Monday, May 30, 2016

prose overlap and empty heads

A recent article that talked about Donald Trump's meeting with bikers at the beginning of a Rolling Thunder event quoted Trump as saying the following:

“Look at all these bikers,” Mr. Trump, standing before a crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial, said with admiration. “Do we love the bikers? Yes. We love the bikers.”

Bikers... bikers... bikers.

I'm convinced that Donald Trump is an example of what my long-ago high-school biology teacher sneeringly called The Law of the Septic Tank, which applies nicely to politicians: the biggest pieces rise to the top. Nothing Trump has said, since he began his improbable run for the presidency, has convinced me that he has any brains. Sure, he's got what many would style "low cunning," but don't expect to see Trump sitting by the hearth, holding his own opposite someone with the intellectual firepower of a William F. Buckley anytime soon.

Repetitive elements in speech and writing can sometimes be a powerful rhetorical technique, but there are also times when repetition, especially when it leads to a feeling of "overlapping prose," signals ineloquence at best and obtuseness at worst. Look at the following paragraph, which I've written to mimic the style of some bloggers I read:

I have a problem. It is a big problem. My problem is this: horseflies in my back yard. How can I solve this horsefly problem? I've talked to my neighbors, who also have this problem. My neighbors don't have any solutions. And frankly, I need a good solution.

I can't stand this overlapping style of writing: sentence 1 says "problem," then sentence 2 says "problem"; sentence 3 says "horseflies," then sentence 4 says "horsefly." Sentence 5 says "neighbors," then sentence 6 says "neighbors." Sentence 6 says "solutions," then sentence 7 says "solution." For me, this is the rhetorical equivalent of a slug leaving a trail of slime as it drags itself along the ground. It's intellectual slop. Pigswill.

In trying to figure out what exactly bothers me about this rhetorical style, the only thing I can come up with is that I'm an elitist with an admiration for aretê (Gk. excellence) and little patience for clumsiness and incompetence. This makes some bloggers' prose musical to me, and others' downright hellish. Overlapping prose indicates an inability to leave one thought completely behind when leaping to the next thought. It's like the fearful navigation of a North Dakota farmer in a blizzard, moving from house to barn by sliding his hands along a cable strung between the two buildings. If the cable magically turned into a dotted line, the farmer would be lost, and the same is true for prose-overlappers, who can't hold a coherent thought without seeding successive sentences with reminders of previous sentences.

Who knows? Maybe you, Dear Reader, like this sort of rhetorical technique and can see its redeeming qualities. I don't and can't, and if I were ever to teach another writing class, I'd warn my students away from forming their thoughts in this manner.



  1. Man, I hope you like my writing! Because I can be a little insecure about my writing at times, even though I work very hard on my writing. But maybe working hard on my writing isn't enough. What would be enough? Does anybody really know what would be enough? Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

    Also, listening to Donald Trump talk is like being ear-raped by a demon wearing a spiked condom.

  2. Hi Kevin!

    I think that Donald Trump has a certain gift for communicating to low-information voters. They're steeped in biblical-style storytelling. Repeated keywords are a big part of these modes of storytelling. Take a look at all the repetitions in these verses from an old favourite of mine, Psalm 29:

    The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
    4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
    5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
    6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion[b] like a young wild ox.
    7 The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
    8 The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
    9 The voice of the Lord twists the oaks[c]
    and strips the forests bare.
    And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
    *The* defining feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is wonderfully translatable: what we can call, "X / X+1" parallelism. Thus you have, for instance:

    "The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; [X}
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon." {X + 1]

    I hope my formatting and spacing work out properly here, but I won't know until this comment is posted.

    By the way, there is an alliterative pattern going on in Ps. 29 which is not translatable. The repeated consonants are b, ayin, and l, and indeed, the imagery is the imagery of the old Canaanite storm-god Baal. The writer of this Psalm has simply appropriated a Baal hymn and applied it to Yahweh!

    I don't think that repetition should be written off. For a bit of praise of repetition, here's Alain de Botton from his talk "Atheism 2.0":

    [blockquote]Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they'll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, "Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it." That's what all religions tell us: "Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day." Otherwise our minds are like sieves.[/blockquote]

    Sometimes Trump's use of innumerable repetitions seems artless. Maybe he doesn't know any other way to speak, but he's certainly reaching millions with his messages--and I think his short, simple sentences and his repetitions are a big part of that. Well, I hope my two cents here were interesting!

  3. Nathan,

    Thanks for the comment.

    "I don't think that repetition should be written off."

    You may have missed the line in my post where I wrote:

    "Repetitive elements in speech and writing can sometimes be a powerful rhetorical technique..."

    Rest assured: no one's writing off repetition. In terms of "powerful rhetorical technique," I was thinking specifically of repetition in biblical verse. More specifically, the repeated "...and it was good" from the first chapter of Genesis. As we both know, this literature was part of an oral tradition long before it got set down in writing, so repetition would have been a way for reciting elders to remember the old stories and to tell them entertainingly. This is nothing like Trump's biker quote or the example of bad writing that I gave.

    And I agree: Trump's rhetoric can be catchy, but I'm not convinced it indicates he has any brains.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    I hadn't meant to suggest that you would write off repetition; I just wanted an excuse to quote de Botton! ;-) (By the way, my typo of "you" for "your" is in the original transcript.)

    About the Trump quote on his "problem," though, I would disagree:

    "I have a problem." = X

    "I have a big problem" = X + 1

    "My problem is this: horseflies in my garden." Again, heightening the X--and so on.

    I actually liked his style in that paragraph you quoted. It's very folksy, very rural. And it has pauses that keep the listener listening for more. I can imagine myself, deep in the past, sitting outside at night while a storyteller speaks this way--and I can imagine enjoying it. At the very least, I want to know more about this quote!

    The bikers example was much less artsy. It's just plain old repetition, without any extra skill--but still appropriate for big, bearded bikers, perhaps.

    That said, I've noticed the same thing you have about Trump's utterances in other quotes, and I've also wondered the same thing you did about his basic level of intelligence--but I tend to think that he's more intelligent about communicating his way to power than I would naturally give him credit for.

    I do think that Trump's style puts off the urban-dwellers, those who've had higher education, and those who prefer reading political analyses to listening (say, to talk radio hosts).

    Well, that's all from me on that topic. All the best to you!

  5. Nathan,

    Thanks again. I should have been clearer that the "horsefly" paragraph was something I had written, not something quoted from Trump. I'll edit my post to make that more explicit.

  6. Ha! I must have been half-asleep when I read your post! But I actually liked your parody (and Charles', above). In fact, it was nearly midnight when I as on your blog as I had trouble falling asleep (that night, and the one before it, too). Tonight I'm turning in early!




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