Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Personification enlivens abstraction

Here's another thing writing teachers always tell us: Be concrete. Use words that create images in the reader's mind; make them feel or hear or see or smell something specific. (Smell is an especial favorite.) This dictum is a variation of the dreaded "Show, don't tell," and, like its counterpart, it has its merits. For example, concreteness leads to specificity, which is always a good thing, because specific details form the Lilliputian army with which you beat back the Giant Art-Killing Cliche Worm.

But, let's face it: abstractions exist. Language itself is an abstraction. Also, if a writer has any ambition beyond accurately rendering the physical experiences of daily life, she'll need to use some words denoting concepts, ideas, theories. Yet she doesn't want to end up with a dry philosophical treatise, drained of all life's blood. What to do?

Well, cleverly blending the abstract and the concrete is one way to go. Let's take a cue from Benjamin Black, the pen-name of John Banville in his thriller-writing mode. In Christine Falls, his main character, Quirke, is working his way through a bad meal in an overrated restaurant, while trying to extract some information from his brother-in-law. As Quirke mulls his interlocutor's evasive answers, Black tosses off this gem:

Quirke's palate recalled the salmon with a qualm.

First off, the personification here ratchets up the interest right away. Having Quirke's palate "recall" the salmon gives an otherwise dull and largely abstract concept, one's "palate," a life of its own, literally. We've all had this experience of unwillingly retrieving a bad food experience (I'm not talking about the more dramatic, literal possibilities here)--and having the palate do the honors, rather than Quirke himself, creates that involuntary dynamic.

The second word that benefits from this treatment, in this same sentence, is "qualm." This is another word that can't really attract any interest on its own. It's part of a cliched phrase, having qualms about x, and although it's an amusing-sounding word, it can't overcome this history by itself. But, again, it's the palate that has the qualm, not Quirke, and this makes all the difference. When something that we assume can't have a qualm (or whatever) is shown to do so, the all-but-dead word comes back to quivering life. The "qualm" now sounds like a little spasm of the throat or tongue, and is funny and vivid and very close to our own recalled experience.

So, personification of abstractions is one way to infuse them with specificity. You can't overdo personification, of course, or it will quickly grow preposterous--but it is a way of mixing the abstract and the concrete, so that you can use abstractions without floating off into the high desert of pure theory.
Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments: