The uses of praeteritio

The tributes by Steve Hayward and Peter Schramm to Professor Harold Rood remind us of the debt we owe to the great teachers who opened our eyes to the important things. (So do the comments on these posts.) Reading the prominent critic John Simon’s letter to the editor of the Times Book Review this past weekend, I thought of my high school Latin teachers, Lyman Hawbaker and David Sims. Mr. Hawbaker is deceased; Mr. Sims is retired. Each was a great teacher in his own way.

In our ninth grade Latin class, Mr. Sims had us read Cicero’s First Catiline Oration. For the final exam that year he gave us a list of the rhetorical devices Cicero employed in the speech and required us to memorize them — not as many as are on this list, but a good share of them. Praeteritio (or paralipsis) is the ever useful device of mentioning something while professing to avoid it, as Simon does at the end of his letter in responding to a criticism of him made by Roger Ebert in Ebert’s new memoir:

[Ebert’s] claim that my specialty is criticizing performers for their looks, which they can’t help, is no less erroneous [than his assertion that Simon looks exactly like a rat]. My criticism of performers’ looks is only a minor aspect of my extensive reviewing, and applies only to those whose looks clash flagrantly with what their role calls for. But even this, as I have repeatedly stated, can be helped by a performance that brilliantly eclipses a lack in looks. For those who achieve this, I have always reserved my unqualified praise.

On Ebert’s looks even at their height, before his various regrettable disfigurements, I can only say that it would be ungentlemanly to comment.

Simon has his own blog — Uncensored John Simon — which is well worth a look. Simon expands on the propriety of commenting on the physical appearance of actors in his post “Animadversions of a ‘lookist’ critic.” Animadversion — that’s a word I think I might have learned in my ninth grade Latin class, or reading William F. Buckley.


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