Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Troping the Light Fantastic

The Venerable Bede, bagging a trope 

American political discourse has arrived at what used to be called a pretty pass.  Though few political speakers are very good at saying things themselves, they are daily more certain about what other people are under no circumstances allowed to say.  The Hon. Ihlan Omar, temporarily incumbent in Paul Bunyan’s old Congressional district, keeps making anti-Semitic comments.  Or comments alleged to be…or perceived by some as…They are to be forgiven, according to the Speaker of the House, because she doesn’t understand the meaning of her words.  Ms. Pelosi’s intersectionalist lieutenant, Mr. Clyburn, explains it all in terms of the relative remoteness of the Holocaust as compared to the immediacy of Africa’s suffering.  Yet to anyone measuring the historical perspective of our national oratory with an instrument less fine-tuned than a micrometer, an American politician making anti-Semitic remarks perhaps attains at best the novelty of “Dog Bites Man.”   Rev that up with a little global or intersectional fine-tuning (Muslim politician makes anti-Semitic remarks) and you’re closer to the level of  “Dog Bites Alpo”.   If in doubt, read the “debates” of any meeting of the Arab League.  Since my field is philology rather than politics, I shall comment less on Representative Omar’s content than on the terminology journalists choose to characterize it.  Hers are not “controversial remarks,” accusations, insults, slurs or even mere characterizations; they are “anti-Semitic tropes”.  In fact tropes are all the rage these days.

In this linguistic turn a medievalist finds news good and bad.  The good news is that the power of the trope (even abused) may banish from polite usage the even more annoying meme, which was threatening fatally to infect the prose of the semi-literate commentariat on whom I depend to keep my blood pressure up.  The bad news of course is the debauch of the term trope.

If you want to get the real dope on the trope you have to do what few journalists have done and read a book by the Venerable Bede, published circa 710 CE, called De schematibus et tropis*.  It’s the first, and so far as I am concerned, the last word on tropes.  In it we learn that trope (tropos) is a Greek umbrella term for various figures of speech abundant in the Scriptures.  “The Greeks pride themselves on having invented these figures or tropes,” says Bede. If you want to know the Greek tropes, specifically (and, believe me, you don’t), they are prolepsis, zeugma, hypozeuxis, syllepsis, anadiplosis, anaphora, epanalepsis, epizeuxis, paranomasia, schesis onamaton, paromoeon, homoeotelon, homoeoptoton, polyptoton, hirmos, polysyndeton, and dialyton. 

 Bede continues: “A trope is a figure in which a word, either from need or for the purpose of embellishment, is shifted from its proper meaning to one similar but not proper to it.  There are thirteen tropes which Latin custom and usage recognize: Metaphor, Catachresis, Metalepsis, Metonymy, Antonomasia, Epithet, Synechdote, Onomatopoeia, Periphrasis, Hyperbaton, Hyperbole, Allegory, Homoeosis.”

The controversy in the halls of Congress is being prosecuted in the murky borderland between classical anti-Semitism and political criticism of the current Israeli government.  With a daring trope constructed of implied epithet and a pariphrastic onomatopoetical catachresis Representative Omar had some harsh things to say about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), formerly known to me as a hard-driving lobbying outfit but now, possibly, a semi-sacral institution of the American civil religion enjoying a protected status and exemption from criticism somewhere between that of Smile Train and the Sierra Club.  Specifically, Ms. Omar’s trope posited a possible connection between lobbying and money: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”  Being a pensioner rather than a politician, I required a few moments to absorb the force of this particular trope.  Benjamins?  Then (thanks to T. S. Eliot) I got it! O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--My daughter! my ducats! my Benjamins!  You see, down our way, so far from the corridors of power, it tends to be mainly about the Georges, although now and again, during the week when the Social Security checks show up, it sometimes rises briefly to be about the Abrahams.

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!  Political controversy aside, that’s a fantastic trope, and one that can illustrate the extended meaning of the term as it later developed with regard to the liturgy.  A musical trope is a kind of pleasing metrical filler—think of it, perhaps, in terms of the chorus of a folk song—that adorns and amplifies the primary text.  Here is the textbook definition: “in medieval church music, melody, explicatory text, or both added to a plainchant melody”.  The technical term for this kind of musical elaboration, incidentally, is farsing.  I don’t know how glad you are to learn this, but you do need to know.

You find tropes attached to psalms and other liturgical hymns, and there are whole books (tropers) full of them.  But what medieval chant could this farce farse—which is to say, could this trope trope?  Well, consider the well-known liturgical hymn “Sed et Omnia Vasa”.  The text for this hymn was taken from the account of the fantastic wealth of King Solomon’s (3 Kings 10:21), a man whose conspicuous consumption included the biblical equivalent of lighting his cigars with banknotes.  “Sed et omnia vasa de quibus potabat rex Salomon erant aurea…non erat argentum nec alicuius pretii putebatur in diebus Salomonis.  “Moreover all the vessels out of which king Solomon drank, were of gold:…there was no silver, nor was any account made of it in the days of Solomon.”   A suitable trope for this text could be “Et omnia erant de re aurea:—it was all about the gold, baby.  

*”Bede’s De Schematibus et Tropis—A Translations,” by Gussie Hecht Tanenhaus, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 48 (1962): 238-253.