Saturday, 21 April 2012

On Eloquence

Does great eloquence a better conception make? Presumably not - eloquence is merely the form by which ideas are communicated and despite any lustre it might lend to appearances the real object or attribute of value is the idea that lies at its core. But since eloquence is not simply a skill of vocabulary but also a skill of structure it seems plausible that this feature might play an important role, not just in the expression, but in the formulation of ideas: it is a tool that allows the skilful user to fashion a multitude of elaborate semblances but it also brings with it an understanding of how to organise emergent thoughts and sub-thoughts - of how to structure them from their very earliest conception such that they emerge in lucid form.

The 16th Century French blogger, Michele de Montaigne once wrote the following in one of his medieval posts:

"I have observed some to make excuses, that they cannot express themselves, and pretend to have their fancies full of a great many very fine things, which yet, for want of eloquence, they cannot utter; 'tis a mere shift, and nothing else. Will you know what I think of it? I think they are nothing but shadows of some imperfect images and conceptions that they know not what to make of within, nor consequently bring out; they do not yet themselves understand what they would be at, and if you but observe how they haggle and stammer upon the point of parturition, you will soon conclude, that their labour is not to delivery, but about conception, and that they are but licking their formless embryo."

Is this so? If it were, surely there would be little value or purpose in striving to articulate anything more clearly or accurately or of repeating a point in alternative terms, of licking the embryo clean so that we might at least see it more definitely for what promises to become.

Language can be precise far more infrequently than it can be vague or nonsensical. Montaigne already concedes this in an earlier essay - he describes himself as "so weak and so forlorn, so heavy and so flat, in comparison with those better writers" and whilst this may be due to lack of depth or form in conception there seems, nonetheless, to be an apparent and important role to be played by articulacy and eloquence as much in the formulation of nascent ideas as in their expression.

And what of ideas that we have previously expressed well in writing but which we later have difficulty in calling forth? Is this also a fault in conception or, as seems more likely, a difficulty of memory combined with a struggle to reformulate the idea in its formal entirety? I think this gives the lie to Montaigne’s claim – his misconception.

Embryos are not formless after all, they are replete with form from the very outset and as they develop this form becomes increasingly differentiated, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly individuated. But the struggle that Montaigne describes in those that "stammer upon the point" is by no means in the conception but in the pulling together of the necessary faculties and resources to develop the inchoate conception to maturity, of providing it with the necessary nutrients and nurture such that it might survive its abrupt entry into the world.  


rborrelli said...

Reading philosophy and journal publications in grad school has made your language far easier for me to read, ha ha! Admittedly, first coming to this blog a few years ago was intimidating... often I would reread the ideas and have too little context to draw from. In some ways it was maddening, because I felt as if I was presented a delicious dinner without the proper utensils. Exposure to a more academic language at the university has given me the utensils so to speak... the ability to savor this blog's "form." Pretty excited about this :) Hope you've been well.

rborrelli said...

Posted with the wrong google account there. rborrelli is also Brazen :)

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brazen,

Yes it's a difficult one - on the one hand I want to be as clear as crystal and on the other I want to play with language and take pleasure in the way that ideas can be expressed within certain formal limits. I often think about your own more anecdotal (and I mean that in the most complementary way) approach and wonder if I should experiment with something similar. I don't really see myself as much of a storyteller but maybe it's just like I am with swimming: I've become so familiar with breaststroke that whenever I try anything else I'm useless in comparison and this is a huge disincentive. Perhaps I just need a time in a pool unobserved by the lifeguard.

This Brazen Teacher said...

I think you're right to continue with the form you know well... you own it. I know what you mean about wondering if you should experiment. Thesis writing has made me consider the benefits of intellectual language (and the respect it garners) however in the end I will always prefer story telling. It's my "breaststroke." :)

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