Saturday, January 02, 2010

trunks, people, rhetoric


Posted by PicasaFrom the archive: trunks in perspective.
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A upright, elderly man wearing a flat cap outside the National Westminster Bank, is smoking a cigarette, and enjoying it. He has a walking stick with a steel spike. His aquiline face and moustache and tall, narrow frame makes me want to photograph him. Do people mind if you ask to photograph them? Some might be flattered. Others might be suspicious. Others hostile. It is worth thinking up a strategy to approach suitable subjects. They can always say "no", but if one in five says "yes", it could add a new dimension to my blogging procedure.
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Reading something written five centuries ago, which strikes you as being as beautifully expressed and accurate now, as it was then, can, because of its longevity, give all the more pleasure for its double edge of truth. It is for that reason that I turn, from time to time, to the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. He wrote openly and honestly about himself, about his doubts and his failings, in a style, which reveals him as an enchanting companion, never didactic, never pious, often witty and seldom other than entertaining. Today I find him talking about rhetoric, in modern language, "spin". Writing on The Vanity of Words, he quotes Aristo, who defined rhetoric as the science of persuading people" and Socrates and Plato, who called it the art of deceiving and flattering". Montaigne himself concludes: " It is an instrument invented to manipulate and agitate a crowd and disorderly populace and an instrument that is employed only in a sick state, in the same way as medicine". Confronted, as we are nowadays, with a constant stream of words designed to persuade and manipulate a weak and fickle public, I find some consolation in the thought that today's excesses are not necessarily new to our mode of life.

5 comments:

Barrett Bonden said...

But rather less consolation in his diagnosis that we are a sick state. The secondary (possibly the primary) meaning of "instrument" takes on added force in the context of this concise sentence. I am thinking of instruments whereby abortions are "procured" and where the the use of euphemism adds to the sinister nature of what is said. I imagine being worked on (perhaps practised on in the old-fashioned way, meaning deceived) with such an instrument. And gradually I am losing the thread of what I intended to say but not purely through confusion, rather, as at our last Retreat meeting, because there is too much to say. Which I think is a tribute to Montaigne

Lucy said...

It would be marvellous to be able to record people as one sees them like that, but I too never feel I should without asking permission, and doing so would usually alter things, not necessarily in a bad way, but the person would no longer be simply observed but would be participating in your observing them. I think a lot of street photographers who do close studies of people are quite cheeky and just do it, maybe getting signed releases afterwards.

Still, I think it would be really interesting to ask if the subjects minded, and see what happens, if you were prepared not to mind being rebuffed or to cope with the person's embarrassment sometimes. That could be interesting too.

Does all manipulative language constitute rhetoric? Comparing it to medicine makes it sound as though it is ultimately benign if necessarily unpleasant, whereas it seems to me that the state might be sick partly because of being manipulated by dishonest language. Also, much of the disorderliness of the populace is beyond the reach of a salutory dose of rhetoric surely?

Montaigne sounds lovely though - do you read in French or English? One of those people, like Francis Bacon, I always mean to read because the quotations are so good...

Plutarch said...

Montaigne belongs in The Bloggers Retreat. He too is always losing the thread and not caring very much that he does.

It is good sometimes to capture people when they do not know they are being photographed. But sometime a posed photograph with its underlying sense of histrionics can be satisfying and memorable for different reasons.
Faces with their chosen masks are often as interesting as faces without masks.

As I understood it rehtoric was an important and worthy subject to study. What I like about M's interpretation is that its abuse seems to have been as common as it is now,
I read M in English I am afraid. A modern translation is essential. M's contemporary Florian is impenetrable. The French would be easier. He is nearly always rewarding.

marja-leena said...

To introduce another thread, imagine that photo upside down - do you see an elephant trunk and tail?

The Crow said...

I came back to look at this photo again - don't know why it draws my attention so - but I had an old, faded and patched pair of sweatpants that look a lot like this photo turned upside down.

I don't think that's what draws me back, though.

:)