Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Erasmus, Cicero, et al: Using Rhetorical Tools -- Climax

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam wi...
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In Book IV of Cicero’s Ad Herennium we find a discussion of a rhetorical figure —climax or gradatio— that highlights a series of words that increment a particular situation, as in the following examples:
“The empire of Greece belonged to the Athenians; the Athenians were overpowered by the Spartans; the Spartans were overcome by the Thebans; the Thebans were conquered by the Macedonians; and the Macedonians in a short time subdued Asia in war and joined her to the empire.”
“I did not conceive this without counseling it; I did not counsel it without at once undertaking it; I did not undertake it without completing it; nor did I complete it without winning approval of it.”
The Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus in his book on rhetoric On Copia, called the figure ‘an incrementum’ and saw it as an ordered series which could be used to praise —or in reverse— to insult a subject. The editor of the Ad Herennium includes in a footnote, an example from Shakespeare’s As You Like it. Rosalind says:
“For your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage.”
Having written a short story in which the narrator is a tiny doggie —a teacup Shi Tzu— and being dissatisfied and frustrated that I couldn’t convey the exact meaning I wanted in a crucial scene, I set it aside. And despite the fact that I often read and re-read Erasmus and Cicero I never really paid much attention to their discussion of Climax—that is, till recently. As I focused on the examples cited above, I knew that I had hit upon the solution to my manqué doggie-story. In my story the teacup Shi Tzu suffers from mild panic attacks, and one terrible day he is hit by a grand seizure. By repeating key words in an ascending order of suffering I felt that my scene was well served:
“For a moment my whole world came crashing down on me: out of the debris came pain, of the pain came hurt, of the hurt came paralysis, of the paralysis came numbness, of the numbness came total eclipse of the soul. “This is the end,” I mumbled. But my wails must have touched the hard man’s heart that he picked me up and held me and whispered in my ear that there was nothing in the world that could hurt me; that no evil force in this world could ever take me away from him.”
Seeing the value of such rhetorical figure, once again I used it in one of my articles:
“The point is that wealth comes to those who lust for it. From assertiveness comes confidence, from confidence we develop poise, from poise we move to aggressiveness, and with aggressiveness we are one step close to lust for riches-to having it all.”
For those interested in seeing more examples of climax or gradation, I recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s excellent book, Rhetorical Figures in Science.

Senada Selmani, model

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