Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Imploded Metaphors

Recently, I haven't updated my blog, Diary or London Bulletin as frequently as I would like to. This is due to a chronic shortage of time. The expression 'chronic shortage of time' is stolen from a letter from Alfred Wainwright to one of his fans, apologizing for not replying sooner. I am editing a volume of Wainwright Letters at the moment. When I stumbled on 'a chronic shortage of time', my red-pen finger twitched instinctively, but then I remembered that the letters have to be reproduced exactly as he wrote them.

But what is wrong with 'a chronic shortage of time'? Answer: nothing. Correcting things that are 'wrong' constitutes only one part of an editor's job. There are also the little wrinkles, dissonances and peculiarities that sometimes grab my attention. I edit non-fiction, so for a large part, I aim to make texts seem almost invisible. I pursue the phantom of 'style-free' prose, which conveys information with the transparency of glass. But there are plenty of occasions when authors, while attempting to be crystal clear, absentmindedly employ devices that backfire, and cause the reader to stop (even unconsciously) and go 'Huh?'. They break the non-fiction illusion – the textual equivalent of a visible mic boom on TV.

In one episode of Blackadder the Third, Edmund exclaims: 'Disease and deprivation stalk our land like... two giant stalking things.' In rhetorical terms, this is called an 'imploded simile', in which the thing being used as a comparison is the same as what's being compared. That's an extreme example, done for comedy. In reality, authors are far more likely to fall foul of what I call an 'imploded metaphor', in which a metaphor is applied to the same realm as the one from which it is derived. Here are some examples, some of which stray into tautology:

'She had an unbridled enthusiasm for horses.'
'The heat was on for them to create an original soup.'
'We're over the moon about NASA's successful launch.'
'In the monastery, the monks lived a cloistered existence.'
'Don't go overboard with your detailed lifejacket instructions.'
'The zoo's gorillas have begun to ape human behaviour.'

Mixing images that are conceptually indistinct from each other causes a weird dissonance. Applying metaphors can be like matching colours, and juxtaposing contrasting ideas often works better. Have fun thinking up other horrific imploded metaphors, and I will award a prize to the worst example. ('Award a prize' is pure tautology.)

What about 'a chronic shortage of time'? The word 'chronic' (from the Greek word χρόνος, meaning 'time' – hence, chronicle, chronometer, etc.) denotes a persistent condition, or one that has evolved slowly over time. What this this medical metaphor does is to describe a shortage of time in terms of a protracted stretch of time – and that's a little bit odd. Can time's length cause its own shortfall? Is this expression ugly? Not really; we understand exactly what he means. I wouldn't change it, but unintended  paradoxes like that give me a tickle of enjoyment that briefly distracts me from the point he's making. There is always a lot more going on at the surface level of a text than we normally notice.

The ideal of perfect clarity is an impossible one, of course. And it is not always desirable. For example, Charles Jencks, several of whose books I've edited, has a very distinctive way of writing. He places things in apposition that strictly ought not to be linked. That is his style, and it is worth preserving, because the surface of his text is where we want to be. It is itself a landscape of meaning, which he invites his readers to explore, and it is in the smashing together of big unwieldy metaphors that his arguments are born. I only change his words when he makes a syntactic leap too far, and the reader will be left behind, thinking 'What the...?'

In poetry, almost all the words, thanks to their skillful arrangement, will cause the reader to pause, query, squirm, groan, or be tickled, spooked, psyched or seduced. A poem's underlying 'meaning' is irrelevant compared with the play of images, meanings and associations on the surface of the text.

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