Saturday, May 17, 2008

BOOK: DellaNeva (ed.), "Ciceronian Controversies"

Ciceronian Controversies. Edited by JoAnn DellaNeva, translated by Brian Duvick. Translated by G. W. Bowersock. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 26. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025202. xxxix + 295 pp.

Apparently, this was a debate that attracted great interest among 16th-century humanists: when you are trying to develop your (Latin) writing style, should you imitate just the best writer(s), or should you be more eclectic and allow yourself to be influenced by other good writers as well, trying to take what is useful from each of them in turn? In practice, the ‘best writer’ always turned out to be Cicero, who was widely agreed to be by far the best Latin author for such purposes — hence the word Ciceronian in the title.

This book contains eleven pieces on this subject, mostly from the 16th century, ranging from short letters just a couple of pages long, to formal treatises of 15 or 20 pages. Even those that were originally written as letters were clearly intended to be seen by more people than just the initial recipient, and many were published and reprinted several times during the 16th century, so that later authors were able to read them and refer to them in their own contributions to the debate. The editor also wrote a fairly long introduction, in which she points out, among other things, a number of other authors who participated in this controvery but are not included in this volume. The pieces included here are all by Italian authors, but the debate was also very lively outside Italy, and many authors from Germany, France, the Low Countries, and elsewhere joined in on the fun; one of the best-known contributions was a book titled Ciceronianus by Erasmus of Rotterdam (p. viii).

I didn't find this to be an uninteresting book, but all the time while reading it I couldn't help feeling how very remote this whole 16th-century controversy seems from the things which appear important to me as a person who likes to read books nowadays. The very purpose of writing seems to have changed. To us nowadays (or to me at any rate) rhetoric seems a rather marginal and obscure subject; most of us (myself included) don't have any familiarity with rhetoric as a formal discipline, and rare is the occasion where the use of rhetorical technicalities, flourishes and embellishments would seem to be called for, either in speech or in writing. I doubt that either the politicians or the diplomats nowadays have much use for rhetoric of the sort that Cicero and the humanists studied and practiced; the lawyers perhaps still do, though surely not as much as back then.

In fact I personally tend to think of rhetoric as a somewhat morally dubious practice — isn't its whole purpose to enable the author to make an impression on the reader with the style rather than the substance of his writing? If used as just an ornament, it would be superfluous but tolerable; but all too often, I'm afraid, it was (or still is) used as just a better class of lie, as something to dress up the lies of a lawyer or a politician so that his audience will swallow them more easily. It's the tool of the demagogue, the door-to-door salesman, and the manipulative TV host. What use will an honest novelist or writer of nonfiction nowadays have for the rhetorical practices such as e.g. those mentioned in this book — such as maintaining a notebook with useful phrases, speech openings, etc. that you have picked up from earlier authors during your studies (5.14, p. 105); or counting the number and length of syllables in your text to verify its rhythm (8.13, p. 161)? I was especially surprised by this last thing — I would expect that sort of things from a poet, but not in prose. Not that I object to it, but surely most readers, myself included, wouldn't even notice; and if the rhythm became too noticeable in a piece of prose (as opposed to poetry), it would seem funny.

Anyway, by contrast with all this, it's made evident again and again in this volume how important rhetoric was to the authors included in this volume. They were of course well aware of the whole ‘style vs. substance’ thing that I mentioned above; it's just that many of them consciously chose style rather than substance (see the interesting discussion in the editor's preface, p. xxiii). Indeed the main reason why they are so obsessed by Cicero as a model of style is the fact that he was the most celebrated Roman orator. Either they aren't particularly interested in other types of writing, e.g. novels or works of history, or they think that even for these other things it is still a good idea to learn your style from Cicero's speeches, court pleadings and the like. But I suspect that for the most part they really weren't that interested in these other types of writing.

Of course I don't blame them for that; many times in the ITRL books and elsewhere I've read how valuable a skill it was at that time to be able to compose perfect Latin speeches — diplomats, ambassadors, papal secreteries, chancellors of state, they all seemed to find this immensely important at the time. Frankly, as a materialist and a bit of a cynic, I wonder how true this really was; surely, what matters most on the diplomatic stage is to have a strong army and a solid economy to support it; if you have that, rhetorical flourishes are superfluous, and if you don't have it, then no amount of rhetorical skill will prevent your more powerful neighbours from trampling you. But anyway, there seems to be no doubt that rhetoric was really important to the authors included in this book, and that for them good writing inevitably meant writing founded on the principles of rhetorics such as you might learn by studying Cicero and similar authors.

Another thing that stems from this whole fixation with rhetoric is the idea of imitation. Neither of the two sides in this controversy was in any real doubt about the fact that you have to imitate earlier authors, the only question was how much to imitate (can you lift entire phrases from classical authors? entire sentences?) and whether to imitate just Cicero (or Virgil if you're writing verse), or other authors as well. I wonder if authors nowadays still get advice like this? My impression is that nowadays, originality is much more important than imitating the example of earlier authors. Indeed I often feel that we worship originality too much nowadays, so that authors try to be radically different from previous ones at all costs, even if it leads to works that are largely unreadable and incomprehensible (see e.g. the vast majority of 20th-century literature :]). But at the same time I think the 16th-century authors in this book went too far in the other direction, i.e. recommending imitation but hardly ever encouraging the fledgling writer to try developing his own original voice. They do mention originality, but recommend it only after you've spent several years in the apprentice work of imitating Cicero and company. Incidentally, the editor's preface says (p. x) that “the prized literary virtue of ‘originality’ ” formed in the Romantic period.

Given all this, both sides of the controversy seemed so remote from my interests that the disagreements between them appeared to me far smaller than the similarities, although I guess it didn't seem that way at all to the actual participants in the controversy :) Some of the authors in this book defend the Cicero-only side of the debate, others defend eclecticism, and a few at the end attempt to conclude the debate with some kind of synthesis. I personally felt that the arguments of each side had some merit, and I was sort of saddened to see that they went to the trouble of working up a whole controversy out of this, when they could have simply found a happy middle ground which presented itself naturally enough.

The Ciceronians would say that Cicero is by far the best Latin orator and stylist, so why imitate somebody who's merely second best when you can learn from the best source? The eclecticists say that, even if Cicero is the best writer, there are still many valuable things to be found in the other authors, which it would be a pity to spurn just because these authors as a whole are inferior to Cicero; and besides, some of these authors may suit your own innate style and temperament better than Cicero (3.26, p. 39); and besides it may be just plain too difficult for a beginner to imitate Cicero, so it may be better for him to start with slightly less good authors until he gains experience. The Ciceronians then answer that this would just ruin his not-yet-formed taste (4.23, p. 71), and that following multiple authors rather than just Cicero will either make your own style a mixed-up mess of disparate influences (4.15, p. 61), or you won't be able to tell what is good in other authors and what isn't, so you'll end up following their errors and not just their good sides. The eclecticists answer that the Ciceronians do the same, except that they end up following Cicero's errors rather than somebody else's; and they further say that an imitator who is too faithful ends up being laughable, like a monkey that is aping a man (1.1, p. 3). The Ciceronians answer that no, we aren't trying to be like a monkey aping a man, but like a son that resembles his father (2.2, p. 9); etc., etc.

Fortunately, since these are all very cultivated people busily attending to the principles of rhetoric, we are spared the full-scale shit-slinging flamefest that would no doubt have ensued if this debate were going on nowadays on the usenet or in the blogosphere :) Those authors who try to find a middle ground tend to converge towards the idea that a student should follow chiefly Cicero in his first years, but after he has formed his taste and gained some experience, he can also study other authors.

Incidentally, I'm curious to what extent this whole emphasis on imitating ancient authors (or, in some few cases, modern ones too — this is recommended by one or two authors in this volume) is a consequence of the fact that these humanists were all trying to write in a foreign and dead language, namely in Latin, rather than in their native one. It is, after all, notoriously difficult to write well in a foreign language, and cases when an author manages to turn out really great literature in a foreign language are few and far between. The fact that Latin was also a dead language surely made matters only worse. I wonder if the humanists also talked so much about imitation when developing their Italian writing style, or were they content to do the sensible thing there and rely on their native ear for the language? And is the reason why these debates on imitation seem so irrelevant to me nowadays simply because nobody seriously tries to write in dead languages anymore? The idea that you should study and imitate just Cicero's works for a few years before you can even consider looking at other authors seems so completely outlandish nowadays — can you imagine such advice being given to somebody who is trying to write in English now? Whom would you recommend in the same way that Cicero was recommended in the case of Latin? The very idea that a new writer should form his style on the basis of just one particular earlier author, no matter how famous and respected, seems utterly preposterous nowadays.

There are a couple of amusing anecdotes in a letter by Gianfrancesco Pico (a nephew of the better-known philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola), poking fun at instances of excessive reverence for old works of art and literature just because they are old. He mentions certain letters of Cicero that were widely praised, but when a modern writer tried to pass them off as his own, with minimal changes, critics founds a number of faults with them (3.20–21, p. 33).

Another funny anecdote from a treatise of Celio Calcagnini: he mentions (8.6, p. 153) “those depraved gluttons who spat on the most exquisite dishes at the feast of Dionysius of Syracuse so they could gorge themselves without rival and keep the other feasters from the same dishes out of disgust.” But really, this problem is easily remedied — if somebody has already spit into a dish that you fancy, you have to just spit into it yourself as well, and you will have spoiled his fun just as much as he has spoiled yours.

A very interesting endnote about the etymology of ‘plagiarism’ (p. 266, n. 58): “Literally, the word [plagium] was used to refer to kidnapping and only by extension (and rarely) to literary theft. The more common rendering of this idea both in antiquity and the Renaissance was furtum.” Clearly offended writers have a lamentable tendency to employ this kind of ridiculously hyperbolic terminology — first they compare plagiarism to kidnapping, and later they compared an unauthorized republication of a work to capturing a ship, i.e. piracy. I think it's rather offensive to the real victims of kidnapping and piracy, which are rather more grim and serious crimes than plagiarism and unauthorized reprinting of a book.

To conclude, I don't doubt that this is a very good book for someone interested in this controversy. I was particularly impressed by the large amount of effort that the editor clearly spent on this book; there's a long preface, a note on the text, and a long bibliography, with lots of information about the progress of the controversy in the 16th century, and about other people and writings involved in it. There are also lots of footnotes pointing out the sources of various metaphors and other rhetorical elements that appear in the writings. Anyway, all of this is undoubtedly very interesting for the right sort of reader; but for me, reading this book reminded me once again of what Arthur Quiller-Couch once wrote: “Of all dust, the ashes of dead controversies afford the driest.”

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