Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Memory and the Eloqutionists

from Rev. of Eighteenth-Century British Logica and Rhetoric, by Wilbur Samuel Howell. William and Mary Quarterly 29.4 (1972): 637-343:



Howell makes clear (pp. 152 ff) that ‘elocution’ (in the sense of the fifth part of Ciceronian rhetoric, previously called pronuntiatio or actio) was stressed largely out of a need to improve reading outloud from texts, especially pulpit reading. But this indicated, first, that oral delivery was working in an economy quite different from that of earlier ages, when normally delivery was not from text at all, even a memorized text, but was instead the actual oral creation of an oration, with the help of the topics or ‘places’ and of thematic and formulaic memory and perhaps a few notes, in the existential situation in which the orator found himself when he rose to his feet. Ancient orators, if they wrote out their orations at all, normally wrote them out after they had given them, sometimes years afterwards.


Secondly, the association of elocution with reading can throw new light on the shift in the meaning of memory between 1500 and the eighteenth century. Memory as a part of ancient rhetoric had not meant verbatim memorization of a text but rather the recalling of the thread of argumentation planned for the individual oration and simultaneously the large impromptu, more or less thematic and formulaic recall of commonplace material for ‘rhapsodizing’ or stringing along this thread. In the mid-1500s Ramus had completely dropped memory as such in his reorganization of logic and rhetoric. He maintained that the ‘natural order’ of things which his logic provided guaranteed automatic structuring of all discourse so that the old rhetorical planning and recall was unnecessary. But his real, unacknowledged, and indeed probably unconscious reasons for dropping memory, as I undertook to explain in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) and as Francis A. Yates has further detailed in The Art of Memory (Chicago, 1966), were somewhat different: first, Ramus’s logic or dialectic was in fact itself a huge memory system connecting with a long-standing tradition of memory arts, and secondly, expression had become in his day more and more oriented to writing and print, where memory simply did not have the urgency it had in oratory.


The elocutionists indeed revived memory, as Howell points out, for they obviously did not think always of delivery as simply oral rendition from a text in front of a speaker. But their memory was in fact quite text-centered. For Thomas Sheridan, both as an actor and as an elocutionist, memory tended to be primarily, if not exclusively, mere memorization—verbatim repetition of a text—quite a different thing from what the old rhetorical memory had been. The elocutionists thus did not actually revive the old rhetorical memory, but substituted for it something adapted to the extramental knowledge storage and retrieval systems begun with writing and maximized by print” (639-40).


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