“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

A World of Figures Series: Ellipsis, Paralipsis, and Ennoia

I’ve decided to start a new series of blog posts talking about my favorite thing: rhetoric!

Why do I love rhetoric? In short, because an awareness of rhetorical figures makes you a better speaker, a better writer, a better reader, and a better listener. It engages critical thinking skills that are supremely important in modern society. For a writer, it helps you to craft characters’ individual voices — different people are prone to different rhetorical tics and tactics. There are many fascinating things about language, but for me, rhetoric is the be-all and the end-all of them. Rhetoric is about structuring your words to achieve a desired effect — and what could be more important for a writer?

I was initially going to start this series with one of my favorite rhetorical figures, like chiasmus or anthimeria. I’m putting those on the backburner, though, to address something that’s become politically significant: figures of omission.

Take this example from Othello:

IAGO:
Ha? I like not that.

OTHELLO:
What dost thou say?

IAGO:
Nothing, my lord, or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO:
Was not that Cassio that parted from my wife?

IAGO:
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.

Iago’s doing a couple of really rhetorically clever things here. First off, ellipsis — simple omission of words or phrases. Generally, ellipsis ought to be easily understood in context. Our brains are really good at filling those in. Another example from Shakespeare is in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You this way; we that way.” I bet your brain had no trouble supplying the missing verb. If someone spoke those words to you, you probably wouldn’t even consciously realize that it was missing. Iago puts a twist on this form of omission, though, by creating gaps that can’t be filled in so quickly and easily. By saying “I like not that”, Iago makes the listener wonder what the antecedent of “that” is. By leaving out his explanation in the next line, he makes the listener try to come up with one.

We’ve also got something called paralipsis, the act of calling attention to something by pretending you’re not going to call attention to it. “I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like” is a denial that that’s what Cassio was doing — but it’s meant to plant exactly that idea in Othello’s brain.

And then there’s the ennoia, which Silva Rhetoricae (one of my favorite rhetorical references) defines as:”a kind of purposeful holding back of information that nevertheless hints at what is meant; a kind of circuitous speaking.” I see this in “Nothing, my lord, or if — I know not what.” That “or if –” is a sentence with no end. Iago intends no ending to it. But he does intend that Othello’s brain try to come up with an ending, and the rest of what he says clarifies what he intends that ending to be.

Now take this example from a couple of days ago:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

If you don’t know where that’s from, I envy you the rock you’ve been living under.

Donald Trump is employing ennoia in the same way that Iago did. He left a deliberate gap. His delivery showed that he trailed off intentionally, and then, like Iago, shrugs off the omission. He leaves it to the listener to find the end of that sentence, and both delivery and context indicated what he intended his listeners to fill in the missing information with. “Maybe there is, I don’t know” is a near-perfect analog for “Or if — I know not what.” And just as Iago meant it to be the dog-whistle of infidelity for Othello’s ears, Trump meant it to be the dog-whistle of violence to an audience that he knew would be receptive to such.

Ennoia is not a rhetorical device that one deploys accidentally. It has a purpose. Its entire function is to hint, to wink, to nudge, to draw the listener along to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the speaker does not want to say outright.

Trump is also fond, as many politicians are, of paralipsis. It’s a convenient way to make an ad hominenm attack but wiggle out of getting criticized for doing so. This blog post chronicles some great examples across history, from Cicero straight up to the present day, and both The Washington Post and Huffington Post have commented on Trump’s use of the device.

Here’s the other thing about these devices of omission, particularly when used in a political context: they’re cowardly. They are the resort of someone who wants to mislead and misguide. They allow a speaker to claim, “I never said that.” “What I meant was…” “If people interpreted it that way…” They’re a way of avoiding agency and responsibility. They may be effective, but they are not devices that inspire confidence in a leader.

Words matter. So does the structure that those words come in — that’s what rhetoric is. Not just your choice of words, but the way you choose to present them. So does your delivery — that trailing off for ennoia points an audience towards how the speaker wants their brains to fill in the missing information.

Words having meaning. And so, it turns out, does the absence of words.