The Flavour of Personhood

Sequence of a Fata Morgana of the Farallon Islands as seen from San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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.

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The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox

Juno, Jupiter and Io by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1672).

 

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.

Quote: 
Blood still
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.

She in the Quote is 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. It follows 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.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Intoxicated flying oxen.

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Allegory meets Tolkien’s fox

annie-spratt https://unsplash.com/search/singer?photo=hzdgFPz1V24

Tailoring voices

 

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.

To get to a few interesting examples, let’s take a scenic route from Tolkien’s (fox in) Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s speech on Beowulf.

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.

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Tolkien’s Fox

nathan-anderson https://unsplash.com/search/fox?photo=7TGVEgcTKlY

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.

Just think:

  • “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?

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Startled, the Armchair

jennifer-pallian https://unsplash.com/search/candy?photo=dcPNZeSY3yk

Is the candy angry about being eaten, or is it calling out to be eaten?

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:

Here’s John Banville, in Mefisto, giving a living room description. The shutters are down; outside is a sunlit afternoon.

Quote: Sophie opened the shutters. The room greeted the sudden glare with a soundless exclamation of surprise. An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The room, the armchair as living beings.

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Scesis Onomaton Sets the Scene

kimon-maritz-183501

Here is John Banville in Mefisto describing 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.)

Quote:

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?

Effective description.

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?

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Rosebuds Bow Courteously

Roses bowing for love

Quote: The pasture pond was unruffled but had the prickly surface caused by raindrops, and it seemed bereft without geese. The sky was a gloomy grey. Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace.

A vivid few sentences by E. B. White in his essay, Eye of the Edna, from the book Essays of E. B. White. He is describing his farmyard before Hurricane Edna struck New England in 1954.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Vividness, word choice, and economy.

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