Lecturing in a poetry class a few years back, I had occasion to mention the rhetorical device called antonomasia. I was astonished afterward to learn that one of my students had assumed I was referring to a royal personage executed by the Bolsheviks. Now Anastasia is a charming name with loads of popular appeal but its proper sphere of application is chronicle or romance. I patiently explained that, despite the reminiscent ring, antonomasia is not the name of a Romanov princess or, for that matter, of a famous international dating service, specializing in mail-order brides (“the fastest way to reach thousands of Russian ladies”). It is a persuasive rhetorical trope which can be manipulated in a number of different ways, most pertinently as the use of a personal name to indicate a common noun or express a general idea. Typical examples are “Solon” for “wise legislator” (or “wisdom”) and “Hitler” for “evil despot” (or “pure evil” itself).
True, Cervantes gave the name “Antonomasia” to a fictional princess in Don Quixote. But in fact he intended the word in its literal acceptation, applying “Antonomasia” antonomastically to stand for the nature of contemporary poetry — something the confused sophomore might have cited to rescue his dignity. In any event, this rather pixilated episode got me to wondering about the influence of antonomasia in everyday verbal transactions and especially in political discourse, since the latter is where it is used most cogently. Its effect can be so subtle that, if we are not alert to the force of enchantment it exerts, it can prevent us from thinking clearly. It can, when all is said and done, seduce no less compellingly than a blond Russian girl.
A little attention should reveal that when it comes to the discussion of current political issues, there is a kind of robotic reaction at work among many intelligent and well-meaning people, as if it were based in the autonomic nervous system or the solar plexus and not in the centers of thought. It hinges not on reasoning but on desire. To take a resonant example, the name “Bush” was (and is) met by a chain of verbal and emotional equivalents: “liar,” “moron,” “oil baron,” “imperialist,” swathed in a penumbra of knowing contempt. Each term of abuse triggered by the name is then made to stand for the United States itself.
The corollary was that if Bush were only chased from office, the antonomastic link would be broken and the United States would no longer be the country that it was, or was understood to be. The fact that President Clinton’s inactivity and not President Bush’s putative warmongering did much to bring the present conflictual situation upon us is conveniently dismissed from consideration. And the possibility that the United States under Bush was at least to some extent justified in its chosen course of action is, obviously, a complete non-starter.
The reverse operation is equally effective. Utter the name “Obama” and a host of surrogate terms leap to mind — “savior,” “new man,” “peacemaker,” “The One,” or, in the words of Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, no less than a “sort of god” — which are immediately reified as undoubted facts. Despite Obama’s recent, self-inflicted troubles and the crisis of confidence in which he is increasingly embroiled, he is still regarded by the MSM, the liberal-left, the Oslo peaceniks, and approximately half the American electorate as sacrosanct, as “good,” “honest,” “reliable,” “noble.” Like spellbound children following the Pied Piper, the epithets cling to the name. They are then associated in swift antonomastic transfer with a newborn, a “different,” America.
There is no awareness among the true believers — and especially among the myrmidons of the left — that they have been deluded by nomenclature, by the semiotic condensation of amorphous ideas and obscure but powerful feelings. As in the first case where a process of reevaluation is all but proscribed, so in the second skepticism is ruled out of court by all but the unconverted. In the current jargon, one could say that antonomasia, whether deployed negatively or positively, runs the signifier into the signified, rendering them indistinguishable from one another. Alternatively, the appellative word and the denominated thing have merged in a passion of similitudes.
In the same way, prior to his disengagement policy and his medical collapse, all one had to do was mention the name of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the automated analogies instantly crowded the emotional field on which the debate was pursued: “political dinosaur,” “Likud hawk,” “war criminal.” Each term of abuse stood for Israel itself, supplemented by others like “Zionist entity” or “military occupier” springing from the inboard thesaurus of ideologically motivated synonyms.
The corollary was that if Sharon were only cashiered or even assassinated and his place taken by a Labor dove, Israel might be welcomed or at least tolerated in the family of nations. The very real likelihood that previous Labor governments, by their tactic of appeasement and their naive belief in the credibility and good faith of the Palestinian negotiators, merely exacerbated the current situation in the Middle East is an inadmissible argument.
Of course, positive antonomasia comes harder for Israel than for the U.S. The problem here may have something to do with the plausible assumption that, in the words of Jonathan Rosenblum, “Israel is the only country the majority of whose citizens are determined to confront evil rather than appease it.” This does not endear it to the West. We recall, too, that the pacifying names “Olmert” and “Livni” did little to redeem Israel in the eyes of the world. And with the recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the negative personification tactic is in full swing again: “hard right-winger,” “expansionist,” “aggressor.” There is no recognition of the fact that Netanyahu signed the Wye Agreement ceding land to the Palestinians; returned 80% of Hebron, the Jewish City of the Patriarchs, to the authority of Yasser Arafat; allowed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, to establish himself in Gaza; and has endorsed the original “two-state” road map. Such facts cannot break the magic circle of incantatory substitutions and have no bearing on the judgments of a barratrous symposium. For bad Bibi is Israel.
What really happened in both the American and Israeli instances is that rational inquiry and responsible thought were (and still are) short-circuited, and that otherwise intelligent people surrendered their mental faculties to an involuntary and reflex-dominated organ of response whose instrumental mode of function is analogous to the operations of libidinal appetite. When a match is arranged between a term that seeks its conceptual mate and an idea that already awaits its verbal suitor, what is becomes what you want it to be. Such transactions smack of conjugal provisions where distance is abolished by a predetermined intimacy, as in arranged marriages — not the best recipe for genuine understanding.
As a result, disinterested analysis and the free exchange of ideas are no longer even remotely conceivable in an intellectual forum governed by antonomastic rigidities, which is only a kind of psychic concupiscence, a pressing need to satisfy the lust for instant correlations and spare us the burden of thinking. So to have said one is voting for “Bush” or approved of the pre-disengagement policies of “Sharon” inevitably exposed one to either incredulity or derision for neglecting self-evident “truths.” Similarly, to critique Obama or his policies leads to one being dismissed as a clown, a madman, a racist, a purveyor of smears, along with a batch of similar expletives, for, as we have seen, positive antonomasia has identified the current president as an exalted figure who can do no wrong.
That these “truths” are the product of a set of irrational concomitants, a frozen nexus of words and beliefs, escapes our notice. A tight coil of terminological equivalents rooted in thymos, in the diaphragm — or, as I have suggested, even lower down — supplants the flexible and temporal process of ongoing query, research, and communication. What’s more, items marshaled in argument are often generated by the rumor mill and are therefore products of invention or fabrication. Or they are frequently presented not only out of frame but locked inside an end-stopped context, with no awareness of the developing skein of events or the entourage of attendant facts.
Thus, a European poll found Vladimir Putin, a dictator in all but name, whose policies involve selling arms to the genocidal Sudanese government, offering diplomatic support and materiel to a nuclearizing Iran, and siphoning off billions of dollars in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, to be more trustworthy than Dubya. Similarly, a “gentler” Ariel Sharon pursuing disengagement did poorly when compared to his Palestinian negotiating partner, President Mahmoud Abbas, despite the latter’s dismal record in the past, his doctoral thesis denying the Holocaust, his forty years as Arafat’s loyal deputy, and — using the word irhaab (terror) in his Arabic speeches to refer only to Israeli actions — his conciliation of his own terrorist outriders.
More to the point, the fact that (pre-Obama) America was and (post-Olmert) Israel is in the forefront of the fight against international terrorism is a matter of no account and cannot break the machine code of single-minded reprehension, above all among the constituency of the left. And so we are no longer in the historical continuum but lodged in the synchronic realm of absolute and eternal verities which are either “made up” or shaped to convenience, bowdlerized, truncated, and fixed by antonomastic language.
It is high time, as Robert Conquest argues in The Dragons of Expectation, taking his cue from George Orwell, that we begin “harpooning some word-whales” and proceed to “demystify key words used in political speech.” But the attempt at demystification runs up against the formidable sticking-power of antonomastic discourse which substitutes a name for a concept, obscuring the fissure between the two and thus allowing the concept to escape scrutiny. Used as such, antonomasia re-valences the particular, then swaps the particular for the general, and in the process turns off the brain. The reactions it elicits are almost glandular in their immediacy, provoking a sort of lexical prurience that is difficult to resist.
Put to political purpose, antonomasia works. It is the easy, mechanical way to consolidate a set of reciprocal designations, demonizing the innocent and angelizing the culpable. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of infatuation. Said differently, antonomasia is the semantic variant of the mail-order bride, ready for service. And it is the fastest way to reach millions.