Monday, March 22, 2010

Metaphor: What is it good for?

Recently, I've read several educational surveys that indicate that art and tools of literature are passing way. Primarily, metaphor, simile, and personification. For those who enjoy writing and reading, this is certainly sad news. For those who enjoy language as logic, it is also sad news. Orators, prose writers, poets, lyricists, all can be affected by the seemingly decreasing understanding of the purpose, function, and meaning of these tropes.

A few lines of Shakespeare will reveal the power of these figures of speech. He was a master of their use - particularly personification. However, it seems modern readers are having more difficulty catching-on to lines such as "...Up from my cabin / My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark..." (Hamlet). Okay, I admit, that one is a bit of a challenge. Given we don't think of the fog on the sea that often, to be "scarf'd" in fog and darkness requires some work to figure out. But what a wondeful imae.

Mmost writers today don't work at the level of Shakespeare, and the metaphors are a touch more modern in meaning. "The clouds padded across the night sky" (A. A. Attanasio) is wonderful example of modern usage. Of course, clouds don't "pad" about. It is the image that works; the underlying meaning, the poetry of the line add to its "feeling." It transforms the clouds into something more than vapor - more than the literal.

Naturally, the weaker forms of metaphor are falling by the wayside as well. What this adds up to is a loss in the depth and pleasure of reading. While film can compensate for written metaphor by imagery, it is very different - and something that also appears lost to more and more film viewers.

At the root of all of this is the sub-textual meaning of a fiction work. Yes, fiction sometimes has such a thing, and quite often the aforementioned literary tropes build the foundation of that meaning or theme.

Recently in my novel Pallid Light: The Waking Dead, I opted to move away from the common theme of "zombies as consumers." It's a good one, but I was interested in personal and group identity. And it so happens that "zombies" are a natural fit for dealing with identity. Throughout the novel I used character reversals (for the living characters) and semi-intelligent and mindless zombies as well. I suppose, to be cliche, I was saying, "you can't judge a book by it's cover" (hopefully that still has meaning today). Convicts, tough guys, nerds, the poor and the wealthy all get a chance to appear as their stereotypes, and then attempt to reverse those stereotypes as the reader engages with the characters. Even the zombies join in the fun.

Personally, I think the novel can be read without any attention given to the sub-text, but part of the fun of reading and writing for me is exploring the sub-text, the themes. And while we do live in a consumer nation, the traditional zombie fiction theme, we also live in a world of lost identities. In fact, it seems people might even consume to find personal identity - you are what you eat and what you buy, after all.

For me the locus of the issue rests with the individual. What defines us? Work, clothing, actions, public opinion, vocabulary, education, social status? It's an endless list, and one, to me, worth investigating.

In a culture driven to achieve, to succeed, to "win," I can think of no greater disaster than the fall of the structure of society. All that remains are people without their belongings, without the former social order, without the things they strove so long to acquire to "identify" themselves. And while people can be taken at face value, in order to trust them, we as individuals must look deeper. To maker matters worse, if we all experience an identity crisis, how can we know ourselves, much less anyone else.

In the end, words, simile, metaphor, and various other approaches attempt to tell two stories in Pallid Light. One story is obvious: the end of the world. But at every turn, fast on the heels of the apocalypse are character questioning who they are and what they are.

I mention all of this not because I want people to read the sub-text of Pallid Light. Rather, I can speak on the novel with some authority as I wrote the book. My real goal is to convince some readers to give more thought to any author's selection or words, phrases, comparisons. It is a part of what makes written fiction so wonderful. Sometimes a word is just a word. But other times, we catch ourselves asking, "What did you mean by that?" To return to Hamlet, his utterance of "Get thee to a nunnery" has been the topic of countless debates over the centuries. Most of us today know what a nunnery is - but in Shakespeare's day, it also could mean a "whore house." He said this to Ophelia, shortly after uttering, "I did love you ... but I don't love you." The meaning of his words depends upon whether Ophelia thought Hamlet was speaking in metaphor or literary... or maybe both. Either way, there's something rotten in the State of Denmark.


Dave Richardson said...

I agree, let's hope that figurative language and metaphor don't decline. A quality metaphor can concisely communicate so much more that simplistic, boring waffle. Fortunately, metaphors are deeply rooted in the fabric of our language and so aren't going away. It is not only writers and journalists who use metaphors, but when you analyse the content of comedians, it is often the unexpected analogy that gets the laugh; the punchline is a metaphor.
For hundreds of examples check out:

Anonymous said...

The decline of the art and tools of literature is doubleplusungood.

Or, perhaps this development should be embraced: No longer can quasi- and pseudo-intellectuals use words to elevate their proclamations from the common gutter trash that surrounds them. We can all begin again in equality and solidarity. Viva pedestrian prose!

(I am trying to emulate something Rick would say, but I think I will just wait for his comment instead.)

Steve Buchheit said...

They're circling the drain of the modern conscious which is like Short Attention Span Theater writ large.

Personally, I think it all has to do with the kids saying "like" to things that really weren't alike at all.

Well, at least irony will have company in the literary graveyard now.

Rick said...

Pedestrian prose... I kind of like that, Jeff. It really illustrates the concept that too much figurative language and thought provoking metaphors slow down written work. The world of new ideas and worldviews races by the crosswalks of today's fiction, waiting for the literary community's walk or don't walk signs of approval. After all, the modern reader could get hurt by stepping out into the traffic of intellectual life unless they are properly armed with the approval of literary critism. Why, we might get run over.

I prefer the idea of rebellious readers who are tired of digging through over-worked themes to find only rusted-out metaphors instead of story treasures. They're no longer impressed by tweed-jacketed pipe smoking intellectuals telling them what they should consider great. That's what Oprah is for, after all.

And a recent Twitter feed (what higher authority can you ask for?) explained that modern readers don't learn well from metaphors and that they in fact usually skip over them or just blank them out.

Modern writers use them to gratify themselves more than elevate their readers. We use them because we're told that it ups the level of our writing. But it takes a really good writer to use them to the reader's advantage. That's the hard truth.

In simple language, since the readers don't have much use for them, why are we putting them in? So that we feel more "literate," or because they enhance the reader's experience?

Having read "Pallid Light," I can say that the themes, metaphors and such work well in it, but for the majority of modern works I have read, the authors might have done better to concentrate on the story more than the literary elements.

But I agree with Dave- they do work well in comedy.

Stewart Sternberg said...

It is possible to have metaphors and symbols work for you at a subtle and even subliminal level. I think the zombies are representative of the inevitability of death, at least for me, and as the corpse is reanimated, that which once inhabited it no longer has control.

I agree with the importance of theme and subtext, and that one shouldn't necessarily have to rely on an understanding of or an appreciation of the subtext to appreciate the core tale.

I read Pallid Light and thought how different it was to another work...Rudolph Pearson. Forgive me if I misspell. Pearson had a strong subtext regarding class stratification and attitudes regarding stereotypes according to class and culture. However, while Pearson is the most clever from a thematic perspective, the more compelling read is "Pallid Light"

William Jones said...

Dave - You're correct, those figures of speech are a part of our daily language. However, some feel that they are often just filler - meaningless to the users. Obviously it isn't true for everyone, but it seems to be the case for a growing number of people.

Jeff - Good point! :) Although I am fond of big, important, confusing words. They can be used as verbal shotguns. Stun a potential mugger or would-be robber.

And you are right, often a part of the academic speech is "performance." Without it, "showing off" is sometimes very difficult. :) (Good job with the Rick impression).

Steve - Great opening paragraph! I think you're onto something with the use of "like," or the misuse of "like." I've had countless students explaining something, and then suddenly, "I was like... happy, you know?" My response was usually: Were you happy? Or were you LIKE happy - which brings a different image to mind completely.

Rick - Hmmm, where to begin. Ah, I won't. I'll just jump to the use of figurative language in fiction. You're correct, if it gets in the way of the story, then it should be stopped. For me, the point behind the theme and subtext is that well, they are subtext. Once they become obviously, the game is up. And while I've yet to post about it (imagine that), most every work has a subtext, even when the author intends for it not to have one. Such is the way of human culture and the mind.

Stewart - Obviously I agree with your insights on metaphor and symbols. And you're quite right about Pearson (you spelled it correctly, BTW). In fact, I selected his name because he could "see" (peer) into a part of the world others didn't see. And for any work set in the 1920s/30s, social stratification almost has to be the theme. After all, there was no middle class during this period. The U.S. was pretty much the wealthy and the poor, and the poor were considered useless (actually mentally deficient because they weren't rich). I personally think Cinderella Man did a great job of working this theme directly into the story line.

As for Pallid Light, I think it could be argued that social stratification is there, but not economically. Rather, it is by social position - criminal, police, established citizen, local thug, etc.

Although, what I really wanted to get at was how we determine our own identities: Occupation? Criminal record? Lack of occupation? Education? Family connections or lack of connections, and so on. For me, personal identity is very interested because so many people define themselves by why society tells them, when actually, the only true identity can come from the individual. In our world, this is an ongoing battle. Film, fiction, television all show us images of who we should be and who we are. Yet, it is a unidirectional medium, so who we ACTUALLY are makes no difference when we are told.

Oh, I can keep going on about this. In the end, we have in turns out there are identity-zombies walking among us. :)