The Better Angels of Our Nature

"Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

There is a musicality, not just in the message, but to the rhythm of the words of this final paragraph in which Lincoln addressed the southern states hoping to avoid a war.  Unfortunately, it takes more than musicality to avert disaster.  So while these words may not have helped stop the carnage that was to follow, they have been preserved in history as an important artifact, one in which we can witness poetry and politics merging together, and it gives a sense of relief, possibly even a cause for nostalgia, that we had a politician that had such a way with words.  

While Obama has also been noted for his great oratory skills, we are now faced with two presidential candidates who are less inclined to stir us with their words.  Hillary Clinton, a rational person who is knowledgable about government, sticks to familiar sentiments that are at this point cliche and overworked.  Donald Trump also peddles in cliches, but in a much less coherent fashion.  His words are a jumble of children's building blocks that he is desperately grabbing and stacking together, and as long as they are somewhat related he seems happy to slap them on top of one another.  It has, at this point, become a national pastime to bet on when his next wobbling mess of a structure will fall down, which is now predictably the second after its completion, when his words are plucked from the air and set into type, where his incoherence is flatly exposed in the glowing black ink of online text. 

In the aftermath of listening to the pained explanations of Trump's performance in the first presidential debate, there was a sentiment that being "good with words" is a skill that is separate from being "a thoughtful person", that these two things are somehow mutually exclusive, that the poetry in Lincoln's address is just that, a pretty way to say something that is itself a simple idea that can be plainly stated and plainly understood.  Trump's inability to formulate coherent meaning with his words, his total lack of poetics, is just a matter of being a bad public speaker, a skill that everyone can sympathize with.

In writing this article I initially spent a good deal of time meticulously parsing some of Trumps latest wobbly creations, but rereading it I decided to save everyone a lot of time and energy and not do the obvious, point out the fact that Trump is no good with language, rather I'd like to focus instead on Lincoln's words and show that they are more than poetry, more than "fancy", that underlying the beauty of his language is a coherent logic that is even more important.

In "The Better Angels of Our Nature" Lincoln draws the parallels between music, memory and our national unity.  Strings played together make a chord.  Chords played in the right order make music.  When enough instruments join in, the music can swell and overwhelm us.  If each individual is playing their own tune, unresponsive to the sounds that others are making, we are making discordant sound.  If we have a common goal, if we are sensitive to the sounds that surround us, we can harmonize, come together and make beautiful music.

This message relies upon a number of common metaphors.  It begins with the simple concept that Relationships are Bonds.  This is a universal metaphor that everyone uses, and it can be thought of in a number of different ways.  Bonds can be conceptualized as chains (you are the weakest link) muscles (our relationship is strained) and rope (our friendship is hanging by the thinest of threads).  These bonds can be tense, loose, tight, constraining, and if too much tension is applied, they can break.  Lincoln plays on these typical conceptions of bonds but comes up with novel idea to frame it around music.

It is unclear whether "the mystical chords of memory" are strings on an instrument (a cord) or a succession of notes that are played together (a chord) as the spelling of the former has changed over time.  Either interpretation works quite well and offers a slightly different interpretation of what he's saying.  If the "mystical chords" are strings, then what is emphasized is their connectivity and tension.  These chords connect everything, stretching back into the past to link the living with the dead, our beating blood pumping hearts to the metaphorical hearts of a house, the hearthstone, a place where fires burned bright and families huddled together for warmth.  The tightness of these nationally bonding strings can be linked to the more personal "heart strings" where we experience a meaningful tug of emotion connected with a tightening in our chests. 

If "the mystic chords of memory" are a succession of notes, such as playing a chord on a guitar, then we may be more inclined to think of the ephemeral nature of music and the unity of harmony.  After striking the strings, our memories are the residual tones we hear drift faintly away.  We walk through our lives leaving these trails of sound that disappear behind us and yet live in a wall of sound that is forever bouncing off everything around us in a forced song of connection, detachment, overwhelming sadness and sheer joy of being able to make any sound at all. 

That you can switch back and forth between these two interpretations, and that each offers its own insight into the other, makes this an especially good use of a compounded metaphor: Bonds are Strings/Chords and Musical Harmony is Unity.

In Lincoln's brief summation "our nature" is divided into two halves, an angel and a devil, that will determine how we touch the strings.  The devil only sees the differences that divide us, only focuses on the bitterness of the past and the suffering that other people have heaped upon us.   The angel sees our common interests, the beauty of cooperation, of forgiveness, of letting go of the past and focusing our efforts on a shared harmonious future. 

The point here is that Lincoln is not just presenting us with window dressing that is adding flair to a simpler idea.  He is presenting us with a set of concepts that seek to describe how he thinks about memory, the connections between individuals and their country and what he believes we need to do as a nation in order to have a brighter future. 

If we decided to reduce his message to its skeletal form, it might sound like this:

"Bad things happened in the past, but we should get over it.  We live in the United States and we need to come together."

Is all that is lost in the retranslation the poetics?  No.  What is lost is the concepts that were initially presented.  It leaves us unable to talk about the nature of memory, of how we are bound to one another, of how music makes us feel, etc.  It also leaves us little room to create our own novel creations out of the meaning that is presented.

For instance, thinking about the cohesion of a country in metaphoric terms gives us access to talk about tension in new and interesting ways.  In most relationships "tension" is thought to be a negative, something to be avoided, but in this musical conception, the right amount of tension is necessary for the note of the string to be harmonious.  It's not about the elimination of tension, rather the string needs to be exactly as tense as it needs to be in order to make the correct note that unifies our individual experiences into a chorus of harmonious sound.  This concept is inaccessible in the simplified version. 

When a speaker presents a complex metaphor and then adeptly points out some of the novel entailments they have created, they are not just merely good with words.  They are presenting a window into their intellectual ability to think about the world in a more subtle way.  Listening to someone speak (or write) is an insight into their inner world, and if they are unable to think out loud in a more sophisticated way, it seems likely their inner world is also simplistic and possibly incapable of handling a concept that strikes upon so many interrelated variables of meaning.

That Donald Trump's language is formulated in half-sentences that regularly rely upon the simple metaphor Large is Important/Small is Unimportant doesn't just tell us what kind of public speaker he is.  It tells us something about his inner world of meaning and his capacity to deal with subtlety.  We are not just witnessing someone who is a bad public speaker, who can't handle the pressure of the spotlight or the silence of the debate crowd.  We are witnessing someone who is struggling with the basic properties of linguistic meaning, and in his frantic scrambling, we are watching a man burry himself in the toppling towers of his own irrationality.