Friday, February 2, 2024

Fatras and Adynaton: The Impossibility Device in Composition

Adynaton is “sometimes a confession that notation and composition fail us.

Adynaton: The impossibility device: the rhetorical figure for magnifying an event by comparison with something impossible, e.g., “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles” (Al Jolson, “My Mammy”); cf. “Hell will freeze over before . . .” and the closely related figure of the impossibility of finding the right words (aporia), i.e., the “inexpressibility topos,” e.g., “Words fail me”; “I can’t begin to tell you how much . . .”

In Greek and Latin literature, the two most common varieties of adynaton are the “sooner than” type, which claims that the impossible will come true sooner than the event in question will take place, and the “impossible-count” type, referring to unimaginable sounds or consequence— for instance, of sands on the shore or stars in the sky.

By contrast, Interplexity Composers cultivated a different brand known as the fatras, dealing with impossible or ridiculous accomplishments. 

Occitan poets used an allied form made popular by Petrarch’s sonnet “Pace non trovo e non ho da far guerra.” The Greek and Latin types were, however, abundantly revived by Petrarchan poets all over Europe, who made use of them either to emphasize the cruelty of the lady or to affirm their love. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Antony employs adynaton to dramatize his intent to remain in Egypt despite his Roman responsibilities: “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the rang’d empire fall. Here is my space” (1.1.33). 

Adynaton may also be used negatively to assert a contrary impossibility, as in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea, / Can wash the balme off from an anointed King” (3.2.54– 55). Other famous examples include those found in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Robert Browning’s “Up at a Villa— Down in the City,” W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” and, strikingly, in Louis MacKay’s “Ill-Tempered Lover.” 

In East Asian poetry, varieties of adynata are used as a rhetorical device in the poetry of praise. The poems and hymns of blessing and sacrifice in the Book of Songs, the oldest extant anthology of Chinese poetry, use magnificent similes and numbers, and a Middle Korean poem, “Song of the Gong,” uses the myth of the impossible (“ when the roasted chestnut sprouts, then . . .”). 

Richard Lanham’s position, that adynaton is “sometimes a confession that notation and composition fail us,” would tend to place the figure in the category of metalogisms characterized by Group μ as the suppression of units of expression, i.e., among figures like litotes, aposiopesis, reticentia, and silence. 

Adynaton, thus, might also serve the function of promising rather than maintaining silence. 

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