Metaphors as Affording us “Magnified Sight”
and Related Considerations
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
In the previous craft note, we broached the question of how a metaphor might be given the proper space to breathe, the Brera Gallery in Milan—a celebrated art museum—having afforded us some clues as to how this “breathing” might be best achieved.
Here, we’ll look at metaphor from a slightly different angle, considering how metaphor offers “magnified sight,” a closer, more intense look at the objects before us. This discussion widens out to encompass other matters related to metaphor.
A museum very different from the one in Milan gave me yet another view of how metaphors will arrest us, will command our attention, will cause us to pause in the midst of narrative flow.
Except that this “museum” was one out-of-doors—in one of our great national parks in America’s West. I can’t recall, now, exactly which one it was—Mesa Verde, very likely, whose multitude of canyons shelter the Anasazi ruins—but I do remember this: an edge-of-the-cliff “overlook” that offered to visitors an innovative feature, a tall glass wall (plexiglass most likely) separating viewers from the precipitous drop-off. Set into the wall here and there, and at varying heights for tourists small and large, were magnifying lenses—round convex discs through which the viewer could bring the farther sights “up close,” into sharper detail, as occurs through a telescope, a device also available in many park overlooks. But unlike such telescopes (some coin-operated), the randomly spaced lenses set into the wall offered to the tourist a pleasing “surprise,” very much as a metaphor will, a gift made to visitors by the thoughtful Park Service. A gift, that is to say, of “magnified sight.”
*The spacing of the paintings there in the Brera . . . the spacing of the gemstones on the tasteful gold bracelet . . . the spacing of the magnifying lenses on the glass wall—all three analogies attest to the same thing: the need for that “breathing” or processing space if the necessary “costs” of admiration are to be met. In teaching fiction writing, I invited my students to segregate their efforts into three categories—
fresh, vivid writing
stale, tired writing
—and, while urging them to banish the third sort from their efforts, grasp this essential principle:
Workmanlike writing is writing that calls little attention to itself while it solidly, with craft and full authorial honor, moves a narrative forward. Workmanlike writing is what gives to a narrative its essential transparency. It thus “sets the stage” for fresh, vivid writing, thereby giving metaphors their just space to “breathe.”
It’s notable how often writers famed for their metaphors—Updike again—will grace their prose selectively with vivid effects, unfolding stretches of narrative in a workmanlike way before we encounter the next of their “strong” effects. And that ensuing strong effect, like the solitary masterpiece in the next room at the Brera, will seem to “fill the space” of the otherwise bare walls. It isn’t only recent poets who are at fault for glutting poems with a surfeit of images stumbling over one another; some fiction writers, too, strive to craft each of their sentences into a cut, faceted gem. In reading a work of fiction, I don’t want every sentence to be a “cut gem.” You make only halting progress when each successive sentence is estranged from its neighbor. When Keats counseled Shelley to “load every rift with ore,” implicit in his advice was understanding where the “rifts” are that need to be loaded!
An exception to the rule: the virtuosic passage. “Invocation” vs. “evocation”
A reviewer, as I recall, of Updike’s novel Couples remarked how the author, depicting one of his characters walking his dog along a beach, “took his famous style out for an airing,” or words to that effect—humorously “playing off” the dog-walking scene in noting the bravura display of the writer’s gifts.
And yes, there will be times when a “heightened effect” is called for, when a writer might unleash her/his full stylistic powers. Dramatic intensity, emotional intensity, the objectives may vary—but experienced writers know that the thrill must be a brief one, and suited to the context. Enchantment can exhaust us! Elation is a short-lived state in any case, most potent when it’s transient, a momentary passing leaving behind a strong memory, just as an impressive lightning strike might do.
Two examples come to mind. The first is celebrated: the opening page of Dickens’ Bleak House, an excoriating prologue to the judicial abuses rampant in Dickens’ England. But first, we get the author’s dim view of London:
… Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if
the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would
not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling
like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill… Foot passengers, jostling
one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper…
and so on, relentlessly, that first page as dense in its hammering rhythms (almost blues-like) as it is rich in fierce images and a well-controlled “argument.”
The second instance is more recent: Ivan Doig’s description in This House of Sky of the first view that he and his sheep-herding father get of the Continental Divide:
We came up over the crest and were walled to a stop. The western
skyline before us was filled high with a steel-blue army of mountains
… Summit after summit bladed up thousands of feet as if charging
into the air to strike first at storm and lightning, valleys and clefts
chasmed wide as if split and hollowed by thunderblast upon thunderblast.
Across the clear gape of distance, we could read where black-quilled
forest wove in beneath cliffs…
(“North,” p. 180)
Again: suited to the context. That moment, for Ivan and his father alike, is one of awe, of sudden, startling discovery—the “novelty” as striking as the view of a great painting displayed in the Brera.
What each author is doing, Dickens and Doig in turn, is evoking a landscape, the difference between “evoking” and “invoking” being this:
Invocation is a form of literary shorthand, a quick and efficient means of
“penciling in,” as it were, whereas
Evocation is a form of literary “longhand” that involves a more luxuriant
spending of words.
The key difference between the two is this, then:“evocation” presumes ignorance on the part of the reader, who needs to be filled in on all the pertinent details. In contrast, “invocation” presumes (or at least pretends to) a prior knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the reader. We see Hemingway invoking as he opens “Indian Camp” with this terse line—
At the lake shore, there was another rowboat drawn up.
—the line implying our prior knowledge of the first rowboat already drawn up there! The Irish writer John McGahern, in the Hemingway tradition, begins his story, “Korea,” with this engaging line:
“You saw an execution then too, didn’t you?” I asked my father, and
he started to tell as he rowed.
… the “then too, didn’t you?” abruptly and efficiently drawing us into the exchange already in progress, which exchange we, as reader, are presumed to know about. An excellent beginning in medias res!
Both of these strategies, “invocation” and “evocation,” constitute legitimate means of achieving literary economy, each of them put to the proper contextual use.
In the ensuing part of this craft note, “Disorientation and the Experience of Wonder,” we’ll look at the ways in which “losing our bearings” can help us, as readers, achieve intensified sight—a first cousin, of a sort, to the magnified sight we’ve looked at here.
We’ll also examine how our presumed familiarity—with a subject as we’re reading, with a landscape we move through—can foster inattentiveness in us, that “negligent perception” I’d mentioned in passing, and dilutes our capacity for wonderment and awe.