FIGURE OF SPEECH
DR. GERRY TURCOTTE
March 4, 2013
"Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
When I was asked to find a title for this column I eventually settled on Figure of Speech. I did so because my own writing practice, especially for reflective pieces, often draws on rhetorical structures that I then meditate upon and develop.
As someone who was trained in literary scholarship this is probably not surprising. I have always been fascinated not just by the possibilities of language, but also by the way we label and characterize the many clever things we do when we express ourselves.
In fact, as a student, I remember constantly being surprised that there were labels for certain abstract concepts that one might never imagine.
For example, a chiasmus. In political speeches there are few things as powerful as a sentence that reverses itself to emphasize the opposite of what it at first seems to say. Even explaining this concept as I've just done probably leaves you no clearer about what I mean.
But if I quote one of the most famous examples of this – "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country" – the meaning is instantly obvious. The opening epigraph offers an even more famous example.
As a writer there are a handful of rhetorical tropes that I regularly turn to. One of these is metonymy, that remarkable shorthand that allows a small feature to represent the whole. How often, in matters of law, do we see a reference to "the crown"? Here the crown invokes the government.
Another powerful metonym is the cross – think of all that one word invokes for you, and how it speaks of immeasurable loss and suffering, delivered as humankind's most treasured gift, through the greatest of all sacrifices. All encapsulated in a single word!
In a recent lecture presented at the Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in Cochrane, one of the speakers used a powerful example of antithesis, perhaps the most famous in literature, to frame his thoughts on the need for faith: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, . . . it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness . . . we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, uses antithesis throughout the novel to stress both the similarities and differences of two rival cultures, and the people who inhabit them.
For our workshop Dickens' opening paragraph was used cleverly to comment on the importance of faith's enduring quality – despite the interchange of joy and sadness, highs and lows, generosity and darkest cruelty.
I think it is true to say that we all seek our own ways to understand the place of faith in our lives. It is to chiasmus that I turn in my own life, trying always to ask not what Jesus can do for me but what I can do in Jesus's name.
That isn't to say that I always succeed, not by a long shot, but I remember how critical it is to try. That, surely, is far more than a rhetorical flourish.
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University College in Calgary.)
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