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In this posting I will discuss some issues surrounding the use of formalized repetitions and the “disenchantment” of language in modern times.

Robert Yelle has shown in his book The Language of Disenchantment (2013) that the attempts of the British civilizing mission to roll back mantras and other apparently non-rational forms of language in India had a precursor in the polemics against Catholic “vain repetitions” back home:

Protestant iconoclasm at a deep level informed many criticisms of Hindu culture, beginning with its worship of multiple gods or images (murti) of these in stone metal, or wood. […] These polemics were in many instances simply transferred from Catholics to Hindus as their target, with little if any modification. Such was the case not only with the worship of images, but also with attacks on the various forms of chants that Hindus used – matras, Vedic recitation (svadhyaya), and the like – which, to many British, resembled the chanting of the Ave Maria by Catholics. (Yelle, 2013: 9)

According Yelle, “disenchantment” was an ideology, not an historical process that did happen or could have happened. The interesting question is therefore not how language got disenchanted but how disenchantment is employed as a rhetorical tool in narratives of approaching the other.

An example from Indian logic can show how fluid the boundaries between aesthetics, religious belief and rational argumentation can be. When Western scholars learned about the traditional five step inference model of the Indian Nyaya school, they considered it as inferior to the three step Aristotelian model because of the apparently redundant repetitions of the form. Ganeri (1924: 75) in his “A Note on the Indian Syllogism” called the Indian model “an untidy organism […] with vestigial structures and rudimentary organs”, especially when compared to the “more perfect work of art, the Aristotelian syllogism”.

It is true that in the Nyaya inference model requires apparently superfluous examples and repetitive steps:

Proposition: This mountain is fire-possessing.

Reason: Because it is smoke-possessing.

Example: Like the kitchen, unlike the lake.

Application: This mountain, since it possesses smoke, possesses fire.

Conclusion: This mountain is fire-possessing.

Both the examples and the repetitions can be explained if the background of Indian logic is taken into account. Logic in India was fundamentally rooted in rhetoric, and the goal was to guide the audience or the other party of the debate along every step of the argument so that they could follow and, if in amicable mood, agree with every single point. Repetitions were not seen as a flaw. On the contrary, Jainas considered the elaborate ten-step syllogism as found in the writings of Bhadrabahu the highest form of making an argument, superior to the five step model. A three step argument was also known to Nyaya logic, but was considered only suitable for drawing conclusions for oneself, not for convincing others.

While oral culture relies on formalized repetitions for both effect and style, for the British, logic had to conform to their preference for plain style and classicist aesthetics. For Randle, the Aristotelean syllogism was after all not only “perfect” but also a “work of art”.

Poetry, maybe the most obvious “word-art”, is today also dominated by the preference for non-repetitive forms. The argument is that poetry has been freed from the straight jacket of rhyme, form and metre. Rhyme, the regular correspondence of sounds, seems to be for modern ears a particularly vain, if not ridiculous, repetition. The first rule of Frank L. Visco’s famous list of “How to Write Good” reads “Avoid Alliteration. Always”.

Like the difference between Protestant plain style and the repetitiveness of Indian mantras or the Catholic rosary, this is not just an aesthetic preference. By using rhyme, poetry can recreate, reaffirm and conform to a given order. The fact that form and rhyme are out of favour on the poetry market reflects therefore a more general individualization and the rejection of traditional pattern in many areas of life.

It is not a coincidence then that the revival of poetical formalism was called for in particular by Catholics. In 1987 the Catholic poet and critic Dana Gioia (1987: 408) criticized modern mainstream poetry for the “debasement of poetic language; […] the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem.” He called for a renewed interest in the aural aspects of poetry that had been replaced by the more visual and text-centred focus of contemporary free verse. Metre, which Gioia (1987: 396) understood as dating back to times “when there was little, if any, distinction between poetry, religion, history, music and magic”, was taken by new formalism as part of the solution.

Unsurprisingly, new formalism has been called “patriarchal” and a “dangerous nostalgia”. But while alliteration may not always be awesome, free verse is just as dangerous in the sense of promoting a particular blend of “political” or “religious” preferences. In either direction, shifts in how language is supposed to be used can tell a lot about power relations but they do not in themselves constitute a form of “progress”. Like other judgements that are called aesthetic, political, religious or rational they are mingled with the myths we have come to hold true.