Metonymy

Summertime for English teachers means reading freely and capriciously — some of us pick up that tome we’d never have time for during the hectic year, some of us read the trashiest romances we can find because we won’t run into our students on the beach in the Outer Banks, and some of us read 3-6 books at once, jumping from one to another within the course of a day because there is so much time (!) to read. I’m the latter– I read great books all year round, but when I’m on a break from teaching, I read more and more and more.

I also find that I’m not really on a break from teaching, because so much of the way I teach reading and writing is by showing my students models of great writing. And those models arise from what I read on my own, even when I’m not looking for them.

I thought it might be fun to show this side of my brain with analysis of an excerpt from a superb book I just finished, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.

I struggled last year to teach the concept of metonymy to my AP Language students. It’s a hard one to grasp. It seems so similar to metaphor, but while metaphor is the substitution of a different thing for the referent (the actual thing you’re talking about), metonymy is a sneakier substitution. Metonymy is the naming of similarity as sameness. It takes a word or idea adjacent to the referent and uses it as a reference to its almost-self. So business men become “suits” or the dictum of a chef is translated as “the kitchen says.”

In Beautiful Ruins, writer Alvis Bender uses the technique in stages in his unfinished autobiographical novel, “The Smile of Heaven,” about World War II.

Then Spring came, and with it, the end of my war. The generals with their grease pencils had invited too many soldiers and they needed something for us to do and so we marched over every last inch of Italy. All that spring we marched, through the chalky coastal flats below the Apennines, and once the way was cleared, up pocked green foothills toward Genoa, into villages crumbled like old cheese, cellars spitting forth grubby thin Italians. Such a horrible formality, the end of a war.

In this beginning section of the novel, the generals are associated with grease pencils, presumably because that’s what they use to write orders. Here and in the next passage, there’s a subtle contrast drawn between the generals writing orders on paper and the actual movement that the humble foot soldiers must complete.

Each morning, the grease pencil generals caused artillery waves to crash to the north as we marched in our sudden rain gear into a slashing, insistent drizzle.

Bender has moved the terms “grease pencil” and “generals” physically closer together this time, and his repetition emphasizes the association between the two. It seems now like he is describing them as like grease pencils, which to me implies that they are only generals on paper. They get to move the waves of artillery around Italy, but it is the soldiers who get wet in the rain. Bender continues to explain the pointlessness and discomfort of his experience.

Clearly, there were larger tactics at play in my war’s end (we heard rumors of nightmare camps and of the grease pencils dividing the world in half), but for Richards and me, our war consisted of wet, fretful marches up dirt roads and down hillsides to the edges of bombed-out villages.

Here we have true metonymy. The word ‘generals’ (the referent, the actual thing) has been fully replaced by a thing already associated with them, the grease pencils. Bender needed to establish that association previously for this to work, because we don’t automatically think of grease pencils when we think about generals (more obvious metonyms would include “military brass” or “the pentagon”). But now, it’s as if the grease pencils themselves are doing the ordering about. This time, they’re doing even more powerful work, dividing the world between Russian and Western spheres of influence. This meaning of the war’s end has very little to do with the actual experience of the soldiers, which is wet and fretful. The generals aren’t doing any of the actual marching, which again goes back to the idea that they are generals merely on paper, blind to risk and wasted time while they doodle at their desks. Whose war now seems more important?

This is an unusually masterful use of metonymy. Jess Walters allows his surrogate, the writer Alvis Bender, to play with this technique in an easily understandable, yet subtly powerful way. By moving us slowly closer to full metonymy, he makes sure that we get it. But the metonym itself makes a statement about power and military hierarchy.

Back to the age-old question of what separates English teachers from the rest of the world’s readers– I wouldn’t expect my students to be reading this book and suddenly jump to their feet and yell “that’s metonymy!” But the technique is still there, making meaning, and it will work on our brains whether we recognize it sharply enough to analyze or not. If you’re reading this blog post, you might be able to recognize a metonym next time someone uses it in everyday speech (my bet is that you’ll hear someone refer to the current presidential administration as “The White House” within 24 hours).

Or you might be reading an excellent yet fun novel and stop to linger a little longer over some of the words and wonder why the author might have done that, and what it might be doing to your thinking. And that’s really why I teach analysis: it’s just a way of reading the world with more practiced eyes than you had before.

Did you enjoy pretending to be in my English class for a few minutes? Let me know in the comments as I contemplate writing more passage study posts. 🙂 

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Pink and yellow

Do you smile every time you see a flower these days?

I do. Maybe it’s because it’s early spring, after an interminable winter. It feels like forever since sun and warmth found us. There are the beginnings of growth all around me now, but the air is still cold and the season itself still feels fragile. It could snow anytime, but I’m hoping it won’t.

Maybe it’s a teaching thing– I feel like I need to smile and nod at these brave budding troubadours venturing their spring songs possibly too early. If I encourage them, they’ll gain confidence and keep going.

Maybe in addition to those reasons, I am starting to really feel the truth of the renewal that I’ve set myself on in the past month or so, and I’m so desperately happy that this is working.

Without delving too far into personal details here, things are changing for me. I’m enacting an invisible yet iron division between myself and certain groups of people in my life, for the sake of my own independence and mental health. I’m living alone now, and in the space that has been left behind, I have gained the clarity to really look at my life and examine my dissatisfaction with it. I’m lonely, and afraid of the future, and feeling all the uncertainty and searching that we apparently must hike through in our mid-20s. But I know myself (and I really like myself!) and I know that I am committed to being happy. So I’m making changes. Some small, some big.

One of those small changes is taking a walk every day. I like late-ish afternoon best for walks. These days the light isn’t dying but just – changing. I like the sensation of fresh chilled air on my cheeks. I like how long my hair is, and the epiphanies that come to me as I walk through my neighborhood. I like smiling at the people I pass.

Today I came around a corner and was greeted by an exuberant rash of pink flowers– tender petals dripping from the rain that’s been falling all day, but so brightly pink that they shocked me into a big grin. I wish I was better with flower names or that I took a picture, but instead I just walked on with a spring in my step, crossing the street diagonally, thinking to myself that yes, things are going to grow now.

Poetry in a Violent World

Today, despite the news that I heard on the radio, I had to go to school and teach children who are vulnerable and brave and hopeful and wise. I want their generation (which is still my generation) to be the one that ends the senseless gun violence that we’re living with.

Here’s a poem for them:

The Opposites Game
by Brendan Constantine

for Patricia Maisch

This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. “My life had stood
a loaded gun,” it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –

My // Your
Life // Death
Had stood ? // Will sit
A // Many
Loaded // Empty
Gun ?

Gun.
For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –

Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That’s stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts

and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It’s a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?

A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You’re so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It’s a whisper, a star,
it’s saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone’s ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president

of Stupid-land? You should be, When’s the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it’s a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl

snatches it from my hand. Nothing’s decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.

There’s a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.

“It’s a diamond, it’s a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It’s the moon, it’s a mirror,
it’s the sound of a bell and the hearer.”

The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.

Well, maybe. Maybe it’s everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn’t say. It’s words and the spaces for words.
They’re looking at each other now. It’s everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.

It’s everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it’s a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.

Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems.