Saturday, October 12, 2013

On the Rhetoric of Being Mean

In order to have a little something to post, I've stolen a short thing I wrote for my rhetoric of satire class.  Actually, it's an eighteenth century lit class.  Actually, it's a Pope and Swift class.  (Actually, it's all of those things, which means it covers tons of coursework requirements, and is a weekly, 3-hour knowledge bath.)

We have to write a paper answering a simple question each week.  The requirements for these little "I understood the reading and thought about it" papers are not spelled out.  After two semesters with this professor (who is a font of wisdom but also a tough teacher) I'm finally figuring out what he wants.  He wants you to write about the ideas, the way they work, and write about a bit of the text that you know a little something extra about.  So I've started to seize on the philosophy references, which are easy to find in Pope and Swift.  (What he doesn't want is literary theory sorts of discussions, humor, -isms of any kind, or tangents. I can avoid most of those things easily, but I really miss having a class where I can go off on a tangent and mine it for everything tangential!)

Two weeks ago, I saw a non-philosophical opportunity to say a little about the rhetoric of being insulting.  I am still working on my "Rhetoric of Fuck," so this is an offshoot, or maybe even a broader category, of that.  Pope at his meanest shows that if your text or argument sets up the necessity of swearing or insulting, then it must live up to its own demands.  Maybe this is not an infallible rhetorical method, but it does make for a nicely encapsulated rhetorical environment where the speaker makes the rules -- and once he shows you that he can play by them, you are hopefully enticed to try the game.

Pope tells it like it is (because he thinks everyone should)
In Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Abuthnot,” the poet attacks several contemporary writers in satiric verse. Most prominent among these writers are Joseph Addison, an essayist and Pope’s former friend, and John Hervey, an aristocratic political writer and friend to the royalty.  In a stanza full of scathing accusations of literary cowardice, Pope critiques Addison’s critical persona.  His attacks on Lord Hervey get a bit more personal, as he questions Hervey’s sexuality and responds to Hervey’s attacks on Pope himself.  Do either of these writers deserve the treatment they receive from the tip of Pope’s pen? 
In the case of Addison, I think the attack was a bit unwarranted, based on a personal quarrel about whether Pope’s Iliad was any good, a quarrel that Pope let destroy the friendship.  When he writes Arbuthnot, Pope sees in his former comrade an easy vehicle for critiquing literary trends that rub him the wrong way, and winds his way toward a critique of the writer himself.  The stanza on Addison (ll. 193-214) comes after the poet has spent two stanzas lamenting trends in both contemporary literary criticism and the reading habits of the ever-growing literate (but unrefined) populace.  In ll. 159-172 he critiques the fascination with style for style’s sake (an empty habit of gazing at writing rather than reading it, reducing reading to “word-catching” and counting of syllables) and in ll. 175-192 he condemns writers who borrow other’s works to the point where they cannot create their own except for “eight lines a year.”  He may not associate all of these these bad habits with Addison, but he uses the writer’s name in an ironic manner in l. 192: “not Addison himself was safe” he quips, suggesting Addison’s work is not even worth pilfering. Whether Pope puts Addison in this stanza because the preceding critiques reminded him of that writer is uncertain, but what is certain is that he had something particular to say about Addison and he needed to get to it while he was riled about writing.  He makes note of Addison’s potential literary genius, but accuses Addison of being the opposite sort of social critic that Pope believes himself to be.  Pope views his own, sometimes savage, attacks as necessary evils (if he thinks them evil at all…) in an increasingly literate, increasingly published society where it is becoming harder to break through the literary clutter, harder to set oneself apart and make one’s points heard, and harder to stay in with the right crowd (for him anyway).  Pope believes he is not slighting others for personal gain or merely out of retaliation, but because he is virtuous, and cannot help but be virtuous, like an eighteenth century Socrates. He has no choice but to satirize and condemn those who make literature low-minded or unreadable, and he considers himself brave for doing so.  Addison, on the other hand, is a milk-toast of a critic in his Spectator, because he is afraid of damaging his image as a good-natured wit.  He does not commit to his critiques, he never “dislikes” but only makes a “hint at fault.”  Addison “Damn[s] with faint praise,” while Pope, as he sees it, tells it like it is.
Pope’s attack on Lord Hervey is both more justified and more explicit in its cruelty.  Hervey had made personal attacks on Pope, not leaving out his physical deformities.  So how could Pope ignore Hervey’s sexual (and writerly) waffling between “that and this” if he were serious about causing “wounds,” about striking one’s opponent instead of just making others “sneer”?  Pope hits hard when he calls Hervey a lady, but this is only for rhetorical effect.  The courtier's romantic habits are not what Pope condemns.  It is Hervey's inability to write an attack without telling vicious lies that really galls him because, again, a good critique should get at the truth. (If it's an ugly truth, well then all the better for your argument.  But you can't just make one up.)  While jealousy of Hervey could have been a contributing factor here, Pope is not amiss to continue to uphold his requirement (the requirement that Addison couldn’t meet) that critics, especially satirists, tell it like it is without pulling punches. There is no praise of Hervey’s genius, latent or not.
While Pope’s critique of Addison may be somewhat unwarranted, it is not all that nasty compared to Pope’s crucifixion of Hervey, “that mere white curd of ass’s milk” (l. 306).  If Pope’s main concerns are with the preservation of meaningful literature, with maintaining a literary society that is at once virtuous and au fait -- a society where intelligent men can openly challenge each other’s work -- then this epistle does what he wanted it to do.  The premise of the text requires personal attacks, and as Pope tells us in the sort of disclaimer that precedes some editions, “No injury can possibly be done by [my abuse], since a Nameless Character can never be found out, but by its Truth and Likeness.”  Pope considers himself free and clear – any fault in the poem is actually a fault within the reader.  The somewhat mean-spirited (but not entirely hateful) Addison critique sets up the model and the expectations for a good satirical treatment, and in Pope’s treatment of Hervey a few stanzas later, he happily (and angrily) abides by his own rules.