Thursday, May 01, 2003

A new piece by Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air yesterday on the politics of polysyndeton (a rhetorical figure that takes the form "a and b and c and d..."). Geoff finds that polysyndeton has become a common weapon in the arsenal of the kitschy conservative columnist. (You can listen to the piece on the Fresh Air website.)

When Geoff first started working on the piece about two weeks ago he emailed to ask what some of the possible sources for this pattern of speech might be (especially literary ones) and why it might have a connection to the right. Well, what's your friendly neighborhood English grad student good for if not to answer such questions? So I diligently did my homework and came up with the following response, which I emailed to Geoff:

"I guess what I can say is that from a literary-historical point of view, I do associate the figure of speech you're referring to with the modernist technique of parataxis, of linking a series of apparently unlike things through juxtaposition. But perhaps one key to understanding the politics of this figure would be to distinguish polysyndeton ("...and...and...and...") from, say, anaphora (organized around repetitive phrasing) or even a mere list (joined only by commas).

Whitman, of course, uses anaphora and the list extensively. Gertrude Stein uses repetitive constructions that might be understood as anaphoric. Thomas Pynchon is a master of the list: in Gravity's Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop's desk is covered in "paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens..."

But the "...and...and..." construction is somewhat less common. The best modernist example of it, besides Hemingway, may be Ezra Pound. Canto III:

And there were not "those girls," there was one face,
And the Buccentoro twenty yards off, howling "Stretti";
And the lit cross-beams, that year, in th Morosini,
And peacocks in Kore's house, or there may have been.

Pound will often use the "and" to switch abruptly from, say, Renaissance Florence to ancient China, not specifying the connection but assuming that the pieces will come together to reveal a deeper, structural connection.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Pound is also the modernist most infamous for his right-wing allegiances? The idea that all the pieces of a puzzle will cohere into a unity is also behind Noonan's list of traits of a "greater America"--what do all of these things have to do with each other, after all, except that they cohere into some ordered imagining of "America."

It seems as if some very recent novelists use polysyndeton to create a hip breathlessness which is meant to sound youthful and slangy. ("And then I was like...and then she was like...and then I was like..." etc.) From David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest:

"Ken Erdedy noticed that nobody came right out and used the terms melancholy or anhedonia or depression, much less clinical depression; but this worst of symptoms, this logarithm of all suffering, seemed, though unmentioned, to hang fog-like just over the room's heads, to drift between the peristyle columns and over the decorative astrolabes and candles on long prickets and medieval knockoffs and framed Knights of Columbus charters, a gassy plasm so dreaded no beginner could bear to look up and name it. Kate Gompert kept staring at the floor and making a revolver of her forefinger and thumb and shooting herself in the temple and then blowing pretend-cordite off the barrel's tip until Johnette Foltz whispered to her to knock it off." (504)

I'm not sure how I would place Wallace politically; he's smart and critically savvy about pop culture but can be crochety and distinctly anti-feminist, among other things. But polysyndeton seems to be one of the things that makes him sound contemporary. Don DeLillo does this too.

Maybe anaphora is more the American left's standard rhetorical figure. You could certainly call it distinctively American because of its origins in the rhetoric of the preacher, which permeates American political culture in a way unthinkable in, say, England or France. But think about American left figures whose best-known speeches involve anaphora.

John F. Kennedy:
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
 My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Jesse Jackson (speech at 1984 Democratic Convention):
"We are bound by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, crying out from their graves for us to reach common ground. We are bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices. We are much too intelligent; much too bound by our Judeo-Christian heritage; much too victimized by racism, sexism, militarism and anti-Semitism; much too threatened as historical scapegoats to go on divided one from another. We must turn from finger pointing to clasped hands. We must share our burdens and our joys with each other once again. We must turn to each other and not on each other and choose higher ground. "

Bill Clinton, first inaugural :
"An idea born in revolution and renewed through two centuries of challenge. An idea tempered by the knowledge that, but for fate, we -- the fortunate and the unfortunate -- might have been each other. An idea ennobled by the faith that our nation can summon from its myriad diversity the deepest measure of unity. An idea infused with the conviction that America's long heroic journey must go forever upward. "

I'm sure you can find comparable passages in the rhetoric of the right; but I can't think of ones that seem quite as iconic as these."

Of course, Geoff, being much smarter than I, came up with the real source...

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