Author Topic: A figure of speech that can subvert reason and logic  (Read 7478 times)

Joe Carillo

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A figure of speech that can subvert reason and logic
« on: October 30, 2023, 06:20:11 PM »
Ever wondered how some people have moved us or inspired us to do improbable things their way, or mesmerized us, put blinders on our eyes, then made us do irrational things that we would never have dreamed of doing had we not been under their spell?

If so, then the speakers must have been using chiasmus, a figure of speech that surpasses all the other rhetorical devices in its power to demolish our built-in defenses and arouse our emotions. We could very well call chiasmus the linguistic incarnation of charisma—that rare and inscrutable ability of certain people to inspire fierce loyalty and devotion among their followers.

The use of chiasmus dates back to antiquity. In the 6th century B.C., the extremely wealthy Lydian King Croesus went on record using it: “In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Such wisdom in only 13 words! Is it possible that King Croesus became fabulously wealthy because he was so adept at chiasmus and—by implication—at compelling people’s obedience? Or did he become so good at coining chiasmus because his wealth had allowed him the leisure to craft it?

Now take a look at this familiar line from U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Just 17 words, but they give us the feeling of an immensely satisfying four-hour lecture on good citizenship. Then see chiasmus at work in this charming line by the English physician and author Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” And then hark to this timeless sage advice from Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

By now you must have already discovered for yourself that chiasmus reverses the order of words in two parallel phrases. Take this chiasmus by the legendary Hollywood actress Mae West: “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” “Looked over” is “overlooked” in reverse, making the speaker wickedly but deliciously imply that she enjoys being ogled at. The parallel word reversals arouse our senses, disarming us so we readily accept their claim as truthful. Chiasmus has this power because it heightens the sense of drama in language by surprise. It is no wonder that it holds the distinction of being mankind’s all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and, conversely and deceptively, also great untruths.

Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus being used by demagogues and charlatans to deceive people.

But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.”

If chiasmus is this pleasurable, does it mean that we should spend a lot of time composing it to impress people? Not really! Chiasmus has to be used very sparingly, to be reserved only for those very special moments when saying them can truly spell a make-or-break difference in our lives, like preparing for battle, wooing the hearts and minds of people, ruing abject failure, or celebrating great success. In our everyday lives, it is enough for us to spot a good chiasmus so we can savor its wisdom, and to have the wisdom to discern when we are simply being conned with fallacy or propaganda being masqueraded as great truth.   

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
A figure of speech that can subvert reason and logic      

This is a condensation of the author’s 753-word essay that first appeared in this column in the November 2, 2003 issue of The Manila Times.

Next week: Winning the battle for people’s minds      November 9, 2023

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« Last Edit: November 02, 2023, 06:45:51 AM by Joe Carillo »