Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 15.
Sarah Spence, Figuratively Speaking: Rhetoric and Culture from Quintilian to the Twin Towers. Classical Interfaces. London: Duckworth, 2007. Pp. 144. ISBN 978-0-7156-3513-1. UK£12.99.
University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
Spence’s aim is to identify the embedded tropes for four periods in Western culture: our post-9/11 present, Roman antiquity, the High Middle Ages, and the Age of Montaigne, since these would offer a thumbnail version of the limitations and possibilities for that culture. Her book is part of the series ‘Classical Inter/Faces’ (edited by P. Cartledge and S. Morton Braund), which, according to its programmatic announcement on the back cover: ‘shows how Classical ideas and material have helped to shape the modern world’. The material is divided into four chapters, including introductory remarks (pp. 9-17), a conclusion (pp. 123-28), notes (pp. 129-33), select bibliography (pp. 135-40), and, finally, an index (pp. 141-44). Original texts are offered only where the words themselves are under discussion; otherwise translations are included.
In the introduction Spence states that the crux of her analysis ‘will rest on one aspect of rhetoric, figurative speech, and the way in which the presentation and treatment of this kind of language provide a common denominator among western cultures’ (p. 9). Her purpose is to fill a void in histories of rhetoric, which often discuss its place in schools, or its links with other discourses of the times, limiting themselves to textual analysis, thus failing to address much of what is crucial about rhetoric (p. 123). Although rhetoric has often been associated with lies, the prevailing Roman definition of the word, ‘the art of speaking well’, places rhetoric between language and ethics. According to Spence, analysis of rhetoric, even in its most minimal form, that of the treatise, offers a window onto its contemporary culture since ‘in their effort to lay down the law most simply, rhetorical treatises tell us about the priorities of a culture that are embedded in their language and linguistic interactions, revealing choices and priorities both in what is said and in what is omitted’ (p. 11). In fact, looking at these texts and their attempts to define speech figuratively will show how ‘the seamless façade of a treatise is often cracked and revealing, enabling the treatise both to codify use and to adumbrate change’ (p. 12). In other words, she considers rhetorical treatises not as how-to manuals but, rather, as indices of cultural values. Her analysis, however, also takes account of literary works ‘as examples of how they [cultural values] played out in the creative minds of the time’ (p. 12).
Chapter 1, ‘Weapons of Mass Creation: Repetition versus Replication’ (pp. 19-37), focuses on a key contemporary trope: repetition. Copying endlessly, our culture places a premium on replication over differentiation. In ancient treatises, repetition as anaphora was a form of superficial decoration, a stylistic element added for emphasis; however, in the sign systems of our culture, ‘repetition has migrated from superficial ornamentation to . . . our thoughts patterns. It has progressed from a figure of speech to a figure of thought’ (p. 19). If this is the case, repetition provides a glimpse of what differentiates our era from all others and, as a result, ‘gets at something crucial to our understanding of who we are’ (p. 23). Spence exemplifies her ideas with films such as Manhattan, Finding Nemo and Groundhog Day, since they feature repetitions that defy cloning -- repetitions with a difference -- and, as such, show that ‘repetition need not end difference’ (p. 28). A remarkable example of this phenomenon is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where ‘repetition that is only cloning, only replication, is shown to be deadening, while repeating lives with difference embedded becomes worthwhile’ (p. 28). This repetition, although made central by technology and itself the key to the development of cloning, is, in the hands of those who approach it rhetorically, a fertile seed-bed of possibility (p. 37).
In Chapter 2, ‘Looking back: Figures of Speech and Thought in the Roman World’ (pp. 39-65), Spence traces the development of the term ‘rhetoric’ and explains how, in spite of the negative connotations that it has today, in ancient Rome, it was a primary defining social institution (p. 39). She points out that she approaches the figures as a cultural grid: ‘to see in the conservative nature of the concept of the taxonomy the places where that effort at categorization falls apart and the anomalies of the culture shine through’ (p. 47). In order to prove this, she dwells on two figures, hesitation and correction. Quintilian identifies these tropes as not easy to categorize and so suggests that, like repetition in contemporary society, these figures are a key to the aesthetic of the culture (p. 65). Their importance is shown cogently with representative examples from Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. However, nowhere does resistance to simplicity if categorization find a greater spokesperson than in Ovid, and nowhere does the word mora occur with more frequency (p. 55). Interesting to note is that Spence argues, convincingly, that this word ‘completes the triad of anagrams offered by the city itself, as mora, together with amor, mark the nature of Roma’ (p. 57).
Chapter 3, ‘Dwelling on a Point: Rhetoric and Love in the Middle Ages’ (pp. 67-96), examines how figures remained a consistent and essential element of the rhetorical tradition in the medieval treatises on poetry. Rhetoric was transformed during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages from a civic tool to a hermeneutic one, capable of offering an approach acceptable for both sacred and secular works (p. 69). Spence cites Augustine’s assertion that texts can be read with either of two kinds of love, ‘charity and cupidity, the first being an interpretation that offers a reading that points toward God and Christian truth, the second, a reading that draws away from God towards the transient things of this world’ (p. 69). Through use of figures it is possible to watch how tropes progress from representing a world that is composed of material distractions to one in which those very same objects provide the means for achieving spiritual insight. The key figure for this period is commoratio, understood broadly as amplification, which plays a role analogous to the one played by hesitation and correction in ancient texts, and becomes a literal, architectural space in the text itself (p. 69). This trope is singled out for being so embedded in the process of style that it cannot usefully be exemplified. Spence explains that this is the reason why medieval treatises are organized around amplification and abbreviation (its opposite) and proves the centrality of commoratio to the high medieval mindset (p. 72). This point is illustrated brilliantly through the writings of Abbot Suger (1080/81-1151), whose renovations to the abbey of Saint-Denis laid the foundation for what became the Gothic style (p. 76). What interests Spence particularly is the fact that Suger uses rhetorical arguments about expansion to justify his renovations, which are, ultimately, a testimony to the importance of amplification to the culture (p. 80).
In Chapter 4, ‘The Chiastic Page: The Rhetoric of Montaigne’s Essais’ (pp. 97-122), Spence focuses on rhetoric in Montaigne’s time, where the concept has been taken over by literature and the whole force and energy of classical rhetoric as performing art is assumed by the written text. Chiasm is here the figure under consideration, which surfaces as a form of amplification prompted or at least supported by the appearance of the text on the page (p. 99). Spence hypothesizes that Montaigne’s Essais can be approached as an inverted rhetorical treatise and as a critical response to what Quintilian recommended (p. 109). In order to make her point, she mentions the recent 1988 publication of Montaigne’s text of Lucretius, which shows the text of Lucretius in the centre of the page and in the margins Montaigne’s responses. In the Essais, Montaigne has moved, by means of a chiastic pattern, from the actual to the metaphoric margin. What had previously been pushed to the edges is what Montaigne considers essential, and what had been presented as fixed and central he calls mere ceremony (p. 120). This illustrates how rhetoric can serve to present things as the speaker wishes them to be understood, not as the status quo is used to seeing them. Spence ends this chapter claiming that Montaigne’s transposition of margin and centre is also ‘a political statement about his time and a vote in favour of the power of rhetoric -- understood not as the ‘old’ rhetoric presented it, as divorced from the world but, instead, in its ‘new’ guise, with the power to effect change’ (p. 121).
On the whole, this book is a meaningful and welcome contribution to the field of rhetorical studies, and it paves the way for further investigation that should provoke continuous and stimulating debate on the subject. However, it has to be said that the chapters are perhaps too general, not aimed at the specialist, who might feel a bit uncomfortable with some of the broad generalizations made. For that reason this volume would make an excellent introductory teaching tool, whose thought- provoking methodology, evident in each chapter, makes it very well worth reading.