History, Shelley, and Letters in a Bottle

Reading Kermit Campbell’s “Rhetoric from the Ruins of African Antiquity,” I thought of letters in a bottle and Percy Shelley. In general, Campbell hopes to challenge what he sees as the overly general treatment in comparative rhetorics, particularly George Kennedy’s  taxonomy between “Ancient Societies Without Writing” and “Ancient Literate Societies” from his seminal text. Campbell argues that many ancient cultures have a complex mingling of oral and written practices, and rhetorical studies of ancient societies often don’t dive into their “variegated and deep” traditions and histories.

Challenging this, Campbell studies artifacts from Axum, Nubian, and Mali cultures, reading examples from the period paired with historical and geographic elements, including stele from Nubia, inscriptions from Axum, and manuscripts from Mali. Overall, he points out the mindful use of ethos and pathos in the works, their variety, and the role they seem to point to in recording events and organizing the society they spoke from.

But back to messages in bottles–and Shelley. Reading about ancient monuments left over from lost cultures, I couldn’t help but think of Shelley’s “Ozymandius”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
I wanted to quote the whole poem, because the first part often gets lost. Shelley, or Shelley’s narrator, is (1) telling this story second hand from a “traveller from an antique land,” and (2) the narrator is describing the handiwork of an unknown sculpture who “well those passions read” of the leader and “stamped [them] on these lifeless things.” So, to break it down, Shelley is describing a complex layering of different voices carried through the centuries: the narrator of the poem is recalling the story of the “traveller” who is describing the handiwork of the sculpture who read the face of Ozymandius and etched its cruelty in stone, paired with Ozymandius’ dictum.

This layered recovery of an ancient context captures the fraught nature of this work. Out of its context, the statue’s boast seems ridiculous, but at the time, with all his material power, Ozymandius must have been a force to consider, but, much like the steles and inscriptions that Campbell studies, they are relics leftover from a different time. One can only imagine the fanfare of these victories or what the ruler’s words meant to those who read and heard them.

And this leads me to the letter in a bottle. Imagine finding that letter, buoyed by the waves from a completely different time and place, not knowing where the island is, who sent it–or really anything beyond what the letter itself says. I find the same issue with the Nubian stele or Mali manuscripts–and many elements of ancient rhetorical recovery: while rhetoric tends to be so sensitive to context, we must often recreate that context, eons removed, often with scant evidence, often from a different cultural frame, often with little ability to truly verify findings. And, as the Shelley poem points out, we are at the mercy of those who recorded the work at the time–the sculptors and scribes–or even more secondary and tertiary avenues. For example, we often encounter the pre-Socratics through the interpretation of Aristotle, or must “find” Aspasia through Plato–as Jarrett, Glenn, and others have explored.

I see this, also, with Ezzehar’s work with Alfarabi’s commentary on Aristotle. Reading through the commentary, I found the layers of voices and culture entwined in the commentary, particularly the language of Platonic thought with his commentary on belief and Aristotle’s privileging of the enthymeme. I also found the recurrence of old favorites, like rhetoric as an art (369), its general capacity for persuasion across disciplines (370) or the role of pathos and ethos (374), pairing Alfarabi’s commentary with Cicero’s De Oratore‘s or Quintilian’s strong evocation of Aristotle.

Reading these echos, I recalled a poem by Charles Olson goes: “Whatever you have to say, leave/ The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words carry the roots and dirt of their origins and the dustings of their circulation, whether such circulation is geographically broad but temporally brief, or stretched across eons, reworked and re-contextualized by different voices.

And thinking of Hawhee’s “Bodily Pedagogies” and Fredal’s “Seeing Ancient Rhetoric,” we must recreate one of the most elusive elements of rhetoric: the body. Hawhee vividly shows the intersection of the body and rhetoric by exploring the training and person-building at the gymnasium. What I especially appreciate is the intersection between rhetorical exercises and bodily ones and the role of regimentation and memory in learning, a sort of “somatic memory” that Jennifer LeMesurier’s work highlights in a more contemporary context.

With Fredal’s treatment of “rhetoric” as term, as he describes it, one gets the nonverbal, non-linguistic elements that constitute meaning making, like gesture or the locale of a rhetorical situation. As he writes, “What I want then is a definition broad enough to include nonlinguistic and non-verbal symbolic acts and artifacts, but narrow enough to focus on culturally significant processes and products of persuasion and identification, the two master terms, as it were, of rhetorical study” (183). I can’t help but think of Heidegger’s notion of the “fourfold” with his definition and Fredal’s description of Cleisthenes’ forum: the way that diverse elements–from sky, to earth, to divinity, to people–come together to transform a spot in the world into a “locale,” a space with meaning and relevance derived from multiple human and nonhuman actants. When one acts in a moment, a given time and place, the moment and geography–in addition to the culture–infuses that action, even in the case of a stele. As Rickert argues, rhetoric is ambient, and the situation speaks as much as the rhetor.

Moving toward a conclusion, I guess rhetoric’s main purpose is to inject meaning into the world, introduce an impact or effect, that may or may not last but happened. Like a tree that falls in a forest, whether we hear it or not. And sometimes we must trace the marks or read the accretion of echoes through a lineage of texts, triangulating meaning as best as we can. The ruined statue, for instance, provides a de-contextualized peephole into a once-great empire–and we must recontextualize as best as we can, a bit like Laurie Gries’ work with the Moche. With ancient rhetoric one is often reading the distorted echos of the rhetorical situation, not the situation itself, with time forcing rhetoric to be “in motion” even when it’s geographically stationary, like a letter in a bottle lobbed through time.

[Image: Ruined Cotswolds Convent, by author]


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