Rhetoric

Anatine, salubrious, tatterdemalion

These are three words I encountered during a morning’s reading that I had to stop and look up. The first was in a New Yorker story about the study of taxidermied birds, and the second two were in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic tale Ollala.

The first word was not in the dictionary, not the Webster’s I keep at arm’s length on my desks at work and at home and not in the digital version, either. I don’t trust online dictionaries or whatever source Google is consulting when it gives you definitions. The best I could do with anatine was to see the first part, “anat-”, which the dictionary defines as relating to anatomy, and combine it with the latter part “-tine” which means like or of. In the same way that serpentine means snake-like, anatine, used to refer to a bank of dead birds or perhaps their glass container, means anatomy-like. Or maybe it meant something like a vitrine, which is a glass display case, itself a word that means “glass like thing.” Seems like the author of this piece just made anatine up. I wonder what The New Yorker copy department made of it.

The other two words fell into that rather large category of words that I know about but need to look up just to be sure. The slower my eyes scan the page or my fingers hit the keys as I write, the more I find myself reaching for the dictionary.

Words are mnemonic devices to remember thoughts, as arbitrary as a color, a movement of the body, or shape assigned to do the same thing. The more words we know, the more thoughts we are capable of having.

That dictionary at elbow’s length is a catalogue of news ways of being.

Any words you’ve learned recently? Or relearned?

What actors and orators in the classical world knew about the quirks of the brain

Quite a bit, apparently. Recent research suggests that the same part of the brain which helps us see space and navigate through it also guides us through the thinking process. As we remember and reason, we’re taking a spatial tour of memories and possibilities.

This is precisely how classical and medieval scholars, actors, and orators carried knowledge with them. They would meticulously construct memory palaces by memorizing spatial locations, like cathedrals, areas, palaces, and parts of cities, which they would then mentally place powerful images in to help them remember facts and ideas.

It’s easy to think about the power of such locations when we think about our earliest memories. You may not remember what was on TV in a given year of your childhood, but I’ll bet you remember what the TV looked like and where in the room it was placed. Your whole childhood home, or series of homes, is probably indelibly imprinted on your mind. This same fantastic staying power of visual memory can be knowingly harnessed. In the era before paper and Google, it was probably how troubadours memorized long songs on a single hearing, or how orators could speak for hours on end using a predetermined sequence of ideas.

We can’t enter the mansions of memory any more, thanks to information tech in all its forms, but it seems like we’re hardwired to want to be there.

Anybody out there use a memory palace or anything like it?

From the Commonplace Book: Dickens on Whimsy and National Security

Well, not quite national security, but national strength anway.

It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales be respected. A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.

-Charles Dickens, from Frauds on the Fairies

The wage premium for liberal arts grads, the continuing technological edge that the U.S. still enjoys over China (despite our comparative lack of investment in research), the inventiveness of our defense programs, and the appeal of our pop culture abroad are all built on our imagination, not our efficiency.

Hat tip to The Week, November 16, 2018 for pointing out the quote.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?

Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

FDR on the Limited Uses of Limited Government

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.

It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.

Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.

The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.

And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.

Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.

In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.

If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.

The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

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