Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?
Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.
Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading “Hazelnuts in the Chocolate Text”
On the rhetorical figure asyndeton, and how Roland Barthes uses the word metaphorically in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.
It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.
These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).
The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …
—John 10:27–28, KJV
The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:
The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).
Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.
Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.
You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.
That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka.
He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.
“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other). Continue reading “Quiet of the Now”
Albert Camus on Kafka and the absurd, taken from “Myth of Sisyphus”.
Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.
You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.
The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).
The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.
The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.
The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.
Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”
Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.
Anne Carson on Kafka’s short story “The Top” (taken from the preface of her book “Eros the Bittersweet”).
There goes a philosopher running after a children’s top. His glee! His ardour! Look how the top spins and wriggles away from him. Now he’s caught it—it’s stopped spinning—he’s inspecting it, grimacing, disgusted, and throwing it to the ground in disappointment.
Oh look another top!
Off he runs after the toy as enthusiastically as after the first. Now he’s caught it, he’s inspecting it…
This inveterate optimist is of Kafka’s imagining (from his short text The Top), and his behaviour is justified: For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. This character is more allegorical placeholder than philosopher.
A well written commentary intended for a general audience doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the primary source beforehand. However, if upon enjoying the commentary you decide to go and make yourself familiar with said primary source—all the better! The four authors above reignited my interest in Kafka, and perhaps they will do the same for you. Continue reading “Running After Tops”
On mixing metaphors in a quote from Gabrielle Wittkop’s “Exemplary Departures”.
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.
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 shiftedare 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 capacitytower, 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.
On paralipsis, the ironic process, and the combination of both in “Never Imagine” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Contrary, are you?
Most likely, yes. Brains like to disobey negative orders: don’t think about that stressful meeting tomorrow (you will), don’t worry about that mosquito bite (it’ll prompt start itching), don’t ruminate on all the goals you have failed to achieve recently (a list will promptly appear).
The inability to deliberately shake off a thought through negative command is called Dostoyevski’s white bear problem or the ironic process.
Writing can harness this process to magnify the impressions left by (disconcerting) images. This is another reason why word associations are hard to dispel; in Dangerous Associations the pairing of baby and knife was disturbing because the mind connected the two words via cutting, but also because the image stuck and telling yourself not to think about applying knife to baby may have lead to a mental deepening of the scenario rather than its dispersion.
(When faced with gloom, it’s worth trying to direct the ironic process towards a positive purpose by trying really hard not to think about, for example, cuddly white teddybears.)
Like with other unbalancing acts, the more stressed you are the more distress persistent, unshakable negative thoughts can cause you. Which is why reading emotionally challenging books during a difficult period at work, for example, can affect you more than reading them during your vacation. Continue reading “I’m Not Telling You What I’m Telling You”
On Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”, and reverse personification in “Like the Sea” as a way of exploring interactions with the world.
Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.
That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.
Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds,is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.
Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.
Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts. A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.
It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.
It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.
With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:
As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.
Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.
I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)
Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:
The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.
If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.
But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.
Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.
The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).
The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).
Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.
In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.
Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.
Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.
The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:
Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.
This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.
(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)
Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.
Template extracted from a quote of Martín Adán’s found in “Cardboard House”.
What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.
In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Here life (or time) is a river—a common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.
On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):
What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.
(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)
Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.
In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote ofabout life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)
On why personification of objects matters, and an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.
Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.
Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.
(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)
Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.
On personifying animals in myth, and an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?
Hold that thought.
Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?
Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)
I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.
Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:
In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.
On personifying shoes, an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.
They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.
They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.
They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.
Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.
They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.
Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.
Learning the tricks of effective metaphors by analysing Martín Adán’s descriptions of “sky” in “The Cardboard House”.
Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.
Sky from Old Norse for cloud.
Welkin from the German for cloud.
The empyrean from the Greek for fire.
Firmament from the Latin for firm.
Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.
Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.
Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.
Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:
Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
Negate the target.
I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.
Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.
Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.
Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.
No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.
Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):
In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.
How would you answer?
Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.
To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?
To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!—that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.
A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.
— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—
In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.
Start from the beginning.
Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.
On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.
Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.
How we think about intent, also quotes from John Banville, Anthony Powell, Oscar Wilde.
Intent is the birthday present you will buy, the New Year’s resolution you will make, the vacation you will take in the summer of 2018. Intent is the brilliant child of the future, yet whenever something goes wrong—and it does so frequently—we point at the negation of our intent as the devil and the dark excuse of the far past: I hadn’t intended to hurt you, I hadn’t intended to be a bad person. No one intends to be a “bad person”.
In terms of type:
There’s grandintent—that requires thought, preparation, effort, time, and that is usually well-justified within our internal system of values.
There’s habitual intent—that requires only repeating circumstances and that once well-justified is rarely reexamined.
Then, there’s muddling through.
Habit is the mainstay of life, whilst grand intentions are rare (those well-thought out and actionable, even rarer). Which leaves muddling: these are the chance encounters, the unplanned stops, the out-of-stock labels on your favourite items; this is when you forgot a change of clothes or your wedding ring. Whenever Murphy’s law strikes, we muddle. Depending on what comes of it, we ruminate on what was intended—few people will admit to have been guided purely by circumstances, chance, or biology (unless they’re determinism diehards), but will instead claim step-by-step determination.
The vice of aschematison (plain, non-metaphorical language) in titles.
Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.
But that, too, is a vice.
Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.
In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.
The last batch of my Nature Magazineheadlines falls into this category. See what you think.
On mistakes in writing and speech, modern and ancient.
Where virtues live, live vices.
Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.
Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:
Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)
I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.
Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.
According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).
However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …
On personification in titles of “Nature Magazine”.
To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.
For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.
Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.
Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.
On the workings of puns, with examples from “Nature Magazine” headlines.
The humble pun.
What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?
The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.
Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.
I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan for the money
Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.
On setting down those first words, and on Augusto Monterroso’s story “Leopoldo (His Labors)”.
If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.
Oh, but the writer’s block!
Oh, but I’m not ready!
Oh, but …
I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll.
When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.
The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?
Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.
Quote:He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”
—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
Looking for metaphors in Leonora Carrington’s short stories (and division of utterances according to John R. Searle). On surrealism.
Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …
Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).
Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.
Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?
I’m not trying to be off-putting.
Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.
You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.
I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.
(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)
According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.
Quotes from Bruno Schulz and Anne Carson on sleep and waking.
Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplaneand The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.
Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.
He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.
Digging up details and quirks starting from a quote by Borges.
That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.
Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.
Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones.The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)
My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:
Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…
A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.
On why Anne Carson’s quote “Perfection is round” is special.
Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.
Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.
Let’s start with the verb.
Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.
Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.
How Anne Carson employs examples of Time to describe other human afflictions in “Red Doc>”.
Time is a lot of things. It’s precious, it’s money, it’s irreversible. It measures change and is defined by change. And, as I was proud of deducing early on (when I still thought of the world as consisting of either-or pieces), time is easy to measure: you’ve got an eternity ahead of you, until you have not a moment more.
The second is a quibble, a bridge between the two extremes, as is the third. (Time is finicky)
The fourth introduces a new theme of gazing, as we’d gaze from a car in passing. (Time is aloof)
The fifth denies the gaze. (Time is blind to our differences)
But that’s just the beginning. This chapter is fifty-one lines long, and she goes on to give another twenty-four instances of Time, most of which follow this pattern of starting a sentence with the same word—an example of the figure of speech called anaphora.
What makes the chapter special beyond the hammering of a repetitive element, however, is how Carson employs examples of Time to describe other human afflictions.
I’ve chosen to showcase some of her best ones (I quote her lines verbatim in italics, but I’ve left out the formatting). My interpretation is in square brackets.
On Io, the beautiful musk-ox, in Anne Carson’s verse-novel “Red Doc>”.
Io is a golden-eyed, white-haired, much-beloved musk-ox of Anne Carson’s protagonist, G, in her 2013 verse-novel Red Doc>.
How to unpack such a sentence? Try.
If you had a slightly vertiginous, confusing, yet ultimately not unsatisfactory experience figuring out three compound adjectives and two compound nouns, as well as, that Anne Carson is a poet, G is the name of (presumably) a person, Io is the name of a musk-ox, and that an angle bracket at the end of a book title is not an impossible concept … Excellent! You now have an inkling what it’s like to read Carson’s verse in general.
Of course, she does it better, and for longer, and without resorting to hyphens at every turn to compactify her images.
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.
She in the Quoteis Io the musk-ox.
I already wrote about Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), which is also a verse-novel, albeit of different appearance and feel. Itfollows the childhood and early years of Geryon, a boy with red wings; it is written in free verse, alternating visually between long and short lines on the page, and it reads like a dense, lyrical, unconventional novel—like a novelisation of poetry.
Red Doc>, published fifteen years later, returns to follow a middle-aged Geryon, now referred to as G. It’s a connected sequence of free verse poems contained within two-inch columns, justified on both sides, and it unfurls down the middle of the page like the chatters marks of a glacier or like the clusters of aa lava.
Speaking of which: glaciers and lava, flying red-winged monsters and oxen, love and army, hospitals and Ancient Greece—expect to find them all within the pages of Red Doc>. Bizarre can be beautiful, and meaningful. Carson ensures it.
On paradox, oxymoron, and synœciosis in Stefan Zweig’s “Chess”.
Let’s talk about chess.
Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.
Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.
Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.
That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly andcome up each time with a new pearl.
What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?
On hendiadys, Hernández, and heat in Latin American prose.
Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.
Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.
Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.
To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.
But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.
The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.
But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.
To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.
She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.
What makes the (first) Quote quiver?
The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.
On first person point of view, the Rashomon effect, and refutation in Niel Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples”.
A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.
Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.
Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.
Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.
A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.
The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.
Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.
In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.
But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?
Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.
That was so 19th century.
Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994.His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)
Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.
“… to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.”—Alberto Manguel
Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.
The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.
Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.
She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.
Creating personas to prove a point in non-fiction. Quote from Tolkien’s speech “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”.
To illustrate a point you can relate an anecdote (it happened to me) or quote from a source (it happened to others, elsewhere, possibly in a book)—that’s called using testimony as a form of argument. But what if you need something tailor-made for the occasion of your argument? Well, then you fire-up your imagination and your Singer model 2.E (E for English) and fabricate your own testimony.
Yes, you call upon a fictional person, or indeed, you personify whomever you need—that’s the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia.
As I hinted in my previous post on Tolkien’s fox, prosopopoeia isn’t limited to fictional characters, on the contrary, it can come to your aid in everyday conversation (If he were here he’d tell you [insert convenient pseudo-quote]), and even more so in carefully-crafted arguments.
Before he became the celebrated author behind the modern Lord of the Rings franchise, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a philologist with a penchant for developing imaginary languages. Indeed, he says in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman how “I have been at it since I could write” and how “behind my stories is now a nexus of languages”. That storytelling, nay, world-building can spring from such a low-level linguistic basis—language first, world later—fascinates me.
But perhaps it shouldn’t: in a lot of ways it’s one of the most logical places to start if you want a complex world which is self-consistent and complete. Because, ultimately, world-building is about cohesion on a grand scale.
Personification, creating characters in fiction, and the fox in “Lord of the Rings”.
Humans are anthropocentric. By extension, so are our creative efforts, like writing.
I use anthropocentric to mean caring about what happens to man or man-like presence, fictive or real,more than caring about anything else. It’s the reason why personification in writing—a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics—is such a powerful imagination catalyst. Take the following three sentence:
The car was enclosed in fog.
Two rosebuds were bent towards each other on the terrace.
An armchair was tilted backwards.
Boring? Now take the way three authors decided to “bring them to life” using various degrees of personification (from weakest to strongest):
Carson gives fog a fist, White turns rosebuds into courtiers, Banville imbues the armchair with nuanced human feelings. The next step up would be a full-blown image, for example, Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton. But each of these is a mere eidolon, a spectre of personification, a teaser that enlivens the writing but stays safely in the realm of the non-human. To elevate an eidolon you need to give it the one thing that defines us: you need to make it speak like a human.
“Ha, ha, ha I’ve got the car in my fist,” said the fog.
“My Lord,” said the rosebud, bowing. “My Lady,” said the other, bowing back.
“Wow,” thought the armchair, “humans, long time no see. I shouldn’t have passed wind just now. Whoops.”
The difference is vast.
Uttering or thinking what we perceive as human speech means passing the literary Turing test of personification. The thing that is being made to speak isn’t necessarily human, not even fictionally so, but it’s so darn close you’d take it with you to a deserted island and consider it company.
Which brings us to Tolkien’s fox.
Here is J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring(the first book of the Lord of Rings trilogy), using his power as a third-person omniscient narrator to saunter into the head of a fox. For those unfamiliar with his world: short, human-like beings called hobbits live in a woody, hilly green-grasses-of-England type of place called the Shire; Frodo and his friends are hobbits.
Quote:They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
‘Hobbits!’ He thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
And that’s it: no more mention of the fox. So why bother?
On writing as translation from thought-speak to human-speak, and on the equivalence of meaning.
All novels are translations, even in their original languages.
— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?
What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.
Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.
This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?
For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.
You probably disagree, and that’s alright.
Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.
Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.
Approximations are all we have time for in this life.
Let me try to explain what these words have in common.
So far on this blog I’ve discussed quotes from two books about fictional murderers awaiting justice, Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger (1942)and John Banville’s Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989). Today’s Quote is from a third: Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel(1948, translation from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). His protagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, a successful painter. A woman visits Castel’s exhibition and is drawn to one of his paintings; he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. Disaster ensues.
Quote: I returned home with a feeling of absolute loneliness.
Usually that feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian.
On synonymia in general, and in a quote from Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”.
When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?
A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.
Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.
But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?
The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet, … A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1
Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?
Quote: There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.
On how patterns of parenthesis determine writing style; quote from Banville’s “The Book of Evidence”.
… would be impossible.
Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).
The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.
Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)
The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.
Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.
Ekphrasis in “The Book of Evidence” by John Banville.
Who is she?
Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.
Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence, a fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.
Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?
On circumlocution. Example from science journalism: Nature Magazine.
Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.
Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.
Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?
What makes the Quote quiver?
A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.
On De Quincey’s narrative style in his book “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”.
How much do you know about opium?
Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.
What about its “classical” forms?
Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.
(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)
The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.
Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.
De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.
The problem with the Quoteis that classical readers are rare in modern times.
What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?
It is entirely plausible that some people have not heard of Apple, so let me just say that Apple Inc. is a forty-one-year-old technology company from California that designs computers, tablets, phones, and that names them MacBooks, iPads, iPhones. Theirs is the logo that looks like Snow White had a go at it.
Today’s Quote is Apple’s tagline for their upcoming operating system, iOS 11.
A giant step for iPhone.
A monumental leap for iPad.
A bit familiar, a bit grand, a bit silly. Let’s see why.
You probably know it as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I know it as T-shirt slogan and the vision of the credits from the James Bond film, GoldenEye, with Tina Turner singing the soundtrack in the background (speaking of farfetched memory and meaning overlay).
In More Mileage for Your Metaphorical Money, I gave a few clichés a new polish. Today, I look at Anne Carson‘s version of what is to be found in the eye of the beholder; her Quote isn’t as snazzy, but in some grotesque way it is memorable. Towards the end of Autobiography of Redthe protagonist, Geyron, attends a meal where guinea pigs are served … as food. He does not eat the poor cooked beast on his plate (it’s a she, we’re told). Geyron and his friends get up to leave.
Quote: In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig / they all stand reflected / pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties.
Where the metaphorical seas lap the literal sands of language, idioms are born. Some of them are then picked up, like pebbles, to be tossed around, transmitting meaning and merriment. Some get dropped, others get so smoothed out by time, tongues, and tortuous trajectories, that they’re labeled clichés.
Does that mean that a cliché is linguistically dead in the water and beyond the pale? That everyone is sick and tired of it? That you run the risk of boring someone stiff if you use it? Not necessarily. There are ways and means. Let’s see a demonstration (emphasis is mine).
Quote: Stories without [an implicit framework] go unread; stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.
It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.
There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.
A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.
Imagine you’re reading about two people having an awkward night-time conversation. One of them says: this isn’t a question it’s an accusation. You then read:
Quote: Something black and heavy dropped between them like a smell of velvet.
My first thoughts: Fine line, weird line, I’m not sure I understand it, but I do actually, it’s neat, it passes.
What are your thoughts?
The Quote is from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), a mesmerising, modern re-creation of an Ancient Greek myth as a coming-of-age story featuring a red-winged boy called Geryon. Its form is unusual; its content, unforgettable.
An example of a typical verse novel, according to Wikipedia, would be Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is mostly written in the iambic tetrameter of Onegin stanzas that follow the rhyming scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, with the lower-upper case letters designating feminine-masculine endings. A restrictive form.
I recently reread Onegin, and the experience is nothing like that of reading the Autobiography of Red. Carson follows no rhyme or stanza scheme, no obvious metre; typographically, her lines alternate regularly between long and short lines. Whereas Onegin is written in corseted language of colloquial register, Autobiography of Red is written in loosely structured narrative verse while balancing poetic metaphor and plainly stated fact.
You’ll have a chance to see what I mean over the next few posts. But today’s poser is: What is black and heavy and can drop like a smell of velvet?
Words, power, and the Devil in Goethe’s “Faust”, pitted against Manguel’s “The Library of Night”.
Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).
Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.
Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)
MEPHISTO. I’ve always found that you can fox
A wise man or a fool with paradox.
It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560 And every age has tried time and again
To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
By making three of one and one of three.
And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555 Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
And so starts Charles Williams‘s War in Heaven. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a Grail quest. It’s a very British take on … ? Whatever it is, its beginning had me gripped—for about ten pages. The opening line isn’t today’s Quote, although, it has merit: there’s the urgency (the wildly ringing telephone), a conflict and contrast (but without results), and the kicker in the most emphatic position of a sentence (but the corpse).
Moving on. A character called Kennet Mornington is caught in a drizzle as he exits the train station. He takes refuge under a shed.
“Oh, damn and blast!” [Kenneth] cried with a great voice. “Why was this bloody world created?”
“As a sewer for the stars,” a voice in front of him said. “Alternatively, to know God and to glorify Him for ever.”
Kenneth peered into the shed, and found that there was sitting on a heap of stones at the back a young man of about his own age, with a lean, long face, and a blob of white on his knee which turned out in a few minutes to be a writing pad.
“Quite,” Kenneth said. “The two answers are not, of course, necessarily alternative. They might be con-con consanguineous? contemporaneous? consubstantial? What is the word I want?”
“Contemptible, concomitant, conditional, consequential, congruous, connectible, concupiscent, contaminable, considerable,” the stranger offered him. “The last is, I admit, weak.”
“The question was considerable,” Kenneth answered.
Personification in John Banville’s “Mefisto”, and other examples.
We, humans, see human-like activity everywhere and it makes life all the more agreeable.
Be it the solution that jumped out at you, the chocolate ice-cream that calls your name every time you pass the fridge, or the red spots that dance on your eyelids if you close your eyes after staring at the sun. And those are just the terms that have crept into everyday language. Of course, there are also the poetic varieties, like:
Humour is one of those things that you recognise about the time it makes you smile. Most people would rather enjoy it than figure out its rhetorical secrets. But there’s good reason to make an effort: not everyone is born a humorist, and I believe that those of us left without the gift can still learn to throw a joke, the way even the worst apprentice learns to throw a pot—it may be a laughing stock, but it’ll hold water.
Don’t let the first line of the Quote throw you.
Quote: Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts, with his moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”
“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once. His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me. I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”
It’s humour this week, and today I’m featuring one last Quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (for a while, at least).
If you read my previous post, Stained-Glass Romance, or indeed any of last week’s posts about Marlowe’s adventures, you’ll have a context for the Quote, and it’ll mean something if I say the client speaking is General Sternwood, whose front door accommodates Indian elephants and whose stained-glass windows feature clumsy, sociable knights attempting to untie scantily clad damsels bound to trees.
On quoins that make Raymond Chandler’s prose humorous. (Quoins are what I call quirks in the text.)
Raymond Chandler’sThe Big Sleepsets the standard for humour against which I measure other similar hard-boiled detective novels. In the second paragraph of the book, Chandler uses a number of figures to achieve his signature deadpan style. His private detective and first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, is visiting a wealthy client, Mr Sternwood. Marlowe describes the place.
Quote: The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Whilst the genre was already replete with humour before he started writing, Chandler managed to give Marlowe imaginative, literary metaphors and an eye for the amusing, making him both a pulp-fiction hero and poet of droll wit. Metaphors I discussed last week; this week is about humour.
(By the way, droll, the adjective, can be thought of as anauto-antonym, or Janus-word, meaning both intentionally and unintentionally amusingin a quirky, queer way.)
On Raymond Chandler’s “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”, and why it works.
Quote: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
This is one of Raymond Chandler‘s most famous quotes. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep you may think it comes as a closing line of a grand argument or as a poignant reminder of life’s tragedies during a display of heightened emotional turmoil. You may think it, but er … I guess I shouldn’t tell you. It is at least true that the protagonist says it and not some minor character or the antagonist (e.g. in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles gets some of the best lines).
Hard-boiled detectives in general, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in particular, are descendants of the nineteenth century romantic heroes—think Goethe’s Young Werther who got it all started, Dumas’s Dantès, Pushkin’s Onegin—those self-destructive, misunderstood, lonely souls that pursue justice or a higher truth on society’s margins. So it is to be expected that Marlowe should contribute to this romantic tradition with a statement about love, death, and the thing that causes both and lies in the middle: life.
Chiasmus: ivory, white, and the dynamics of description in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”. Recipe included: how to build your own chiasmus.
The American hard-boiled crime genre of the mid-twentieth century threw up at least three models for the private detective: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Of those, only in Marlowe do I find an unabashed ear for the poetic and the elegantly humorous. And only in Chandler’s writing an unapologetic use of rhetorical figures to achieve both ends.
Quote: The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.
On how to give a protagonist attitude: Raymond Chandler writes it into Marlowe’s interior monologue at the beginning of “The Big Sleep”.
If the back-cover blurb is a book’s CV, then the opening lines of a book are the opening lines of its job interview. Whether the book stays with you is likely to depend on your first impression.
Exceptions abound, as exceptions do—but not in today’s Quote.
The opening sentence of Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep (the book that introduces his protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe), concerns the time of day, the month, and the weather.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
We cut him some slack, because it was 1939, and you were still allowed to start a page-turning crime novel with the weather and skip the action for a whole 140+4 characters; even today’s readers can get as far as the length of a tweet and still be interested in the text that’s on the accompanying picture. (Also, according to The Guardian, that first line could have been one of Fitzgerald’s, so that’s alright.) The next few sentences of The Big Sleep are given in the Quote.
Quote: I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Most good books will start touting their wares as soon as possible, if not in the first line and not in an obvious fashion, then soon and subtly. Which part of the Quote caught your attention?
Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quote, as it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.
John Banville in “Mefisto” describes a scene without verbs, masterfully. E. B. White would have had something to add to that.
Here is John Banville in Mefistodescribing a hospital setting. Read the Quote, then see if you can count the conjunctions and main verbs in each sentence—it’s easy, very easy. (Answer below.)
Sighs, groans. Shouts in the night. An old man puking up gouts of green stuff, leaning over the side of the bed, a young nurse holding his forehead. Slow, wet, coughs, like the noise of defective suction pumps ponderously labouring. In the huge, white-tiled bathrooms, little labels exhorting patients not to spit in the handbasins. Everywhere the same thick cream paint, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin. I wore a mouse-colour dressing-gown with faded red piping.
What makes the Quote quiver?
This may not be the most pleasant scene to paint, but it is well-painted. A lot of figures went into making it flow smoothly, but one particular figure is at the core: scesis onomaton, which means the relation of words, and it has something to do with verbs. How many verbs did you count in the Quote?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeby Mark Haddon is a curious book indeed. It is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher who is good at mathematics, likes red things, but not brown, and has a photographic memory. However, he does not understand human emotions and can relate to other people only intellectually.
Christopher has Asperger Syndrome.
The book is insightful and well-written. I spent most of the time marvelling at a mind that could function just so.
Today’s Quote from The Curious Incident illustrates how an important and basic figure of speech can be employed to achieve a flow-of-experience impression.
(Ready Brek, Coco-Pops, and Shreddies are cereals, Dr Pepper is a carbonated soft drink—that’s for all of you, who like me, need to look up these things.)
Quote: For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco-Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on the top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all the things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang onto the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
Did you spot any metaphors? No? That’s because Christopher struggles with metaphors and hypotheticals and lies in general (although he did manage a simile). A little way down from the Quote he says as much.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Of course, the irony is that The Curious Incident is fiction, and not the diary of a real person. (But given that Christopher’s character is build around his inability to lie, it feels sneaky realising his statement can’t be true. Then you get into whether fiction is real, and if it is, in which way, and … you might get a headache thinking about it and hit a few paradoxes.)
What makes the Quote quiver?
Narrating unconnected thoughts and experiences sequentially without pause and punctuation, thereby creating the illusion of connectedness.