Friday, April 22, 2016

`The Permanent College of Rhetoric'

Some of us are blessed and cursed with a peculiar species of double vision. We see something – say, a fallen tree leaning on a fence – and we promptly see something else. In this case, that would be an artillery piece. I cite this example because it happened to me when I was a boy. Foolishly, I reported the cannon to my father, the most literal-minded of men, and he observed that I was a moron: “It’s a tree. Got it?” What I’m describing is more than a habit of mind, and probably has a neurological origin, because the metaphor seems to hover around its object like an aura. People can learn to think metaphorically but what I’m describing is hard-wired and automatic, something like synesthesia. I seldom have to reach for a metaphor. It’s there when I need it, as though my senses came from the factory equipped with the metaphor option. From the start I found comfort in this gift. It made the world more interesting and familiar, and less random. It implied that disparate things are, in fact, related. Metaphor suggests order, however covert it may be.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (David R. Godine, 2016) is a book to linger in, like an imaginatively interactive museum. Ward Farnsworth’s working thesis is that good prose is never passive. Even when it attains Orwell’s virtue of transparency, it is quietly bringing light to a dark and confused world. Farnworth writes in his preface: “Metaphor may be viewed as a language that we use to interpret and explain things to ourselves as well as to others. This book outlines an elementary vocabulary and grammar of one dialect of the language. The result may be useful to those who wish to improve their fluency in order to better communicate, but also to those who enjoy the language for its own sake.” You might call Farnsworth an aesthete with a utilitarian streak.

Farnsworth has structured his book as a sampler of taxonomically arranged quotations from English, Irish and American writers of prose, largely from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but with frequents visits to the King James Bible and Shakespeare in the past, and Churchill and Wodehouse in the future. Farnsworth says (and in the process spins a nice metaphor of his own):

“Some gifted and canonical talkers and writers appear often. We should seek to learn from the best, which means Johnson and Melville and various other distinguished faculty in the permanent college of rhetoric.”

In his fourth chapter, “The Use of Nature to Describe Inner States,” Farnsworth chooses a brief tour de force of metaphor-making from Book V, Chapter 2 of Henry James’ The Ambassadors (1903). This comes immediately after the better-known passage beginning “Live all you can; it's a mistake not to.” Lambert Strether says:

“The affair — I mean the affair of life — couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for it's at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured — so that one 'takes' the form as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can.”

The passage might have come from James’ brother’s masterwork The Principles of Psychology. In his eleventh chapter, “Architecture & Other Man-Made Things,” Farnsworth cites a marvelous excerpt from Section II of Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704):

“To instance no more, is not religion a cloak, honesty a pair of shoes worn out in the dirt, self-love a surtout, vanity a shirt, and conscience a pair of breeches, which, though a cover for lewdness as well as nastiness, is easily slipped down for the service of both?”

Two writers rich in metaphor who are not plundered by Farnsworth are A.J. Liebling and Whitney Balliett. Here’s Liebling in “Ahab and Nemesis” (The Sweet Science, 1956), in which he piles on the metaphors for comic effect:

“He had hit him right if ever I saw a boxer hit right, with a classic brevity and conciseness. Marciano stayed down for two seconds. I do not know what took place in Mr. Moore’s breast when he saw him get up. He may have felt, for the moment, like Don Giovanni when the Commendatore’s statue grabbed at him—startled because he thought he had killed the guy already—or like Ahab when he saw the Whale take down Fedallah, harpoons and all.” 

And here’s Balliett on the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, 2000): “In a slow ballad number, Webster’s tone is soft and enormous, and he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore.”

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