Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem

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Metaphors are charming, scenic shortcuts to multiple layers of meaning. But they’ve got a dark side that scares people or perhaps doesn’t scare them enough—depending on how you look at it.

For example:

Leave no stone unturned.

Once fresh, but now clichéd metaphors are best avoided in creative writing. (Dead metaphors in the sense of those whose meaning has shifted are something else and can, with care, be put to good use.) 

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Malaphors blend two phrases or idioms. They’re humorous, but hardly appropriate in an original piece. (The label itself is a portmanteau, or a blend, of metaphor and malapropism.)

Her learning capacity towers over yours; I bet you she can bridge any knowledge gap in under a month.

Mixed metaphors are more general malaphors, but without the humour. They combine different metaphors in incompatible ways: how can a capacity tower, or then be used to bridge? Sure, we get the message, but the clash draws attention to itself.

Clichéd metaphors can be avoided by not writing down what first comes to mind and malaphors are more often spoken mistakes than deliberate constructions. Which leaves mixed metaphors. They may not be as obviously jarring as my example. In fact, the more complex or original or dense your metaphors, the more difficult it is to judge whether what you’ve written coheres. 

Getting the opinions of a few friends helps.

Studying examples packed with metaphors also helps. So let’s do that.

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The Quote comes from Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (translation by Annette David). In the story Idalia on the Tower we’re given a description of a ruined castle’s donjon and specifically the staircase winding through it on the inside.

I’ve underlined the words that are used metaphorically. Do you think them compatible?

Quote: When the nocturnal wind was blowing, the staircase jumped all by itself on the murmuring stones, reciting incomprehensible verses, requiems, sniggering of calamities to come. Poised on its core, a straight and fragile mandrake stem, this staircase was not to be trusted. Unspeakably inviting, promising enchanted glimpses as it coiled itself despite the angular bones of its planks, forming a kind of siren’s tail. It was, in short, as staircases admittedly are, destined to all kinds of betrayal. Toothless old man, the donjon knew these things and kept quiet.

Perhaps you bought the Quote, perhaps you thought it was loaded and too dense. I chose it precisely because I felt it was on the boundary: the metaphors hold together, just. Or they just miss out on unity.

Here’s why.

At first glance the Quote is replete with all sorts of metaphorical mixing: sound-making, plant stem, bones and siren’s tail, destiny, and a toothless man.

The choices aren’t as random as they seem.

  1. In the first sentence the staircase is hinted at being alive. The stones murmur, and then presumably the stones recite and snigger (although it might also be the staircase that does so). Metaphor: being that can sing.
  2. In the second sentence, the core of the staircase is compared to a mandrake stem. The mandrake root has hallucinogenic and narcotic properties; its stem is said to resemble the shape of a human body; the plant crops up in many superstitions and mystic contexts that purport its ability to scream when plucked. Metaphor: mandrake.
  3. In the third sentence, the staircase coils itself, has bones, and forms a siren’s tail. Sirens are noted for their beautiful song, particularly in Homer’s Odyssey, where they are said to lure men. Metaphor: serpent/siren. (Sirens are usually distinguished from mermaids, the former being half-birds half-women, and the latter being half-fish half-women. However, here siren is either the same as mermaid, or alternatively, siren is used in the obsolete sense of imaginary serpent.)
  4. In the fourth sentence, the staircase is described as having a destiny that leads to betrayal. Metaphor: being that can betray.
  5. In the fifth sentence, the donjon is a toothless old man who keeps quiet.

Note the coherence:

  • 1, 2, and 3 are all related to singing. 
  • 2 and 3 are related to the structure of the staircase; 2 describes the core, 3 the winding of the stairs.
  • 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all related to betrayal: in 1, the staircase sniggers of calamities to come (betraying its intention to betray); in 2, the mandrake makes your senses betray you (by making you hallucinate); in 3, the sirens lure you then betray you; 4 is explicit; and in 5, the donjon is implied to have betrayed common decency by withholding the warning.

Note the clashing:

  • 1 contains explicit sound-making; 5 an explicit silence.
  • 2 has the core of the staircase be a mandrake stem; 3 has the stairs be a siren’s tail.
  • 2 and 3, a plant and a woman-fish, are implicitly contained in the donjon, which is a man according to 5.

To me the coherence outweighs the clashing. Specifically, when I read the Quote in context, my first thought was of the seamless merging of images. Though I did notice the merging, so it can’t have been that seamless.

I leave you with another Wittkop quote, taken from a little later in the same story. The special feature here is that Gradually begins the sentence, and Gradually describes the progressively increasing personification of each clause: from become we move to coiling we move to eating we move to loving.

Gradually, the gardens became older, sweet peas coiled their thin tendrils round the lattice of the fencing; dry and yellow already, wild oats were eating away at the banked earth between the dilapidated shacks, chestnut threes swore eternal love to the elms.

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This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.

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