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.
If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)
Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.
I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speech—still form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.
Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?
If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?
All of them?
The literary scalpel comes out.
The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.
A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.
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.
Learning the tricks of effective metaphors by analysing Martín Adán’s descriptions of “sun” in “The Cardboard House”.
How would you describe the sun?
Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.
In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.
Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.
Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.
Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.
Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.
The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:
On the elements of metafiction and Julio Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks”.
If you look in the mirror and see your reflection, you are seeing reality.
If you look in the mirror and see the back of your head, you are seeing a self-referential impossibility. You are seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence—an existence you are suddenly aware of.
Now, what if you are a fiction seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence?
Metafiction is fiction about fiction.
The proliferation of metafiction is part of humanity’s cultural progression. In the past fifty years, it’s ridden the rising wave of societal self-awareness. More recently, the language of recursive programming routines has been filtering into daily life.
Although, nothing about metafiction is new: it is an embodiment of self-consciousness in literature.
I am (aware of) me.
As far as I am concerned that sentence illustrates four tropes, one or all of which occur in any metafiction: symmetry, circularity, branching, and (questioning of) being.
Without delving into ontology or going all Chomsky on you, to make sense of I am me you need two entities that are:
distinct (if only for a moment, so that you can hold them apart in your head before identifying them),
connected (via an identification),
essential to your being (are the essence of you).
The ephemeral distinctness is the branching. The connectedness of you with you is a circular argument. The essence of you is at the heart of being.
Symmetry—in the sense of not-necessarily perfect mirroring, reflection, duality, self-splitting, identification—is both the most fundamental trope of metafiction, and it is contained in the other three:
the basic, choice-free branching is a symmetrical one,
the basic circular function is a reflection there and back,
the basic test of existence (of a degree of self-consciousness) is the mirror.
The difference between point of view (POV) and viewpoint (character), and an analysis of Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-up” that switches between first-person to third-person narratives with a fixed viewpoint.
It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.
—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)
As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.
Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.
It screams metafiction.
But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.
Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.
If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.
Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).
Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.
(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)
It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.
Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.
You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:
Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!
On Cortázar’s short story “The Faces of the Medal” written in first-person plural.
Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.
Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).
If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.
What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).
Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.
On Julio Cortázar and his short stories in “Bestiary”.
I wouldn’t confess my secret either.
I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.
—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)
If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.
When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …
For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.
Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.
E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.
Now for the comparison.
Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.
Let me spell that out:
Cortázar does not omit needless words,
Cortázar is not clear,
Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.
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—
We hear in time, but we see in space—how this affects different storytelling mediums.
There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.
Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.
Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.
It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.
Let me explain why.
In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.
But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.
Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.
So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.
Beginning the New Year with a perusal of the Merriam-Webster’s “A” section.
The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.
But that’s still thinking in generalities.
I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?
So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.
I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.
It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!
Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.
We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?
(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)
Where to look for inspiration when inventing words for your fantasy writing.
To write, you need words.
To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.
Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.
The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).
But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?
You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to inventnames forthat new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:
How does one invent?
How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)
The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.
Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.
In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).
When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.
Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.
Most people riot, then get up and leave.
However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.
On the “difficult” words in any book and what they tell us about its contents.
As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.
Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)
Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.
The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.
Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.
(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)
In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.
Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.
This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.
Nonce-words and an anthology’s worth of short story ideas based on meld-compound words from Yeats, Cummings, and Hulme.
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat
—E. E. Cummings
When I call my husband’s phrase a nonce-use, he thinks I said nonsense.
/nɒns juːs/ vs /ˈnɒns(ə)ns/
Try saying it quickly to someone who doesn’t expect it and you too are likely to get a blank look. Even the third time in three days.
Every word starts life as a neologism (a newly-coined expression). When a neologism is first uttered it is uttered for the nonce, meaning for a particular purpose or occasion. If it never gets uttered again that word becomes a nonce-word and its singular application a nonce-use.
Internet users—human and not—indulge in volumes of neologising, thereby making it less and less likely that any reasonable two-word combination is truly unique. But that doesn’t mean we’re liable to run out of options any time soon. And even if you’re not being entirely original, context nuances meaning.
In the other posts this week I’ve talked about binding two words together, either as a meld (without a gap) or as a compound (with a hyphen), to create a complex colour expression or a compressed, fresh description. The examples I quoted were meant to be interesting, but fairly reasonable and replicable in kind, if not in beauty and purpose. Now I quote the exotic.
By “exotic” I mean sufficiently interesting that taken as a title, I could write a whole short story based on it. Following each word, I offer the key phrases or sentences describing the ten-second flash-fiction that unspools in my mind.
Any commentary or association is not directly related to the original context but might be distantly affected by it, as I have read the three sources in their entirety.
fartravelled saltsea ships: Horizon, armada, modern Simbad, oceanliners to the Moon. It turns out this is a newly unearthed painting by Rob Gonsalves. (Similar to the painting on the cover of the Masters of Deception.)
lovebent fingers: Lovers, mothers, age, fronds of plants, tree branches, lifetime cycle and reuniting with Nature.
mothmirth: A swarm of drunken drones, dancing, before being sent into battle. One returns from battle, but mothmirth requires at least two.
spiderchild: Silk-weaver born into poor family, spins fortune, climbs nearby cliffs, scene with poor moonlit mooncalf. Moral: a quick climb often leads to a long drop.
singing-tired and weeping-drunk people: Wedding of a child-bride to an alien as an alliance between worlds. We’ll find out in two hundred years whether it worked.
On how to craft meaningful compound and meld words. Examples taken from W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Keri Hulme.
I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.
(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)
In my previous post, I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.
However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.
Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.
This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)
As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.
But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:
find examples you like,
expand them into whatyou think they mean,
write your own sentences of that form,
compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.
Let’s give it a go.
Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.
Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.
On crafting complex colours (meld and compound words). Examples taken from W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Keri Hulme.
Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.
Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.
Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.
Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?
Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.
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.
Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.
It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.
Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.
Quote: According to Seneca, we can pick from any library whatever books we wish to call ours; each reader, he tells us, can invent his own past. He observed that the common assumption—that our parents are not of our choosing—is in fact untrue; we have the power to select our own ancestry.
Let us leave aside textbooks, technical manuals, picture books, and the grey area of “bad writing” (everyone defines it differently); what remains is a thickly-padded centre consisting of books, fiction and non-fiction, that adults read because they want to. Because there is something enticing about delving into another person’s explicitly printed (if opaque, mysterious, multifaceted) thoughts.
Such books are friends that console and regale, give hope and dispel loneliness, but, vitally, they also illuminate and edify. When it comes to fiction, Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story synthesises various authoritative sources that describe how story affects neurobiology; in essence, we crave fiction because it is a safe environment that equips us with mental tools we can use in real life. Our brains expertly convert a made-up narrative into a convincing environment, cast us as the relevant protagonists, and take us through our paces word by word.
Reading fiction is role-play.
Or, if you prefer Einsteinian terminology, reading is an immersive thought experiment. While we’re within the pages, the thinking is done for us; when we close the covers, we can either forget what we went through, or we can ruminate on the implications, extending the story, transposing it onto our own lives.
Non-fiction also transmits tales, which may be served up well-seasoned, savoury, steamy, but usually fail at inducing the sugar-rush of fiction. History is gripping because it happened—its lessons taste of iron; philosophy is mesmerising because it requires us to step through distorting mirrors to see ourselves more clearly—a paradox; books that cross-section subjects, like Manguel’s on Libraries or Ackermann’s on Senses, are magic because they reveal the intricate strings holding swathes of our reality together—they ask why.
Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.
How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?
Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.
Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?
Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.
The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?
On how a personal library can affect its owner’s writing.
Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.
Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”
A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.
To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.
Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.
This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.
The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.
Perhaps calling the Quote an insight is a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.
There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).
Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?
Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.
Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?
Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!
Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.
Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?
Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.
It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.
One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:
Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.
Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?
Humour and quotes from Mark Fosyth’s “Etymologicon”.
The biographies of words are almost as riveting, embarrassing, profane, and lewd as those of humans—just turn to Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. The official book description is:
A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.
I would add:
Or, what happens when Humour takes Dictionary to bed and lets a writer spy on them.
Beyond that, a summary or analysis of such a book ends up being a mishmash of paraphrases and inferior humour. Instead, while I was tidying my reading notes, I marked up a number of passages that could stand on their own.
A bit on British weather:
Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do you’re lucky, because … our word sky comes from the Viking word cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather.
A primer on how to speak with grace of the lesser human urges (euphemism):
A polite, even beautiful, word for foods that make your bottom quack is carminative.
One that makes me wonder about the reading list of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
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 …
This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.
Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.
Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)
Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.
Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)
It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):
Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.
It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.
A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.
I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)
The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing.
Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.
Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.
Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.
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.
Three references to myth in scientific terminology.
LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?
For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.
I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:
The science:Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.
The myth:Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).
Analysing film and music reference in “Nature Magazine” headlines.
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.
Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.
But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).
SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London
Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.
Analysing literary allusions in titles from “Nature”.
Puns proliferate in titles. Allusions, alliteration, attention-grabbing sensationalism. Anything goes, so long as it attracts the reader to click on a link or peruse an article. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes—and especially out of context and surrounded by ten other similar examples—it’s downright silly.
It sounds like a cunning ploy by the author or editor to market a text.
And it is.
Because it works.
The next few posts will focus on the fun behind the titles of Nature Magazine. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally compiled a list of my favourites from the past nine months of their weekly editions.
If you are not a scientist, do not be alarmed—a PhD in neurobiology or astrophysics is not required. In fact, today’s post highlights the opposite: if you are a scientist reading Nature, you have to be conversant in literature or else you might miss the resonance hook when scanning the contents page.
The listed titles come from the print editions, so sometimes do not correspond exactly to the linked articles.
Reference: Edwin Abbot’s 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.It develops the idea of a two-dimensional society, Flatland, where women are lines and men are polygons. Regularity and multi-sidedness is praised (triangles are the lowest caste, near-circles the priests). The narrator is a square who dreams of both Lineland (a one-dimensional world) and Spaceland (a three-dimensional world). An intriguing read if you haven’t seen the idea before.
The Nature article is about condensed-matter physics and being able to study the phenomenon of ferromagnetism in a truly two-dimensional setting, that is, in “flatland”.
Verdict: Informative title; guessable without literary background, but helped with it.
In the 1950s, Hondouran writer Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) produced an itsy-bitsy story called The Dinosaur. He could hardly have been the first to attempt radical brevity for the sake of memorable storytelling, but his seven words seem to have captured the world’s imagination. In the era of twitterature, his story might be fun to recall and—perhaps, possibly, at a stretch, in the fullness of time—to memorise.
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.
On learning words and the section on vocabulary in Noah Lukeman’s “First Five Pages”.
Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?
(Brevity is the soul of wit.
Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.
It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.
But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.
So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.
Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.
Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.
(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)
Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.
But that shouldn’t deter us.
In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.
Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.
Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …
… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.
Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.
Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.
Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.
Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.
(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)
Analysis of dramatic arc and figures of speech used for emphasis in Borges’s short story “There are more things”.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)
With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.
Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?
—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)
A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?
In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.
However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:
figures of speech,
extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).
A guide to the symbols in Borges’s story “There are more things”.
Borges is a master forger of the complex connection. But it is only complex because the elements he brings together are sufficiently disparate that few people understand them immediately. As he himself says: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.
Therefore, to truly see the complexity of his stories, you first must understand its elements, which often come in the form of proper nouns. With one word he quotes a whole body of work.
This is the most distilled form of testimony and of context creation. Borges is known for brevity.
Today’s post is symbol and sign-guide to Borges’s eight-page story There are more things from the collection The Book of Sand (1975). Think of it as a treasure hunt, where there’s no point claiming that you’ve followed the trail until you know what most of the the names mean. Some critics label this particular story’s climax as truly spine-chilling, only to accuse Borges of wasting words beforehand. But a climax makes no sense if there is no build-up, and a build-up only makes sense if you understand its symbols. And the symbols are truly—
How the World in the Mirror appears in fiction and the surrealist story of Gisèle Prassinos.
Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.
There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.
Our imagination obliges.
Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.
Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.
Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:
You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.
A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping?
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.
A survey of some unfamiliar beast from Borges’s “Book of Imaginary Beings”.
Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.
Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.
Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …
While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.
The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.
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.
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.
Short story inspired by a quote from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.
In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.
The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.
Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).
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?
Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.
I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.
In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.
I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.
She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.
So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.
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.
This is Hamlet telling Polonius to take good care of a theatre troupe, because the acts they put on reflect and summarise the times for posterity. That was then, around the year 1600. Modern, smaller-scale chroniclers of the times (and hardly so well-regarded) are blogs. Like plays, blogs can suffer from technical difficulties, but they push on with the show and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Occasionally, the audience might notice, and the show is offered again, under better circumstances and after a brief delay.
As you may have guessed, this applies to Quiver Quotes.
In the past fortnight, I’ve had a few issues with the WordPress hosting on my blog. Some of my posts didn’t reach their readers; some readers had difficulty finding the pages or interacting with them. To fix this, WordPress rolled back my site to how it was before the problems started (which means that all the changes and posts I have made since have disappeared). As such, over the next week and a half I will be reposting four or five of the essays that encountered the biggest problems, possibly with a few small changes.
Those of you who follow me through the WordPress Reader may notice some dregs & detritus left over from the clean-up process. This too is being looked into. Please comment below if you’re having difficulties with this post or with the site.
“… 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.