Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rhetoric and the Stories of the Ancient Puebloans

Whether you write fiction from moment to moment or cast a large intricate design and then work to it, (I do both, necessarily), it’s an adventure at each stage.  I am currently as work on something that is partly concerned with the ancient culture of the Colorado Plateau.  That has led me to explore the archaeology as well as the ethnographic evidence of the extant puebloan cultures.  One thing that is immediately apparent is how different the stories in their mythologies (and those of Mesoamerica) are from the mythologies and religious stories of western Europe.

If you ask, quite naturally “how are they different?”  then you put me to the test and I can’t make a wholesome answer.  It’s just deeply different:  words, places, things and creatures have different connotations, more interestingly, the structure of the stories are different.  Many seem singularly undramatic to me, but I’m very skeptical of that opinion.  They were composed for oral recitation, even performance.  I expect for their native audience they were and remain very compelling and dramatic.  In an entirely different context, consider “Beowulf.”

So how to understand them?  Lately, I’ve been looking at the structure of the discourse itself, the rhetoric, for clues.  I’ve also been considering examples of how rhetorical figures in western discourse have informed the design and structure of western literature.  What better example to consider than Shakespeare.  Of course, I am far from the first person down that path, which led me to the work of the literary critic Kenneth Burke. However, his particular interest seems to be the development and exploitation of his own meta-rhetorical structure as opposed to exploring the innate function and consequences of the rhetorical devices themselves, from anadiplosis to polysyndetons, of which Shakespeare made such elaborate and virtuoso use.  That's the starting point I need.

To put it another way, my experience as a mathematician and writer continually affirms that we are, at the center, metaphor making and using creatures.  The rhetorical devices that Shakespeare used can be applied metaphorically in developing the structure of a play or story, just as they were used to determine the logic and direction of individual scenes therein.  To my problem, what are the rhetorical structures and devices that are the underpinnings of the ancient Puebloan myths and stories, for example the story of the White House?

Among the many people Al Pacino interviews in his film “Looking for Richard” one, a homeless man, discusses how Shakespeare creates what it is to be human,

          “...when we speak without feeling, we get nothing from our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into our academics. You know why? 'Cause then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That's why it's easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don't feel for each other. If we were taught to feel, we wouldn't be so violent."

How did the stories of the ancient puebloans teach them to be human?
           …each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
-T. S. Eliot

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