Call it, wait

Call it, wait

In Brief

Figure of speech. Having listened to Stephen's parable of the plums, Myles Crawford asks, "But what do you call it?" Professor MacHugh proceeds to mull a possible title: "— Call it, wait, the professor said, opening his long lips wide to reflect. Call it, let me see. Call it: deus nobis haec otia fecit." The professor's slowness to advance a solution displays the rhetorical device of aporia, an expression of doubt. 

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Aporia (ah-PO-ree-uh, from Greek aporos = without a passage) is a blockage in the train of thought, an impasse. In philosophical usage an aporia is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, an inability to see a logically consistent way forward. The concept was important in ancient Greek philosophy: Plato's earlier, more Socratic dialogues are often called "aporetic" because they end in someone's recognition that he does not know what he thought he knew. In the 20th century Jacques Derrida used the term to name the process of encountering disabling contradictions in a thought process or textual structure.

The meaning of the term is different in rhetorical theory, being concerned more with the orator's presentation of his thoughts to an audience. The Romans knew it also as dubitatio, because the goal of the device was to create an impression of doubt. Gideon Burton ( defines aporia as "Deliberating with oneself as though in doubt over some matter; asking oneself (or rhetorically asking one's hearers) what is the best or appropriate way to approach something." The doubt may very well be feigned, as George Puttenham suggests in The Arte of English Poesie: "oftentimes we will seeme to cast perils, and make doubt of things when by a plaine manner of speech wee might affirme or deny him." In The Mystery of Rhetoric Unveiled (1657), John Smith writes that "Aporia is a figure whereby the Speaker sheweth that he doubteth, either where to begin for the multitude of matters, or what to do or say in some strange or ambiguous thing; and doth as it were argue the case with himself."

Professor MacHugh does exactly this. Whether he is calling attention to himself or genuinely uncertain probably cannot be known, but the latter explanation seems more likely given the Latin title he eventually comes up with: "deus nobis haec otia fecit" ("A god has made this leisure for us"). In these words from line 6 of Virgil's first Eclogue, two shepherds "under the canopy of a spreading beech" contrast the pastoral tranquility of the countryside with the turmoil elsewhere: "such unrest is there on all sides in the land." MacHugh applies Virgil's words to the happy leisure of two old women eating plums on the top of Nelson's tower, freed from the trials of everyday life. When he says, "Call it, wait.... Call it, let me see. Call it," he apparently is combing his impressive mental storehouse of ancient works of literature to retrieve a remembered line.

When used strategically to suggest doubt that the speaker does not really feel, aporia is close kin to "rhetorical questions" like anacoenosis.

John Hunt 2023
Illustration by Maryna Lutsyk for the essay "Aporia" by Cadmus.
The first lines of Virgil's Eclogues, showing the shepherds Meliboeus and Tityrus, in the 5th century Vergilius Romanus held in the Vatican library.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.