The Bedpost of Intellectualism

I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.

Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.

Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane.  Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.

This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.

Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.

Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.

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Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor is not the same thing as your ordinary metaphor. An ordinary metaphor is a simile without the word “like”. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile. “Life is hell” is a metaphor. But an extended metaphor is a whole different animal all together. You can see some examples here.

For the writer, an extended metaphor is an untamed dragon whose reins are hard to control, but once mastered could grant powers of great capacity.
To show you what I mean, here is an example of what an extended metaphor can do. It is shared in a dialogue between 47-year-old Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and 22-year-old Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge) in the movie The Big Sleep.

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

The following is my favorite extended metaphor from Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” .

“Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they kept the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties. I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”

When I first read this passage, I thought it was so awesome, I just put the book down and looked at the walls for a while.
What is this metaphor about and what does it do?

First off, the imagery is vivid and clear – and yet it is surreal – like a scene from a Terry Gilliam movie. There is no such thing as a “thousand story grand hotel” or a “bank of elevators a a mile long” but the over sized hyperbole is consistent with the feeling of the endlessly rising elevator and a trip to the air ship that never seems to end. It effectively conveys the feeling of a seemingly endless summer with seemingly infinite possibilities.

And then it is vaguely sad because you travel up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets who you never actually interact with. Opportunities passed up. Summer is just a balloon bobbing in the high winds. (He uses the word “dirigible” which I hadn’t seen in decades.)

Then the dreamy sequence is brought to a shocking end with the words “snapped spine” before it is explained that it is a ” snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink” which concludes the metaphor. Dream broken.

Metaphors, at its most primitive, are instruments for explanation (big as a bear, solid as a brick) but can be used in contrast to enhance the image (devilish debonair, monstrous beauty), but an extended metaphor does not just explain or enhance what we already know.

In Chabon’s case he is explaining an emotional grasp of the summer vacation to come. It is something that cannot be seen, but something we can relate to. He presents vivid imagery to convey the feeling, but no imagery of beaches, parties, travel, or any of the things we actually expect to do during the summer. Instead he gives us the bobbing airship as a metaphor for the summer.

So what does this accomplish?

Other than the fact that it blows our minds with incredible word usage, it presents the sense of purposeless time wastefully expended like a lost weekend, and replaces that with an image we can see. And then it projects an emotion – a sort of sad wistfulness – that is not explicitly explained, but one which we can feel through the prose. Placing this metaphor in the first chapter of the book helps set the tone and atmosphere to the entire story.

The masterful part of this is that it begins with ” in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less” and then closes with ” I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.'”

Did he actually say either of these things? He did not say to his father “a bank of elevators a mile long” nor did he say “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
These are both stand-ins for the rambling, unstructured, real conversation that came out of his mouth. The two stand-ins, however, are contrasting equivalents. They are two opposite ways of saying the same thing.

What if Chabon had written:
Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
That would be the summary of what he actually said. But it does not serve the purpose of setting the tone for the book.
All the stuff in the middle, between “I said, more or less” and “I said”, is the trailer to the movie you are about to see. It presents vivid colors, tangible emotions, and a shocking conclusion that is more or less inevitable.

So what can we learn from this?
1. An extended metaphor has a purpose. It is not just a jumble of clever words. It has a clearly defined mission to accomplish.
2. It contains colors, shapes, sizes and things that are visible.
3. It conveys emotions that is consistent with the story.
4. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
5. It can be summarized in a non-metaphoric way.

Putting all of that together in a metaphor is a tall order. Here is my poor attempt at it:

Benji was like a horse. Not a real horse, but a movie horse. The hero in a jam whistles and his loyal horse, with nobody in the saddle, comes to the rescue, kicks the bad guys, carries away the hero and his damsel, across the plains, into the sunset, and then, maybe, above the clouds, over the rainbow, sprouting Pegasus wings and a unicorn horn until happily ever after and the credits roll. Nobody remembers the name of the horse, unless it’s a question in a game show. Then the movie you watched with a lollipop in cheek is, by chance, on a late-night re-run when you are alone drinking because the wife just left, and you finally realize the horse was the real hero, and the poor animal had long since been sent to the glue factory. And you can’t recall the name. That was Benji.

It does not quite work like Chabon’s extended metaphor even though (1) it would set the tone for a larger story, (2) contains imagery you can visualize, (3) conveys an emotion (in this case sadness), (4) has a beginning, middle, and an end, (5) and can be summarized that Benji was an unappreciated, unsung hero. What’s missing here?

What is missing is the surprise factor. It does not have “a thousand story grand hotel”, “a bank of elevators a mile long”, “moguls, spies, and starlets” and “snapped spine of a lemon wedge” working in concert to project the above five things.

An extended metaphor is a dangerous thing, because it can distract the reader from the story if it is too elaborate. We want the reader to get lost in the story, to get completely absorbed in it. And yet when everything clicks, it magically transports the reader on the back of a dragon soaring across the skies.