fellow christians? If all the violations of the laws of decency and propriety of manner in religious controversies, are to be punished, your Courts must be multiplied, and their whole time will be occupied with corrections of the virulence of religious quarrels, to the entire exclusion of all other business. I hold in my hand a volume ... This work though undoubtedly written, by a divine of unsullied reputation, is nevertheless composed with such a particularity of description, that I should at this day, offend the modesty of any audience, by reading the passage referred to. ..."
Over and above the substance of his argument, notice the form - Dunlap has a comma marking every pause in his delivery. He produces long, multi-point sentences, all building to a complex conclusion. I chose not to include any of his digressions or commentary. Let me just say that Dunlap spoke for three days while defending Kneeland from a 60-day jail sentence, and that this is one of his clearer and less referenced paragraphs.

In reply, the prosecutor, S.D. Parker, used a more cadenced prose, and a more accusatory tone.

It is not my intention to follow the gentleman into those fields of fancy and declamation where he so gracefully sported to the admiration of all those who heard him. Were it in my power to show a tenth part of the learning he has so profusely spread before you, or to rival the thunder and lightning of his oratory, I would not be tempted on this occasion, (especially when you, gentlemen, already are so much exhausted by following him,) to display the flowers or fruits of my reading, nor the extent and brilliance of my talents. We are not here for personal contest or exhibition. I am engaged in a business far too grave and important in my own estimate, to allow the amusing myself or others with rhetorical flourishes, historical narrations, declamatory harangues, splendid eulogiums, or lofty flights of the imagination. I am here to place before you, as men, as husbands, as fathers, as christians, and as Jurors, a most serious and shocking charge against that aged man now here to answer for it to the offended law. I am here in the name of all the Christian people of this Commonwealth to place before you the laws of this land, and the proofs of his guilt, and to require of you a solemn, sincere, just and true Verdict, whether upon that law and that evidence he be guilty of the foul offence charged upon him or not guilty thereof. It is a solemn hour to him, it is a solemn hour to us all who are engaged in the serious and highly important business of this investigation and trial. If he be acquitted upon this law and evidence, it may also prove a fatal hour to thousands of human beings, young and old, male and female, married and single, rich and poor. If such obscene and scandalous attacks upon religion, being proved, are to escape unpunished, the acquittal under such circumstances will be construed into an unlimited licence to repeat and multiply such impious and disgusting publications; and the innocence and virtue, the faith and happiness of countless multitudes of human beings may be sacrificed without check or limit at the altars of folly, infidelity and crime.
That particular paragraph goes on for another page and a half. The good news about wading through this stuff is that if you slow down to a subvocalized pace, where you can read the words out loud to yourself, then the superfluity of clauses and examples becomes rhythmical, almost hypnotic. Despite his disclaimers Parker is just as rhetorical as Dunlap, but his rhetoric is an aggregation of paired adjectives, often with no direct relevance to the point of his sentence but attempting to add weight and social pressure to his call for conformity in published materials.

After 4 hung juries - the jury in the first trial hung within 10 minutes with 11 wanting to convict and one refusing to do so - Kneeland was finally convicted and served his time. This was the last blasphemy prosecution in the U.S. Looking back on the day, what hit me was the style of the rhetoric. Especially because over lunch for relaxation I was reading a Star Wars by the Numbers novel. None of the dialogue was particularly awful, but none of it was any good either. "They were just the usual feckless types that the Bounty Hunter's Guild sends out. Its easier to walk around a pile of nerf dung than step right into it." Lets just say that I took an hour for lunch and digestion, and got through 200 pages of this while half-drowsing.

We ran some errands around dinner time, and I listened to about a tape of FOTR. I don't have a hardcopy handy, but we are all familiar with Tolkein's prose. This was the tail end of the barrow wights up through the singing song in Bree. Tom Bombadil was talking in rhyme, Frodo found unexpected courage while facing barrow wights, and they had their misadventure in the Prancing Pony in Bree with Frodo singing a song and falling off the table. Rhyming prose, thick description, careful depictions of the way that light touches the land, and all of it produced through repeated editing and polishing. LOTR is a heck of a lot of words, written in Tolkein's spare time, but he had enough time to polish and revise greatly - unlike everything else I read today - and that polish shows.

Then, after dinner, I read book 1 of Paine Rights of Man and skimmed book two. There we had a fourth completely different form of rhetoric. Paine is a bucket of cold water to the face. From book 1, chapter 1:

I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party here or elsewhere. That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do. Mr. Burke says, No. Where then does the right exist? I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living. There was a time when kings disposed of their crowns by will upon their death-beds, and consigned the people, like beasts of the field, to whatever successor they appointed. This is now so exploded as scarcely to be remembered, and so monstrous as hardly to be believed. But the parliamentary clauses upon which Mr. Burke builds his political church, are of the same nature.
Paine, like everything else but the junk novel, was written to be read aloud. But Paine's reader is not a lawyer in a courtroom or an academic reading to his friend in the garden; it is a shop worker reading to his fellows while the labor at their trades, or it is a store of metaphors and images to be used by a street-corner orator or tavern radical. Paine is preaching subversion and rebellion, while both the lawyers I read earlier that day were trying to cry down Paine's legacy while still staying true to their own ideals of state and society. Tolkein, together with his deep compassion and essential humanism, also celebrated an organic society unlike Paine's cry for an eternal present.

So I have an American Jacksonian and a Whig arguing about whether a lecturing atheist is a threat to the republic, a hack science fiction novel, a medievalist writing fairy tales and rhymes, and an itenerant radical trying to overthrow the standing order. No wonder my head is spinning.

This was long, but it may have helped me get a handle on some of my work reading.

Oh, and for the record, it was not a very productive day. I should have finished the book of briefs instead of bogging down after 200 pages.
EDIT - punctuation, and I am sure I missed some.

Posted by Red Ted at January 29, 2004 11:35 AM | TrackBack