Today’s sermon: A short screed against metaphor

Today’s text is taken from the new novel by Rupert Thomson, Secrecy, pg 80 in its Granta hardback.

Other times, I would visit the menagerie, where monkeys swung fluidly through the upper reaches of their cages, frowning like old men, and vultures shifted and sulked, their plumage the stiff dull black of widows’ weeds.

Ah, metaphor! Ah, simile! What’s not to like? Well – and this is no attack on Thomson, for whom metaphor and simile are a vital part of the project in hand. Secrecy is a historical novel, set in C17th Florence, and part of his job as author is to make the unfamiliar seem to us familiar, and the use of metaphor and simile is one clear way of doing that. By drawing links between what we could never have seen (though obviously my chosen extract is a bad example of this, seeing as monkey and vultures are pretty much the same today as they were then, but it’s the line that provoked the thought, so I’ve stuck with it) and what we do recognise as part of our life, he performs the illusion of bringing the past alive for us on the page.

Well, and. My problem isn’t with Thomson, nor really with the historical novel (though this well-written example seems clear evidence that historical literary fiction is, among other things, and perhaps first among them, an attempt to colonise the past), but with the reductive nature of metaphor and simile.

If I describe a monkey swinging through the upper reaches of its cage, no monkeys are harmed. The monkey is named, and described in action, no more. But, the moment I start to draw generalised comparisons, it is not the fictitious monkey of the novel that is affected, but all monkeys – or rather, the reader’s general perception of monkeys.

God made monkeys, and something is given them (or taken from them, if you are a follower of Cioran).

Adam named monkeys, and they are tagged, but hardly pinned down; their name is attached to them like an electronic tracking tag to a dolphin, or a leg-ring to a bird: it does not impede their movement.

The author says that the monkeys frowned like old men, and suddenly the monkeys have baggage, and although it is I, the reader, who carries it for them, still it slows and drags their movement, their monkeyness. From this point on, every monkey I see (and there must be some degree of this intent in every metaphor or simile a writer puts to paper) is frowning like an old man, or like an old man when he is not frowning. This is the controlling aspect of metaphor, and though that does not mean it should be avoided, it should at least be acknowledged as such.



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