Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Po Bronson’s “Learning to Lie” + Notes on Rhetoric

First, a serious mea culpa: When I introduced this essay on Monday, I referred to Po Bronson as “she” during the entire prefatory speech. I don’t really have any explanation for this, except that my immune system is attempting to murder me; serious disorientation tends to play with one’s self-editing. Our next author is a woman, and I got ahead of myself. And if that mistake, careless as it was, doesn’t seem like it deserves to be at the top of this post, know this: The details matter.

(Well, some details matter. Misspelling a word here or there isn’t a big deal; screwing up the gender of the author you’re studying sort of is. More on the distinction between the forest and its trees below.)

Now to the text: We’re using Bronson’s essay, “Learning to Lie,” for two reasons: first, to segue into next quarter’s study of lying as a cultural phenomenon; second, as fodder for midterm practice. You’ll get a formal outline of the midterm when we’re closer to the date; for now, just note the two halves of the exam:

  1. A set of questions on rhetoric and style for a full-length essay; the essay will be given the week before, but the questions will be held until the exam date
  2. A timed synthesis essay written to a prompt of your own creation

Bronson will help you prep for the questions on rhetoric and style. Load the essay through one of the two links below; read carefully, annotating it as you would any text; and then bring your observations and analysis to class on Wednesday. You’ll be able to use the comments section here to ask questions and hold conversations generated by our in-class discussion. You’re also encouraged to use Google Groups to extend our in-class work.

After the jump, you’ll find a brief review of what to look for in a text like this. Here is the essay:

Now to the forest:

Earlier in the year, as part of our study of political rhetoric, I linked to this site:

It’s an excellent resource of terminology and concepts for a course like ours, but it’s helpful even if you don’t make it past the first page:

A forest is the metaphor for this site. Like a forest, rhetoric provides tremendous resources for many purposes. However, one can easily become lost in a large, complex habitat (whether it be one of wood or of wit). The organization of this central page and the hyperlinks within individual pages should provide a map, a discernible trail, to lay hold of the utility and beauty of this language discipline.

Don’t be scared of the intimidating detail suggested by the odd Greek and Latin terms. After all, you can enjoy the simple beauty of a birch tree without knowing it is Betula alba and make use of the shade of a weeping willow without knowing it is in fact Salix babylonica. The same is possible with rhetoric. The names aid categorization and are more or less conventional, but I encourage you to get past the sesquipedalian labels and observe the examples and the sample criticism (rhetoric in practice). It is beyond the definitions that the power of rhetoric is made apparent.

He’s telling you what I will continue to tell you: Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Don’t get lost in these fancy names. They don’t matter. What matters is the form and function of rhetoric—the big concepts and tools that govern beautiful and persuasive writing. As you read Bronson (and then the text you will analyze for your midterm), remember that. There are a few terms worth memorizing (e.g., juxtaposition, appeals to logos/pathos/ethos, parallelism), but most of what you’ll see beyond the basics is icing on the cake. (I’m not sure if icing goes with our forest metaphor, but there it is.) If you know that an author is using a particular kind of tool, you can go to that section of the site:

There you’ll find all sorts of pathways to interesting terms. And while the truth is that it’s pretty cool to recognize something like congeries, all that matters, in the end, is if you can articulate what the author is doing with language—and, most importantly of all, why he is doing it. If you see him (to quote the definition of congeries) “piling up words of differing meaning but for a similar emotional effect,” and you can identify the emotional effect and why that effect matters to the overall purpose, the term itself is irrelevant.

Which is one way of telling you not to stress about terminology. Focus on the big ones—the ones you hear me identify when we read together, and the ones that appear again and again in the best responses of your peers—and remember the specific names only when I tell you to. Look back at this part of Dr. Burton’s introduction to the Forest of Rhetoric:

I encourage you to get past the sesquipedalian labels and observe the examples and the sample criticism (rhetoric in practice). It is beyond the definitions that the power of rhetoric is made apparent.

I hope that you will learn to love the precise names of things, because naming a thing gives you control over it. Just remember that to deconstruct an argument is really all about emulation—reading critically and thinking deeply about another’s writing so that you can communicate more effectively. That goal stretches far beyond an author’s use of chiasmus or conduplicatio.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees.


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