The uses of first-personal discourse are many and powerful. But the intentional abstention from it has a remarkable effect. A speaker may choose to become less a person and more a relation between the content and the audience. The audience can be weaned from the distraction of the speaker’s charm, his existence, in order to look more single-mindedly at the content. Now, the audience will often be tempted to ask for credentials and to infer the speaker’s biographical details, but along with the speaker’s consistent refusal to involve himself will come the audience’s fuller understanding of the content and its worth.
Such a speaker who disappears, who ceases to exist as a person and thereby prevents a cult of personality, who becomes a relation between worthy content and the audience—is he not the greatest of human teachers? This teacher says, in his final iteration of the first-person, “I must decrease, so that this worthy content may increase.”
Yet if the speaker himself were the content—worthy content—and if the speaker should still avoid first-personal discourse to become a relation between this self-content and the audience, then this speaker would be more than a teacher. He being full would empty himself, would pour himself out to the audience, as if to offer his own flesh for food and blood for drink. And if he should afterwards choose to use the first-person, it would have a genuine authority. The audience, maybe now more properly called “disciples,” would then have an opportunity to apprehend the content, the speaker, in a direct and absolute relation that goes far beyond merely reporting what one has seen and what one has heard.
In contemporary rhetoric, word choice is now paramount because no one can tolerate arguments that are more than a few sentences long. The rhetor relies on the power of connotation to match the prejudices of the audience. He has lost almost all hope of leading the audience stepwise to a conclusion that may seem strange or have no likeness to its favorite premises. He does not dare introduce a new premise unless it sounds and feels like the old one. His questions conform to the audience’s conclusions. The rhetor falls back on the feelings carried with words: with this audience he loves equality, with that one he loves freedom, with none does he point out how these two exclude and compete with each other.
We Americans cannot tolerate an attack on our prejudices long enough to be shown that our prejudices are unworthy; we must be duped into changing our minds by those who wait to see when we nod our heads.
Genesis 1, like an exercise in sprung rhythm
Spirit over new-skied dark
Waters’ waves swirled stark;
Word spoke the scroll unfurled;
Transparent mass became the world.
Lit all ways of things he
Who lone spoke all things to be—
Right being writ with all might,
Light being lit for no sight.
Thèn darkness edged things light found,
And widening world narrow shadows bound.
Yet Time sàys God’s òwn shadows never were.
And untimely Truth for once agrees with her:
“For the Bright God overshadows sky
And soft sun and gloomed earth, that by
Contrast—constant versus flickering flame—
He mìght bear for us no creature’s name.”