Barack Obama’s inaugural address is proving to be more powerful in the reading than it was in the hearing.
Commentators on radio and television have been doing a two-step. First they say that the speech lacked the eloquence of his speech on race or of his remarks on the night he won the presidency; and then they spend lots of time talking about the implications of a sentence (“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”), a clause (“programs will end”), a phrase (“dust ourselves off”) or even a single word (“Muslim,” “non-believers.”)
It is as if the speech, rather than being a sustained performance with a cumulative power, was a framework on which a succession of verbal ornaments were hung, and we were being invited not to move forward but to stop and ponder significances only hinted at.
And if you look at the text – spread out like a patient etherized on a table – that’s exactly what it’s like. There are few transitions and those there are – “for,” “nor,” “as for,” “so,” “and so” – seem just stuck in, providing a pause, not a marker of logical progression. Obama doesn’t deposit us at a location he has in mind from the beginning; he carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate.
Of course, as something heard rather than viewed, the speech provides no spaces for contemplation. We have barely taken in a small rhetorical flourish like “All this we can do. All this we will do” before it disappears in the rear-view mirror. But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication.
There is a technical term for this kind of writing – parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.”
The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.
Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.
Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)
One day after the occasion, USA Today offered as an analysis of the speech a list of the words most frequently used, words like America, common, generation, nation, people, today, world. This is exactly the right kind of analysis to perform, for it identifies the location of the speech’s energy in the repetition of key words and the associations forged among them by virtue of that repetition.
In the years to come what USA Today has begun will be expanded and elaborated in a thousand classrooms. Canonization has already arrived.