While I was talking about creating this blog (and procrastinating doing anything that would resemble progress towards creating it) I was also throwing around ideas of perhaps creating a web series based upon the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism and Theory where I’d work my way through the monster chapter by chapter and try to explain the theories and ideas in normal, human language (no one tortures words like people who study them. It’s worse than legalese, I swear) and also how they relate to our reading and writing. I then realised that I’m profoundly lazy and have no idea how I’d even begin a web series.
So, instead, I thought I might talk about it on vaguely-literary Thursday whenever I don’t have something more interesting.
Before I begin, I might just put a disclaimer in here saying that I’m not going to try to speak as an expert on these things. The people in the anthology dedicated their lives to studying literary theory (and have, in turn had others dedicate their lives to study them). There’s no way I can get to that depth and level of understanding in a blog post decorated with cute doodles. Besides, I took a class based on this which was taught by experts and all I was left with was the inability to say certain theorist’s names without attaching profanities to them. I don’t want to do that to anyone. So, with that in mind shall we get started? And the first one out of the gates is-
Written way back in the day (Gorgias lived somewhere between 483-376 BCE), Gorgias comes to the aid of Helen of Troy using the power of logos (logic) in a rhetorical exercise. Now, what’s an Encomium, you might ask (Or you might not, I suppose it depends on your level of knowledge about rhetorical devices). An Encomium is a device that is the complete opposite of Vituperation— which is the polite, Greek word for a well-spoken evisceration of character. An Encomium, therefore, is a speech designed to praise its subject. Which is all well and good, but why did he choose to base his speech on Helen of Troy?
My personal belief is that it had something to do with a lot of ouzo and someone turning to Gorgias with a friendly ‘Bet you can’t do this’.
See, defending Helen of Troy back then would have been similar to someone trying to defend Hitler today. It was not done. Helen was a notoriously beautiful woman, born of the Gods who, through her adulterous ways, managed to cause the Trojan War. If you don’t want to read the Wikipedia page there’s also a movie. Brad Pitt gets naked a lot so it’s definitely worth watching once.
So, if only to prove that he can, Gorgias sets about the task of proving Helen’s innocence and clearing her name using logos.
As a side note, if you have any interest in rhetoric or want to learn some persuasive techniques to help you win the eternal debate of cheese vs. regular pizza, check out logos, pathos (argument through emotion) and ethos (argument by character). Arguments based on these three things are in absolutely everything and knowing them can help to identify when you’re being persuaded and, in turn, how you’re going to persuade others.
Gorgias makes his argument for Helen in several ways, all which categorically prove that the Trojan War couldn’t possibly have been Helen’s fault. One of the most fundamental parts of Helen of Troy’s mythos is her incredible beauty— the kind that would make men go to war for her. Gorgias argues that she didn’t choose her beauty. That happened because of her divine lineage so she can’t possibly be blamed for that. Then Gorgias argues that if it was Helen’s fate to cause the Trojan War then she couldn’t possibly be blamed for that either. After all, a person’s fate is determined by the Gods and we can’t refuse them. Similarly, if she was abducted she cannot be held to blame for the events of the Trojan War.
But what if she was persuaded to commit adultery and run away to Troy. Why then, Gorgias argues, even then we can’t blame her because words have their own power and a skilfully worded argument can convince anyone of anything. So even then she can’t be guilty— only unfortunate.
Gorgias also suggests that perhaps Helen was swayed by love and even then she cannot be blamed. Because the gift of love is given to us by the Gods and surely, surely you cannot hate a woman for falling in love.
And thus Gorgias clears the name of Helen of Troy logically, arguing clearly why she cannot possibly be held accountable for the Trojan War.
Which is all well and good. But what does it mean? Why do we care?
Simply put, because it means anything is possible. Gorgias took on the challenge of clearing Helen of Troy’s name, something that was thought to be impossible and undesirable to boot. He did it and he succeeded. He looked at an impossible task and though ‘Pssh, I can do better than that.’
And that’s something all authors can learn from. We’ve all reached a point in our story where nothing makes sense anymore and it’s all shit and I hate this and I should have just quit ages ago because I’m a failure. We’ve also all reached parts of our stories where our characters do something unexpected or we’ve upped the ante to such a degree that we don’t know what we’re going to do.
Gorgias teaches us that all is not lost. He shows that by merely taking a step back and looking at things from a different angle we can solve our problems. Such is the power of words.
Gorgias also teaches us another, incredibly important point. He wrote his Encomium for no other reason than because he could. He set about taking on this huge task because he wanted to and because it amused him at the time. And we still remember him 2000 years on. If Gorgias can do it I don’t see why we can’t as writers do the same. We can go forward and tackle our ridiculously ridiculous plots and conflicts and we can do it because we want to and that’s enough.
Who knows? Maybe in 2000 years someone will uncover your amazing work, translate it from English into whatever language they’re speaking then and they’ll marvel at how you managed to conquer all of those impossible conflicts with some clever thinking and looking at things in a different way.