In the church calendar the season of Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It derives from Latin, via the Old French word ‘to come’. This season signals the coming of Christmas. Cue ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and other such song sentiments. It also carries a connotation of arriving, entrance and onset.
So how does advent relate to adventure?
There’s definitely a sense of motion in undertaking a risk or hazard: The Adventures of Tintin or The Adventures of Barry McKenzie or even Baron Munchhausen. There’s excitement, danger and uncertainty. There is also venturing. But these dares, risks and hazards surely reflect going rather than coming.
So are we coming or going during Advent? It is near the end of the year, after all.
Chaos and the silly season are upon us. This was the time in the Middle Ages calendar when we celebrated topsy-turviness with the Lord of Misrule, a close cousin to April Fool’s.
At this time of year we often experience instances of the ‘adventitious’. These are phenomena of haphazard or unpremeditated design: fortuitous, random, accidental, unexpected, serendipitous or coincidental. The adventitious is the unlooked-for, even the exotic. It comes out of the blue. We didn’t see it coming. Unlike Christmas. Unlike a planned adventure.
The movement known as ‘Adventism’ has no direct relation to Christmas, nor with adventitious matters of biology or the adventures of anybody, except perhaps its founder, one William Miller. Who?
In the 19th Century this Baptist preacher drummed up 100,000 followers when he predicted Jesus Christ would come again on October 22, 1844. After this Second Coming no-show, the movement known as Millerism or Adventism lost its appeal for many. Yet a determined few remained optimistic that a Second Coming would come… eventually.
In 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed, with a focus on the sanctity of the Sabbath. There have been many other kinds of Adventist church, such as the Christdelphians, the Advent Christian Church and the Primitive Advent Christian Church, as well as radical offshoots like the Branch Davidians, many of whom perished in a siege in Waco, Texas in 1993. That was an adventure, though the results were adventitious.
Most of us are not looking for adventure in the season of Advent, yet this year has seen its share of unlooked-for dramas. Advent can be adventitious: births, deaths, breakups, reunions, natural disasters and human triumphs. Like the Roman god Janus, we look back as well as forward. Roll on 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.
Paralipsis (also known as paralepsis, parasiopesis, preterition, cataphasis, antiphrasis or occupatio) is a rhetorical figure of speech whereby I can state that I won’t even talk about the allegations that my political opponent has a drinking problem. Oops. I went and did it.
Or I could be even sneakier, asserting that I’m not calling my opponent a liar but I note that his grasp of facts appears to be shaky.
If I’m feeling very cheeky, I might have my cake and eat it by saying something like “In that suit you look like—no, I was going to say ‘spiv’.”
Paralipsis is a form of apophasis, a general rhetorical device where I can raise a subject by either denying it or denying that it should be brought up. It’s a first cousin to irony.
If I overstep the mark of paralipsis, I stray into the murky realm of proslepsis. This is when I draw attention to something while pretending to pass it over. For example: “I won’t demean this debate by mentioning an occasion when my learned opponent was found asleep in a park with an empty vodka bottle.” Ouch. I’ve gone too far. Not classy. Over-egged that pudding.
The great Roman orator Cicero wasn’t averse to a little paralipsis: “I now forget your wrongs, Clodia. I set aside the memory of my pains [which you caused].”
Or how about this Ciceronian effort? “I might say many things of his liberality, kindness to his domestics, his command in the army, and moderation during his office in the province; but the honour of the state presents itself to my view, and calling me to it, advises me to omit these lesser matters.”
Ronald Reagan liked the rhetorical device too. When questioned about the rumours of psychological treatment provided in the past to Michael Dukakis, the wily president seeking re-election said: “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”
No doubt about it, paralipsis might be cruel but it’s often funny. In the film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) the main character is asked to apologise to the marshal’s wife and friends for calling them whores. Roy Bean says: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologise. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologise.”
There is also a legendary, and perhaps apocryphal, exchange recorded in Hansard, the official transcript of parliamentary debate in the Parliament of Australia:
Hon. the Member for B…. : The Member opposite has the brains of a sheep.
Members: Shame, shame.
Hon. Mr Speaker: Order! The Member for B…. will withdraw that remark.
Hon. the Member for B…. : Very well, Mr Speaker, I withdraw my remark. The Member opposite does not have the brains of a sheep.
Now that’s classy paralipsis.
Geoffrey Chaucer liked his paralipsis on occasion, as in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1480): “The music, the service at the feast, /The noble gifts for the great and small,/ The rich adornment of Theseus’s palace/ All these things I do not mention now.”
Jonathon Swift, one of the great masters of irony, showed his love of paralipsis in A Modest Proposal (1729): “Therefore, let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees… of using neither clothes, nor house hold furniture… of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of learning to love our country…”
Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851) described the character of Queequeg with masterly paralipsis: “We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.”
But the acknowledged master would have to be Shakespeare. One famous speech in Julius Caesar (1599), delivered by Mark Antony, is a masterpiece of political paralipsis to put other politicians’ efforts in the shade:
“Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it./ It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you./ You are not wood; you are not stones, but men;/ And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,/ It will inflame you, it will make you mad:/ For if you should, oh, what would come of it…/ But here’s a parchment, with the seal of Caesar;/ I found it in his closet; ‘tis his will:/ Let but the commons hear this testament–/ Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read.”
The word obviously comes from Ancient Greek. Para means ‘alongside’ and lipsis comes from leipein for ‘leave,’ therefore ‘leave alongside’.
But language keeps on evolving, damn it. Phrases, like currency, can lose their punch and become devalued. In much the same way that ‘literally’ has been devalued by confusion with ‘figuratively’ because the former sounds stronger, certain phrases are no longer applied logically.
One common sentence opener example is: ‘Needless to say’. This used to mean that it didn’t need to be said. Now it’s become an instance of paralipsis, without the wit and wisdom of Swift, Shakespeare or even Reagan. It doesn’t need to be said but it is. “I surely need not remind you to get your Christmas shopping done early”. Yup. In doing so, I have reminded you. The same goes for “I need not mention that everything must be done by the deadline” or “I don’t have to remind everyone of the urgency of this matter”. Devaluation to paralipsis without any of the fun: this is just boring. How often have we heard “Here’s a man who needs no introduction”? And how often has that precluded an introduction?
I will finish with my favourite modern example of paralipsis. It’s the character of Tony Stark from Iron Man 2 (2010): “I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in thirty-five years. I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified. I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across any one man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day!”
That’s about as paralipsistic as it gets.