How Words Make Things Happen
David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English
(Oxford University Press)
“How Words Make Things Happen” suggests that the conventional idea of persuasive rhetoric (which assumes a speaker’s control of calculated effects) and the modern idea of literary autonomy (which assumes that “poetry makes nothing happen”) together have produced a misleading account of the relations between words and human action. Words do make things happen, the author contends. But they cannot be counted on to produce the result they intend.
This volume studies examples from a range of speakers and writers and offers close readings of their words. Chapter One considers the theory of speech-acts propounded by J. L. Austin. “Speakers Who Convince Themselves” is the subject of Chapter Two, which interprets two soliloquies by Shakespeare’s characters and two by Milton’s Satan. The oratory of Burke and Lincoln come in for extended treatment in Chapter Three, while Chapter Four looks at the rival tendencies of moral suasion and aestheticism in the poetry of Yeats and Auden. The final chapter supports a policy of unrestricted free speech against contemporary proposals of censorship. Since we cannot know what our own words are going to do, the author believes, we have no standing to justify the banishment of one set of words in favor of another.