Sunday, July 17, 2011

More metaphor

 In the comments, we were talking about metaphor, and I thought I'd try to come up with some examples of larger central metaphors in fiction.  Mirror is a good one. I'm in a poetry reading group, and one of the groupmembers (hi, Dottie!) was a Spanish teacher and brings us Latin American poetry. (Poetry is great for studying metaphor-- if there's no central/thematic metaphor, I would say there's no poetry.) Dottie mentioned that "mirror" is frequently used as a metaphor in LA poetry. Why? Well, we can speculate. What does a mirror mean? It presents a likeness, but not a true image (reversed). And Latin America is (probably more than North America) interested in how it "mirrors" Iberian Europe. So "mirror" is a way the poets there create the subtext of the -- we thought-- distorted identity that comes from colonization.

Metaphor is the process, but not the product. We don't want metaphor just to be poetic, but to lead the reader to a deeper truth, maybe the theme, maybe the subtext.

Here's a "mirror" metaphor in a novel-- China Mieville's novel The City and the City.  This is kind of a near-future urban fantasy that takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe.  I don't think there's any mention of a near-century of Soviet occupation -- this is an alternate Eastern Europe. But no European could ignore the historical subtext of setting a novel in Eastern Europe-- it means the iron grip of the Iron Curtain, and a sudden freedom. (I have an in-law who was born in Soviet Bulgaria, where no one was allowed to leave-- now she's in the UK, living and working there freely as an EU citizen, and British tourists fly cheaply to the Bulgarian beaches for holiday... and all this transformation came about in 20 years.)

Anyway, though Mieville doesn't refer to the Soviets (as the film Casablanca never refers to Pearl Harbor), the reader will doubtless have that in mind while reading. (That's the cultural/historical subtext.)  "Mirror" is the metaphor here, as you can tell by the cover-- the two cities are mirrors of each other, each occupying almost the same geography, but they're sort of in different dimensions mentally (that's the way I had to think of it to understand). The citizens of each city are supposed to "unsee" each other and the other city. A murder investigation forces them into more contact, and the police investigator must travel from one to the other and back, "seeing" what usually can't (legally) be seen. The one city ("his" city) is decrepit, grim (pretty clearly a Soviet-era city), and the "unseen" city is colorful and vivid-- interestingly post-Soviet and/or what cities like Prague and Budapest used to be (so both modern and ancient).  While it's never stated out (metaphor shouldn't be explained, though that's what I'm doing :), this is the conundrum of the post-Soviet Eastern European capitals and citizens. They have to remember ("as if through a glass darkly") the Soviet days (the
Beszel city) while living in the European city (Ul Qoma). (Perhaps the best real-life parallel, though farther north and west, is Berlin.)

So there's the mirror, and the subtextual reference to the recent transformation in Eastern Europe. However, there's another mirror, which is Mieville's mirroring of the hard-boiled detective novel (like Hammett's) within a sort of literary urban fantasy.

The book reviews mention Borges (one of the Latin American writers most obsessed with the mirror metaphor) and A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), which was the other example of "mirror as thematic metaphor" I was planning to use! :)  Remember the famous "mirror-image" opening:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, 

 That sets up quickly the metaphor of  "different, but alike," which is carried through to the near-identical appearing young men Charles Dornay (aka the Big Drip :), and Sydney Carton (sigh-- I loves me some bad boy).  Several times Dickens uses an actual physical mirror to emphasize that seeming sameness, while the two men (both in love with the same woman, of course) are in so many ways different (one honorable, one dis, etc.), a difference that would not be so striking except they look so much alike. (Identical twin and lookalike stories partake of the mirror metaphor, btw-- emphasizing the difference by stressing the similarity).  In the end (I hope this isn't a spoiler ), Sydney makes use of the "mirror imageability" to substitute himself for Charles and go to the guillotine in his place. (This is really a great book.) Dickens makes use of the mirror even in his sentence structure, and uses a "mirror-sentence" as the final line to mirror the opening balanced sentence. The book ends: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Now what's the cultural subtext of the mirror metaphor there?  I think it was the mirror between hope and reality. The hope of the revolution was that a European city would become a haven of freedom and democracy, but the reality was that one form of tyranny gave way to another (another mirror!).  Paris ended up no more free than London.  Reality bore a resemblance to the hope, but only so far, and in the end, we realize the reversed image in that the revolutionaries become the tyrants they overthrew. But Sydney, in sacrificing and redeeming himself, gave hope even in death of some future of compassion and love.

As I said, most "identical twin" books spin off of that "mirror image" metaphor, including a far lesser book by Twain (The Prince and the Pauper)-- btw, "Twain" is in itself a mirror metaphor!  What are some other metaphors that represent something deeper?  (Freud is helpful here. :)  For example, I've always been fascinated with a related metaphor, the mistaken identity one, which I think connects (depending on who is doing the mistaking) stories about amnesia victims (they don't know their own identity), undercover cops (deceiving others about their identity), and hidden pasts (the present identity hides the past identity).

Notice that these metaphor transcend genre-- you'll find the "sort-of twin" in science fiction (Ivan and Miles in Bujold's books), in film melodrama ("Manhattan Melodrama"), in romance (a bunch-- this is popular, twins taking each other's places)....  The popularity of the metaphor hints to me that this relates to some universal psychic issue, something about identity, about how we know who we are, about how we can be unique when we're so much like everyone else.

I always find it easier to discuss this in poetry, but it's there in fiction, and not just in the language.
Metaphor isn't the deeper meaning, but it takes us TO the deeper meaning.

Okay, here's a metaphor embedded in the FORM of a poem (the sonnet).  (As Mieville makes use of the "form" of a police procedural, we can probably think of ways to do this in fiction. Examples? Calvino does this, I think, in If on a winter's night a traveler.  Not police procedural, but the mirror-mirror story development, a reader reads a book called that, within a book called that, much like a self-portrait of a self-portrait.)

The most famous maker of sonnets in English (perhaps in the world) is of course Shakespeare, who published 154 of them. I think he must have thought in iambic pentameter, as the sonnet form seemed to have come so easily to him.  Anyway, the "English" sonnet (3 quatrains-- 4-line verses-- and a couplet -- two rhyming lines) is now named after him (though others wrote that form too).  The couplet at the end usually has some reversal or even contradiction of what went before, and is a sign (to me) of Shakespeare's flexible mind, that he could almost always see "the other side" of any situation.

There's another sonnet form, the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This is a much more graceful form, with an octet (8 lines) more smoothly moving into the sextet (6 lines)-- still 14 lines, but more cohesive and flowing.  Plenty of poets writing in English used this form (Millay is probably the most recent great sonneteer and used the Italian form primarily). So it's not as if you HAD to choose the English sonnet if you wrote in English, and Keats wasn't breaking the rules when he started writing in the Italian form. (He did, however, use the Shakespearian form later in his tragically short poetry career... maybe when he became more confident.)

But one of his greatest sonnets (and in terms of percentages, he beats Shakespeare in "greatest sonnets per career") specifically makes use of the Italian sonnet in a way that adds a layer of metaphor to a poem already dripping with metaphor. I mean, of course, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" which kind of hearkens to an alternative sonnet/poetry tradition if Shakespeare hadn't existed (as Mieville's city refers to an alternate reality where liberation from the Soviets never quite took place).  Keats looks back to the classical period, and to do so, he uses Italian, which isn't what Homer used, but it's sure closer in geography than the English sonnet. :)  He refers to "bard" which to most of us (indeed, to Keats too usually I'm sure) would refer to Shakespeare, but here means Homer.  That is, he's looking PAST Shakespeare or rather (to be more precise in my visual metaphor :) AROUND Shakespeare to another poet, the greatest of all until, you know, Shakespeare, and taking his inspiration from Homer.

Now we can only imagine what it was like to be a young poet (and soon-to-be a very great one) in the same city and same language and even same form as Shakespeare.  It's like having an older sibling who was valedictorian, football quarterback, prom king, and United Way volunteer-of-the-year all at the same time. How do you escape from his shadow? How do you create your own light?

Keats explores the complication of that experience here by subtextually referring to Shakespeare ("bard") but also presenting an absence of Shakespeare (remember, in subtext, absence is presence-- more mirror!)--
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold
(Britain and Ireland are, of course, the most westerly islands in Europe, not the Aegean islands he seems to mean. Keats's history and geography are adorably flawed in this sonnet, but let's give him a break-- it was written in a couple amazing hours.)
(Apollo, btw, was god of music and poetry, so his name is a symbol here of poetry.)  
Then he refers to the amazing power of Homer and how transformed he is by the experience of reading a poet who didn't have to secretly think (as did the spiteful Ben Jonson and the magisterial Milton, and Keats and Wordsworth too), "Shakespeare was here first." NO! Homer was here first! 
 From this perspective, Keats's use of the Italian rather than Shakespearian sonnet is like a minor declaration of independence. The form becomes a metaphor of his need to break free, if only momentarily, from the influence of Shakespeare, in order to become himself a great poet. 

Life handed Keats another mirror metaphor, really-- the similarities stressed (poets, sonnets, English) in order to highlight the differences. (As I said, in later sonnets, Keats did more confidently use the Shakespearian model, and I "feel" Shakespeare's influence intensely when I read the great Odes, especially "Nightingale"-- I've always felt that Caliban could have recited the end of that poem.)  

What does that have to do with story? I don't know, except it does. I know I understand the use of metaphor more because I've read so much great poetry.  Anyway, do you see a thematic metaphor in your own story, something that leads the reader down to a deeper meaning?

My example-- I'm currently working on a mystery, where the mystery of who murdered Gromov is a metaphor for the mystery of who Katya (the protagonist) is, and the "murder" of this Russian man is a metaphor (a surface representation, that is) for the destruction of her childhood when Napoleon marched on Moscow, laying waste as he went. 

Some point, let's try to talk about how to USE the surface to hint at the depths (as Dickens uses the image of the mirror to hint at the twinned fates of the two men).  



Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Okay, I *think* I follow you. I've got to dig up and re-read A Tale of Two Cities - or honestly, read it. I must have been 14 the last time, and don't remember it at all.

[blush] I know I'm blathering, but I have to comment to follow comments.

Edittorrent said...

Just think of "metaphor" as a large term that really means "ways in which we represent something intangible". So since distances in yards is "intangible," I say, "Two football fields long," which is much more tangible.

Or in order to represent Hamlet's obsession with death, Shakespeare has him pick up a skull and talk to it.

Anonymous said...

If you like The City and the City, check out Mieville's latest "Embassytown", which plays with the idea of metaphors and similes.

Edittorrent said...

ee--Thanks I will! And how clever the setting, an "embassy town," filled with residents who aren't really there (embassies being the territory of the visiting nation). Great metaphor.