Jonathan Mayhew is a Wonderful Thinker (and Writer) about Writing

19 April 10: I met Jonathan Mayhew at Stanford University in 1982 in a seminar on William Carlos Williams taught by the late Gil Sorrentino. (There were many bright lights in that class, including Joseph Conte, Brett Millier, and Maria Damon, who have all achieved considerable academic distinction.) Essays Jonathan and I wrote for that seminar later appeared in the book William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet. If I remember correctly (I don’t own a copy), mine was a tad bit pretentious and derivative; Jonathan’s was bright, new, and clear as a bell. With that essay, Jonathan became one of my favourite writers.

One of the great joys of recent years has been watching how prolific Jonathan has become. In 2009 alone he published two books (Apocryphal Lorca and The Twilight of the Avant-Garde) and started a blog devoted to jazz — this on top of posting regularly on his flagship blog ¡Bemsha SWING!

Recently I was invited to contribute to his newest blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get it Done. Before my summer classes start, I hope to do so. It will be an honour to have my stuff appear next to writing like this, a riff on captatio benevolentiae (a rhetorical gesture to win the good will of one’s audience):

One way of beginning an article or talk is by making a profession of humility. We’ll call this a CB for short. Adeptly handled, this technique presents the speaking self of the article or book chapter as attractively modest, but without undercutting his or her authority. In other words, the audience understands that it is being seduced by the profession of modesty, but also understands that the modesty is a rhetorical device. There is an article by Derrida in The Translation Studies Reader (ed Venuti) that was originally a talk given to a professional association of translators. Derrida goes on and on at the beginning about how unqualified he is; he knows less about the subject (translation) than his own audience. Yet this CB does nothing, ultimately, to undercut his actual talk. Once he get into his main points he leaves behind this posture of modesty completely. Derrida is not a modest writer in the least.

I’ve seen people completely undercut their own authority by apologizing in a way that makes the audience think, “hey, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.”

The paradox, then, is that the CB must be performed arrogantly enough so that it is transparently false. It must not be taken literally, but as a rhetorical ploy.


The Socratic dialogue is based on a profession of ignorance, but Socrates uses that ignorance (known as Socratic irony) as a form of rhetorical jujitsu, lulling his interlocutors into thinking he is going to be easy to debate. The CB is also rhetorical jujitsu. It’s got to be performed from a stance of strength, not weakness.