Ernesto Grassi on Rhetoric

This text is part of my project to explore links between art and rhetoric, through practice and through writing. My aim here is to investigate the implications for art practice of Ernesto Grassi’s writings on rhetoric and philosophy in which he links the work of Martin Heidegger to the early Renaissance tradition of Humanist thinkers such as Bruni and Salutati.

Grassi (1902-1991) proposes an anti-rational foundation for our understanding, prioritising the emotions or passions over the logical analyses of metaphysics, the basis of mainstream philosophical and scientific thinking from Descartes onwards. The structure of much of Grassi’s analysis is rhetorical, for example he foregrounds tropes (figures of speech, particularly metaphor) in his analysis and in his style of writing. This text documents examples of art practice, which, because of their employment of metaphor to elevate emotions beyond the local experiences that produce them, can be defined as rhetorical; making them accessible and affective for others.

In Heidegger and Renaissance Humanism Grassi describes metaphors as having an “imagistic” character, they make something ‘original’ appear before our eyes. Original can mean ‘new’, but it also means going beyond the immediately given to its source, typically for Heidegger and for Grassi this means going from being to Being.

Metaphors can be thought as the means through which experience is given meaning, bringing together elements that are not usually linked, detecting connections that are otherwise hidden from view, enabling that experience to be communicated rhetorically.

Examples of this can be seen in two blues songs from 1937 that employ contemporary news of extensive floods in USA as their theme. They create metaphor by bringing together images of ever rising river water with the everyday social activity of visiting a home in order to call upon its residents. The result is the transformation of the river into a supernaturally vast and socially threatening entity.

For Kokomo Arnold in Wildwater Blues, the river is personified as ‘Mr. Wildwater’, an individual who goes from house to house bringing death and disaster. Arnold questions the floodwater when he sings “Good morning Mr. Wildwater why did you stop at my front door?” there follows an extended exhortation in which Arnold tries to get an explanation from ‘Mr Wildwater’ for his malevolence towards him.

In Big Bill Broonzy’s Southern Flood Blues the river speaks, uttering a premonition of disaster;

Early one morning water was coming in my door
It was the Ohio river telling us to get ready and go

There follows an unrelenting account of the effects of the floods;

My house started shaking, went floating on down the stream
It was dark as midnight people began to holler and scream

In 1928 Mississippi John Hurt travelled by train from Avalon, Mississippi, his ‘hometown’, to New York to record a session for Okeh Records. That journey is recreated in Avalon Blues, a song in which Hurt’s feelings of homesickness are evoked.

The song expresses homesickness through images of spatial and temporal dislocation. Hurt’s guitar playing imitates a moving train, this is coupled with images of farewells taken and fear of what is to come. Through these a metaphor of homelessness, of being in constant movement between two homes, between the journey’s starting point and its destination, is made manifest. The song is a metaphorical expression of the anxious uncertainty of homelessness that we experience as homesickness.

Homesickness is an acute desire for the home, a desire that creates moods of anxiety and melancholy. It has a relationship to the German word for the uncanny – Unheimlich which Martin Heidegger in Being and Time construes as ‘not-being-at-home’, being in a state of anxiety, in distinction to the comfortable everyday ‘being-at-home’ in which anxiety is suppressed. In Heidegger’s analysis we flee from the state of anxiety, from the Unheimlich, from homelessness, here expressed as homesickness, towards the state of ‘being-at-home’.

All three songs are expressions of homelessness in a literal (ontical) sense of a fear of being deprived of one’s physical home, but also in the ontological sense, in which to be homeless is to be in a state of anxiety about one’s Being – one’s very survival. All exploit the potential for fear that is intrinsic to our existence; a river, a visitor a journey, can be expressed as fearsome because we are essentially fearful. For Grassi metaphor is the means through which the essential existential structure of pathos of emotions, such as fear and anxiety, can be made manifest.