10.0626 more modesty in reply

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 24 Jan 1997 21:30:51 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 626.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Jim Marchand <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu> (21)
Subject: unknown genre/modesty

[2] From: Steve McCarty <steve_mc@ws0.kagawa-jc.ac.jp> (58)
Subject: Unknown genre or communication style?

Date: Fri, 24 Jan 97 09:56:51 CST
From: Jim Marchand <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
Subject: unknown genre/modesty

Brevity is the soul of wit and I will be brief:

A friend of mine kept this thread, which I had ignored, and used it to
upbraid me for not having written about it out of ignorance. Not so, I
should think that all the examples cited fit quite well under the term
apophasis, or so I was taught as a Tennessee schoolboy, where debating was
about the only good subject we had.

But this leads to a twofold problem. 1. Obviously, we moderns would rather
cite examples or go to Curtius or (horresco referens) Auerbach for our
rhetoric. This leads to a kind of skewed view which Merton called `the
palimpsestic syndrome', as if the last person one heard it from was the
inventor of the concept. One even hears `Curtius' Unsagbarkeitstopos' or
`Curtius' Affektierte Bescheidenheit', and, whereas Curtius is one of my
heroes also, he for the most part is just trying to echo ancient rhetoric.
2. Let us suppose me to be right in calling this sort of thing apophasis or
one of its subcategories. Would it do any good for me to speak of
`apophasis in Hamlet'? You cannot use vocabulary which is not commonly
understood in the scholarly community. As classical upbringing slowly fades
from the scene, this becomes more painfully obvious. Anyone who writes on
`Acyrologia in the Poems of Ausias March' is blowing bubbles at the wind.

Que faire? Aegritudo senectutis garrulitas
Jim Marchand.

Date: Fri, 24 Jan 1997 08:56:29 +0900
From: Steve McCarty <steve_mc@ws0.kagawa-jc.ac.jp>
Subject: Unknown genre or communication style?

Dear Professor McCarty,

Though the following occurs in the Japanese language, could it be
a case of the unknown genre or trope you were concerned with?
If not, please do not subject the list to my ingenuousness, as it
may appear nepotistic when I am at best your distant relative ; - )

I had been reporting on my in situ research findings in a series for
the regional vernacular newspaper. Among my surprising findings
was that, over a thousand years ago in the Heian Period, pilgrims
perceived a mountain range as a mandala with Buddhist divinities
riding the mountaintops and the mountains themselves the bodies
of gods harking back to the proto-Shintoism of over two thousand
years ago. A very famous Shinto shrine was little known to have
been a Buddhist temple before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It
had practiced Buddhist-Shinto syncretism, identifying folk
Chinese divinities as well with the Buddhist and Shinto ones.
Many readers were apparently amused by the article and the
illustration I had a local artist do of the mountains over the
town of Kotohira as an international intersection of the gods.

But soon I received a letter from the head priest of the temple
in question. He disagreed with one point I made about the history
of his temple, since he should have known if it were so. But he
prefaced this by saying that he had not studied enough. This is
typical of the Japanese communication style, such as starting a
speech with an apology where Americans often do so with a joke.
Deliberately poor speaking at first also establishes rapport with
the audience through sympathy or compensation. Humbling oneself
and one's group while exalting the audience is embedded in the
very register of the language, which constitutes a nearly ironclad
protocol. Indeed, almost the only way out of it is via the ambiguity
that is an equally customary part of this communication style.
For more on this, see my _Webgeist_ column installment at URL

Ambiguity gives them the maneuvering room that would not be
afforded by enumerating all the reasons that their thesis does
not make a sufficient contribution. When the priest said "not
studied enough," with the subject omitted in Japanese when it
is understood from the context, it also carried the subtle
criticism that I had studied even less. (Anyone care to quantify
the high-context languages of East Asia when nothing less than
a pragmatic/cultural dictionary is necessary but not forthcoming?).

Anyway, I wrote back to the priest telling him that his father had
been my informant about the temple's history. Most of the elderly
priests I interviewed over a decade ago are no longer with us and
have taken precious lore with them, forgotten along with much else
of no utility in Japan's headlong rush to modernize.

In retrospect, more than the anecdote this letter itself may be
partly a case of the unknown genre you are exploring. To the
East-West bicultural in me this communication style has become
natural. It also suggests a 'pluriculturalization' of the monocultural
Western paradigm that has dominated academic discourse up to now.

Yours truly,
Steve McCarty