Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Invitation to Play

zur Deutschen Version

Rolf-Peter Wille

The idea to collect exercises in rhetorical style is not exactly a new one. Classical Greek orators had their progymnasmata as part of the pedagogical curriculum, and a prolific Renaissance writer, like Erasmus in his De Copia, gives 200 stylistic diversions of two very banal sentences. The difference of Raymond Queneau’s 20th century Exercises in Style, 1947, lies in the absence of a pedagogical intent and in the ironical distance to esthetic effect. A classical orator typically employs figures to trigger intended effects in his listeners, effects that have certain political, or judicial consequences, or at least show off the eloquence and encyclopedic erudition of the speaker. Queneau, though obviously as erudite as any Renaissance man, conducts rhetorical procedures like chemical experiments: If you fuse a banal story with certain preconceived linguistic styles, how will they react with each other? The results are sometimes predictable, sometimes refreshing, hilarious, very witty, incredibly boring, bombastic, nonsensical, bad.

Queneau’s greatest achievement, the surprising linguistic diversity, is derived from a radical axiom: Let everything be language. Mathematics, philosophy, botany, zoology, music, medicine, all are treated for what they indeed are - subjective observation and affected rendering. The combination of a banal story with 99 rhetorical prototypes does not only show the story in different lights, dispels the illusion of its assumed banality, but it also casts an ironic spotlight on those prototypes themselves. Using philosophical terms, Hellenisms or apostrophe to describe a non-incident in a public bus will actually reveal the characteristic quality of such language, a quality we will not become aware of, if we encounter it in its proper realm.

Some rhetorical figures are employed parodistically and in an absolutely literal manner without any regard to poetic propriety. The result is wildly dadaistic; reminiscent, for example, of the verbal excesses in Mozart’s "Baesle" letters or the galumphing portmanteau words in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. The demonic energy of ritual language is rediscovered. Obsessive playfulness.

Unfortunately the poetic perfection of a Jabberwocky is definitely absent in Queneau’s experiments. This becomes painfully apparent in the "Haiku"—it’s 5-7-5—but not a Haiku, and especially in the "Sonnet," a ghastly patchwork indeed, at least in the English translation. A truly artistic style can never be achieved by the mechanistic application of superficial devices. But of course, poetic perfection is not the point of these exercises. Their greatest charm lies in their playfulness and we are invited to play along. "Man plays only where he is man in the fullest sense of the word, and he is only fully man where he plays." [Schiller]

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