about the author

Jake Bartman’s work is forthcoming in the minnesota review and the Santa Fe Literary Review. He lives in New Mexico.

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The Sophist and the Streetcar  

Jake Bartman

1. Exordium

He was a professor of rhetoric at a modestly-regarded liberal arts college. Four days per week, for the past thirty-one weeks, he had ridden the streetcar across town as a part of his commute. This commute was something the professor could not get used to. Every trip made him want to scream.

2. Narratio

Occupant of the Ernest J. Wattleford endowed chair at a school tied for seventy-sixth on the U.S. News & World Report ’s ranking of the “Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges,” the professor was a modern man, a cosmopolitan man, the kind of man whose convictions ought to have kept him spiritually buoyed against the rising tide of distraction and mindless hedonism characteristic of the digital age. Among these convictions were: that technology, in itself, is neither good nor bad. That society, on the whole, is “better off” than it was two thousand years ago. That one must “change with the times” or “perish.”

The professor’s usual course load comprised one undergraduate survey (“The Rhetorical Tradition”) and two graduate seminars (“Rhetorical Figures,” “The Rhetoric of Cicero”). While he spoke, the professor’s students “took notes” on high-end laptops and pencil-thin tablet computers manufactured by the world’s most valuable technology company. At least one male student per class period kept a pair of noise-cancelling headphones perched on the edge of his desk in a manner that seemed, to the professor, vaguely threatening. As he lectured, the professor watched students use their cellular “smart” phones to compose text messages or take “selfies.” Once, the professor had overheard an undergraduate say that she no longer felt capable of interacting with other people “in-person” at all.

He, the professor, was an “eligible” bachelor who, according to the badger-faced Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, did not maintain “appropriate” professional distance from students and colleagues. The professor had an ex-wife in Munich and twin sons in California who called on Christmas and, sometimes, his birthday. He believed in fiscal austerity, and for this reason saved his pocket change in a bluish semitransparent ten-gallon water jug, sorting the coins quarterly into rolls. The professor declined to utilize greater than 10 percent of his available monthly credit, which enabled him to maintain a credit score of seven hundred eighty-six. At all times he kept his apartment half-lit, shaving in the near-dark each morning.

Sometimes, his rear end cupped by one of the streetcar’s grey plastic “bucket” seats, the professor would repeat to himself the word Mutterseelenallein. Once, the professor calculated that the “A” Line streetcar’s phone-to-person ratio was approximately 1.8:1, although this figure was skewed slightly by a boy with a backwards baseball cap and a device in each hand, a third strapped to his chest in a miniature papoose-like sling. When the professor began to think of his colleague Karina von Steuben, he would distract himself by attempting to recall, in its entirety, Marcus Tullius Cicero’s first Catilinarian oration: “Quo usque tandem abutere Catalina nostra,” i.e., “When, O Cataline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?” In the orator’s words the professor perceived a kind of grandeur whose absence from the modern world caused him, at times, to weep.

As a matter of principle, the professor believed in hydration. For this reason, he carried at all times a 32-oz. vacuum-insulated BPA-free stainless steel HydroFlask in red, white, or “International Klein Blue.” The professor chose a bottle each morning on the basis of whatever sort of “statement” he hoped, on a given day, to make.

The professor’s chronic xerostomia had begun nine months prior, not long after a ballot initiative legalized marijuana in the U.S. state where the professor lived, worked, and reckoned daily with his sense of soul-killing isolation. The professor’s first marijuana cigarette (“joint”) in three decades had caused his vision to strobe and his saliva to grow sticky and bitter. It had atrophied his judgment, a state of affairs evinced by his disastrous attempt to drive to the grocery store for a bag of pretzels. Perpetual dry mouth caused the professor’s lips to become chapped and his tongue to feel as though it’d been patted with a half-dozen cotton balls. Without saliva, bacteria grew rampant in the professor’s mouth, causing his teeth to brown and his breath to acquire the “Stench of Death.”

It was partly on account of his halitosis that the professor had come, increasingly, to eschew contact with other people. The professor was aware that this condition was likely psychosomatic. By contrast, the metastatic neuroendocrine tumor lodged in the professor’s pancreas was not psychosomatic at all.

3. Partitio

Sixty-five percent of streetcar passengers’ cellular smartphones were manufactured by the world’s wealthiest technology company, a publicly-traded corporation whose name connoted themes Biblical and, in its relation to such phenomena as colonial alcohol production, Johnny Appleseed, and pie, distinctly American as well. Recently, the Wall Street Journal had declared this company the first in history to attain a $1 trillion valuation. The professor calculated that, at his current rate of pay, he would need to work for a little over ten million years to earn an equivalent sum, although this calculation did not take inflation into account.

The legal grounds for the professor’s divorce had been “irreconcilable differences,” a term that he found, six years later, on his mind, now and then, still. The phrase implied that in a “healthy” or “lasting” union, differences were “reconciled” or “brought together,” made “consistent” or “coexistent” with each other—as if it were not sufficiently “conciliatory” to invest one’s retirement savings into the same suspect technology fund, to sleep for twenty-seven years in the same bed and raise two intelligent if vain boys who, as adults, displayed a moiety of the eleven generally-accepted traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

On the rare occasion that they telephoned, the professor’s twin sons would, for twenty minutes, complete each other’s sentences, detailing their start-up company’s latest success in the world of online advertising. Invariably the boys would end the conversation without any inquiry into their father’s mental/physical “well-being” or health, although they were sure at some point to bemoan the high cost of rent in San Francisco. The professor, who had been raised penniless in a dying West Virginia mining town, would mail them a check the following morning.

While he had remained, after three decades, respected within his field, the professor could not deny that his most lasting achievement would be the Ph.D. dissertation he’d published in 1986. The statistical analysis he had conducted with the aid of a then-cutting-edge IBM XT had resulted in novel understandings of the way that figures like antanaclasis, chiasmus, zeugma, and hyperbation were used in each of the seven segments of a Ciceronian oration. More importantly, the project had introduced statistical analysis to the world of rhetoric. For a time this achievement had made the professor a much sought-after scholar, one hailed antithetically by Bastian von Trapp, the “father” of the modern field of rhetoric, as the “great young hope of our ancient discipline.”

In the halcyon days following his dissertation’s publication, the professor had been offered high-profile assistant professorships at a handful of prestigious European institutions. The professor had, however, elected to accept a tenure-track position at a small college in the United States’ Pacific Northwest, where he and his wife hoped to start a family. The twins were born one year to the day after their parents’ arrival in the country. Exhausted by fourteen hours of labor, the professor’s wife had yielded with little resistance when he proposed to name their sons Corax (“Corey”) and Demosthenes (“Donny”), after the great Athenian orators.

In a controversial paper published in Annals of Rhetoric volume 41, no. 4, the professor’s young colleague Karina von Steuben had argued that the Romans employed praeteritio, i.e. emphasis in lieu of omission, almost exclusively in the context of class anxiety. Key to her argument was a moment in the first Catilinarian oration wherein Cicero, a parvenu par excellence, threatens the conspiratorial “old-money” senator Cataline, saying, “I will not mention the ruin of your fortune, which as you know is hanging over you against the ides of the very next month.” Although the professor agreed with his senior colleagues that the paper ought not to have made such frequent reference to Baz Luhrmann’s recent film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the professor found Karina von Steuben’s argument to be, on the whole, persuasive, relying as it did on statistical modeling techniques that, at present, lay far beyond the professor’s capacity. An accusation of bias levied against the professor led him to request “satisfaction” from his colleague Clive Clifford—a suggestion which was, fortunately for the professor, taken in jest.

Above the streetcar’s windows were a row advertisements that changed, so far as the professor could determine, every three months. Few passengers seemed to notice these signs, preferring to focus on the propaganda conveyed to them via cellular smartphone. Sometimes the professor considered one advertisement in particular, which featured an Internet service provider’s motion-blurred injunction to “SEE the FUTURE.” Beneath this slogan was an image of a long-haired Dachshund in “virtual reality” goggles, a bright pink tongue dangling moronically from the corner of its mouth. Few people on the streetcar spoke with each other, although the professor had witnessed four video-chat break-ups in the months since the streetcar became a part of his commute. At least once per week, a passenger would loudly play music via wireless speaker, usually in the genre of “hip-hop” or “Top 40.” The professor had learned that in such cases the best policy was to “mind [his] own fucking business,” since, one might argue, the streetcar was a “public” place, and if the professor cared so much about what other people were doing, then why didn’t he take his own fucking car to work? (This question, of course, being erotema, i.e. “rhetorical.”)

The professor had acquired the marijuana cigarette “joint” that precipitated his DUII from a Birkenstock-wearing undergraduate with a pot-leaf sticker affixed to the gunmetal shell of his $4,000 laptop. The undergraduate’s eyes remained half-closed as the professor gave a tidy anamnesis of the romantic rebuff he’d suffered at a colleague’s hands the previous evening, explaining by attenuated circumlocutio how this had led him to consider a tentative foray into the world of “recreational” marijuana use. Although the professor had observed the many storefronts across the city lit by the “cross of green” that signified marijuana sales, he was unsure which vendor might provide the best “bang for [his] buck,” and, moreover, by what means he ought to consume today’s high-potency modern cannabis. All this the professor garnished with tactful comprobatio, not to mention the whiff of an implied benefit to the undergraduate’s course grade, which had hovered for the semester at a high “D.” The student did not reply to the professor’s query in words, but rather produced from somewhere on his person a pre-rolled quarter-gram indica/sativa hybridized “joint.” In spite of the undeniably “quid pro quo” nature of their interaction, the professor was struck by the large-heartedness of this gesture, which he interpreted as a “welcome” to the fraternity of recreational marijuana-smokers—a notion that caused the professor temporarily to lose his ability to speak.

4. Confirmatio

Having for some months suffered fits of anxiety and depression following their boys’ departure for college, the professor’s wife had assumed a part-time “remote” administrative position with Sternberg Capital Management, LLC (“the Stern”) in February of 2005. The Stern was a private technology fund which had, for the better part of six years, enjoyed a 5.3 percent dividend and a fifty-two-week return of over 80 percent. Greater profits still were anticipated in the decade to come, as the Stern reallocated the majority of its assets to a fledgling firm involved in engineering the “multi-touch” technology that was expected to play a significant role in the mobile computing revolution. Eighteen months after adopting her position at the fund, the professor’s wife had persuaded him, via the kind of eunoia-based argument that was her specialty, to withdraw the twenty-two years of savings he had deposited in the college’s IRA, and to invest this sum into the Stern.

When, on the streetcar, the professor encountered the futility of any effort to “Be Present” or “Stay in the Moment,” he would grade student papers, peruse a recent edition of Annals of Rhetoric or Harper’s Monthly, drink from his HydroFlask, and chew his fingernails. The professor considered that of forty-eight streetcar passengers, only two read physical books--although this figure weighted as a “book” the sky-blue Sex Addicts Anonymous pamphlet clutched by a sweating man in a skin-tight black tee.

The professor found it symbolically significant that, two weeks after Karina von Steuben’s hiring, the U.S. News & World Report had elevated their institution from thirtieth to twenty-fourth on its list of the “Top 50 Most Beautiful Liberal Arts Colleges.” The professor’s colleague came to the school from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, the same institution where the professor had taught briefly after obtaining his doctorate—where one of his students had been the bright young Foreign Languages major who would someday become his ex-wife. At their department’s annual “back to school” barbecue, Karina von Steuben shared with the professor her conviction that the Western world was overdue for a “rhetorical Renaissance”: a revival of respect for the value of speech, and for the spirit of persuasion, compromise, and democracy, that nowadays seemed wholly absent from public discourse. When the professor explained how quickly the technology he’d used to conduct his famed Ciceronian analyses had been rendered obsolete by newer, more powerful machines—systems that had evolved wholly beyond the professor’s comprehension in the chaotic first years following his sons’ birth—Karina von Steuben drew her jaw inward in a way that, in spite of her average or “mesomorphic” build, gave her the appearance of possessing a double chin. The professor would find himself unable to quit thinking of this gesture, later on.

When unable to sleep due to an overwhelming awareness of late capitalism’s oppressive superstructure, the weight of loneliness, or a pain like broken glass in his abdomen, the professor would watch pornography rented from a video store two streetcar stops away. Sometimes, the women who starred in these films shared the appearance of the professor’s young colleague. Afterward, the professor would guzzle water as if to drown himself, sleep for a half-hour, rise to urinate, surrender to the unendurable compulsion to imbibe additional water, then suffer another half-hour of sleepless torpor, another rush to the bathroom, two additional glasses of water, and so on, until it was time to shave.

The professor owned a cellular “flip” phone that had once belonged to his son Corax. Usually, the professor kept this device in the “off” position, stashed in the deepest corner of his leather satchel. The phone had three contacts on its list of “favorites,” namely, the professor’s sons, and also his colleague Karina von Steuben. Sometimes, on the streetcar, the professor would produce the device and stare, for a time, at his colleague’s name, considering whether to press the green “call” button, causing the first bars of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” to sound from her cellular smartphone. Other times, as the streetcar paused at its 4th Street stop, the professor would wage within himself a silent war not to proceed five blocks eastward to the trendy condominium where Karina von Steuben would, at that very moment, be tousling the fur of her tabby Gorgias George, sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc, and watching a television news program. The professor was aware that such an action would be in violation of the explicit terms set forth by the Dean of the College, and that absent substantial retirement savings, to be “fired,” “sacked,” or “shit-canned” would necessitate a frank, and likely negative, appraisal of the merits of continued existence. For this reason the professor deferred his urge to bring himself to Karina von Steuben’s dwelling and declare, once more, the boundless nature of his love for her.

The professor had tried, on one occasion, to solicit an escort. The posting that the professor had found on the website’s “personals” section was written by a woman seeking a “sweet daddy” to “take [her] out someplace nice.” A photograph accompanying the text seemed explicit with respect to the kind of “thank-you” any such “sweet daddy” might expect. In person, the woman’s complexion was marred by acne, and her hands were covered with purplish eschars. Nevertheless, the figure she cut in her strapless red dress caused the professor to feel his heart beat in several places at once. The woman ordered tri-tip, while the professor satisfied himself with an inexpensive garden salad. Her one-word replies to any attempt the professor made at conversation put him in mind of the “family dinners” his wife had insisted upon while the twins were teenagers. Near the meal’s end, the woman excused herself to the “can.” The professor waited an hour and a half before paying their bill and returning, alone, to his apartment.

5. Refutatio

The DUI-court judge, who for his appearance and manner of speech might have been a reincarnation of a certain computer company’s late CEO, employed aporia to express his shock at the professor’s poor judgment, conceding that although today’s marijuana was indeed far stronger than the “grass” the professor would have consumed as a young man, ignorance did not constitute an exculpatory fact. It was the judge’s opinion that a one-year suspension of his (the professor’s) driver’s license would be in his (the professor’s) best interest, and that the professor ought to thank God not to have injured or killed himself or anyone else. The professor’s diasyrmic likening of this sentence to waterboarding did not persuade the judge to reconsider.

The streetcar’s route ran directly past the courthouse. Ten times per week, the professor averted his eyes from its arrogant Corinthian columns, its ornate iron fencing and Byzantine stone cupola.

Several years prior, the Dean of the College had elected, in a unilateral action, to change the name of the “Department of Rhetoric” to the “Department of Rhetoric & Media Studies.” The dean had formerly been a media and advertising executive whose portfolio included the iconic “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign. In a press release, the dean asserted that the name change would help to “keep the department’s focus on the application of skills to a rapidly-changing real-world environment.” Left unstated was the dean’s insistence, at every all-staff meeting, that the college move upward from the eighty-fourth position on the U.S. News & World Report ’s ranking of the “Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges for Students Without Trust Funds.” In a carefully-prepared oration delivered at a department meeting subsequent to this announcement, the professor employed apodioxis in characterizing the dean’s decision “so absurd a proposal as to make even its consideration a disgrace,” addressing the dean, who was not present, as “you hetaera of the heart, you pornai of the mind.” For this performance the professor earned six faculty signatures on an open letter contra the dean’s decision, and also the dean’s lasting enmity.

The nadir of the professor’s financial life had come in 2007, immediately after the turtleneck-clad CEO of a certain not-yet-trillion-dollar technology company introduced a cellular smartphone that redefined the concept of mobile computing—a device which, with its intuitive touch-screen interface, obviated in a single stroke all the years of expensive R&D work done by the firm that was the Stern’s primary investment. In moments of great significance the professor’s wife had a tendency to employ zeugma, and when, after two days spent fielding panicked phone calls from investors, she told her husband she would either go crazy or to Munich, the professor knew he could not persuade her to stay.

Sometimes, on the streetcar, when the professor’s mouth grew especially dry and the Stench of Death particularly pungent, the professor would “down” all the water remaining in his red, white, or International Klein Blue HydroFlask. This decision would cause the professor’s stomach to become bloated or “pooched out” over his belt, the muscles of his bladder aching and burning until he arrived at his apartment and allowed himself, at long last, to urinate. The effect of such water consumption on the consistency and volume of the professor’s saliva was negligible.

6. Digressio

Sometimes, the professor considered the moment in the first Catilinarian oration wherein Cicero suggests to his opponent, in an instance of inter se pugnantia, that no one in Rome “does not fear you, does not hate you,” and asks, “What brand of domestic baseness is not stamped upon your life?” Similarly the professor considered the way that, following Cicero’s execution, the orator’s tongue was removed and mutilated by Marc Antony’s wife Fulvia. The professor often found himself reluctant to mention this detail to students.

7. Peroratio

Through a pair of wrought-iron windows, the dean’s office gave a view of the sloping lawn on which, eighteen months prior, the Department of Rhetoric & Media Studies had staged the “back to school” barbecue where the professor first met his colleague Karina von Steuben. Now the dean, who was approximately six inches shorter and twelve inches wider than the professor, was in the midst of an epideictic condemnation of everything the professor “stood for,” especially the professor’s “naïve” belief in the possibility of “compromise” or “agreement.” Near the end of this diatribe the dean asked, parenthetically, if rhetoric were not, when you got right down to it, an effort to “manipulate” or “control” other people. Although the professor had answered this same challenge from skeptical students literally thousands of times over the course of his career—although the dean’s argument was so well-worn that the professor could, without effort, identify several dozen Attic rants against sophism, from Isocrates to Plato—although the professor could point to the fact that rhetoric’s opponents were invariably possessed of a totalitarian bent, and although he might have explained that rhetoric, properly used, sought reconciliation and consensus, where advertising, media, and modern politics sought to overwhelm by force—the professor merely smiled and said, in a moment not of tactical concessio but rather of simple concession, that perhaps the dean had a point.

Neither did the professor often mention, to his students, that Cicero’s hands and tongueless head were ultimately affixed to the same rostrum where, years before, the statesman had delivered the second of his Catilinarian orations. It took, on average, fifty-four minutes for the streetcar to travel from a stop near the professor’s apartment to the school. Sometimes, as his breath reeked and his stomach ached, the professor would sit perfectly still, listening to the high whine of the streetcar’s electric motor, the graceless thud of its doors as they slid open and shut. To the professor’s left, an old woman held her cellular smartphone so close to her face that he could, now and then, hear the frame of her glasses touch the device. Directly in front of the professor a pair of preteen girls leaned together, inspected a screen, and debated the use of the word like in some text message. The professor gripped his blood-red HydroFlask a little more tightly. He began, for perhaps the two thousandth time, to murmur the ancient words he knew well.

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