Here’s a cause close to my heart: public and semi-public speech. I mean occasions when we are addressed by our political leaders on grand occasions of concern to the whole republic, and times, like the present, when we choose to come together to hear what someone invited to do so says about a matter of common interest. I leave out of consideration private conversation, be it serious or light, which lives by different criteria, constraints on our first-amendment rights that are imposed by complex considerations: truth, benefit, reciprocity. In particular, I’m not speaking of pedagogic dialogue between teacher and student, which is governed for the teacher by an artful balance of candor and of considerations of telling and listening.
The kind of speech I mean to talk about is mostly scripted. I mean written out, not texted. The wasteland of texting, of momentary eruption and later retribution, is unreachable by rules of heedfulness.
As an eager student of those timeless books rightly called “great,” I am not what the Roman poet Horace called a laudator temporis acti, a “praiser of times done with.” To me things seem to be forever going downhill and getting better in the process—worse in this to be better in that. It seems more profitable just to figure out what ought to be and then to work for that. I’m no great believer in large programs by big entities to save the world by 2020, leaving no one behind. I’m more for working on myself and those whom nature or choice or necessity, be it children or students or coworkers, has committed to my charge. Logic tells me if we each did that, then, as says Julian of Norwich, the nun whom students love to quote:
…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well (Ch. 27).
This is the way I put it to myself: prepared public speech should be pregnant. Put negatively, it should not be drivel. Drivel comes in two forms: offensive and inoffensive. The offensive sort is usually a surreptitious incitement to violence, and I’ll set it aside here, though the present makes us all worry.
It’s the inoffensive, in fact perfectly respectable, kind of babble that I think about. It appeals to that vast territory of human mentation called having opinions. Opinion-having is like carrying a large picture puzzle within. When a piece is presented that fits a certain shaped vacancy, we feel satisfied and give our assent, and when every hole is so filled, an entire painting has emerged, and we rest in peace. But who looks at a completed puzzle picture for moral elevation or energetic fulfillment?
Such public babble touches all the obligatory bases and makes all the right references, by the numbers, so to speak, but the meaningful text is absent: The words give birth to nothing fully there; they bear no meaning; they fill in an expectancy without bringing forth an offspring.
Here is another, a positive, way to put my point: Public civic speech should be like an iceberg—only one-ninth visible above the water, floating upright on its invisible burden, its ballast.
Or, to put the matter in terms of the way pregnant speech is composed: It should take long for the writer to put together and be brief for the listener to take in. As always, this prescription doesn’t quite work. My model of pregnant expression is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which, to be sure, took two minutes to deliver, but it was also written quickly, mostly at the latter end of the train ride to the soldiers’ cemetery that was to be dedicated. However, Lincoln kept editing it even after delivery. He knew that what he had made would be long remembered, and he wanted its sense to be perfectly delivered.
They say that one picture is worth a thousand words, an opaque saying. I think it means that even an infinity of words cannot bring a picture to actual presence. But I would say also that a thousand pictures do not have the potency of one word, “the word fitly spoken,” which can intend a thousand senses and a myriad of things.
To me the Gettysburg Address is the model of the huge burden of meaning words can bear. I’ll just quote the first sentence and briefly show what it means to utter meaningful speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
So, first, Lincoln requires some arithmetic. Eighty-seven years ago, that is 1863 – 87, or 1776. The year of the Declaration of Independence is the proper birthday of the Union. There is behind this date a large mass of thinking. For Lincoln the Declaration was always the true beginning: It is the “apple of gold” which the “picture of silver,” the Union and the Constitution, enframes (Proverbs 25:11; Lincoln, Fragment, 1860). Others argue that the Union as a notion begins with the Constitution and that it is our true engendering. Next, “our” fathers: Whose fathers are they? In one of his Replies to Stephen Douglas (July 20, 1858), Lincoln says that those who adhere to the moral sentiments of the Declaration may consider themselves the “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh.” Whose flesh and blood? That of the Founding Fathers. Third, these fathers “brought forth”—it is an impregnation, a bold metaphor. Fourth, on what mother? On the continent, on the land of America. Fifth, what offspring? This newborn is a nation. Sixth, engendered under what conditions? “Conceived in Liberty.” Lincoln capitalizes this one word, Liberty, in the sentence. Seventh, what other conditions? Devoted to a proposition, a self-evident postulate, the one at issue in the war whose dead are being honored: The axiom—unprovable but postulated by the Declaration—“that all men are created equal.” Lincoln had argued in his speech on the Dred Scott Decision (June 26, 1857) that Negroes were comprehended in the Declaration, that is, that they were persons who, moreover, were comprised in the citizen body, claims that Judge Douglas denied.
So here is one sentence of a short speech so fraught with controversy, laden with meaning, pregnant with consequences that, to be sure, we, not being Lincolns, can probably not compose one like it. But I can do something to set me on his way: I can try to let my speech be a formulation of actual feelings and thoughts, not formulas unfraught with live meaning. Another way to put it is: I can revive for myself the old meaning of the word rhetoric, which is one of many good words gone bad. It now betokens mere talk—tongue addressing ear rather than soul talking to soul. “Rhetoric” used to mean the art of speaking effectively. I am saying that effective speech says more than the ear hears at the moment, so that the soul comes away ready to recollect and ponder, and the public world has become no longer a space of distances but a place of convergence.