Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Metalepsis and the cultural logic of spies

"Faith in spies is mystical, fuelled by fantasy and halfway to religion. They're a protected species in our national psychology." —John Le Carré, "The Madness of Spies"

In this post I discuss the rhetorical term 'metalepsis' as it appears in William Gibson's recent novel Spook Country. Early in the narrative when one of the characters finishes a call on a cell phone, "She...clamshelled her phone" (4). Richard Lanham defines metalepsis as a "Present effect attributed to a remote cause," and also paraphrases Quintilian by describing metalepsis "the transition from one trope to another...a kind of compressed chain of metaphorical reasoning" (Handbook of Rhetorical Terms, 99). This word "clamshelled" functions as a metalepsis: the metonymic action of closing a flip-phone (an action standing in for the object) is described by way of not only a clam (which would be an outright metaphor), but specifically by way of the hinging of a clam's shell as it opens or closes. So an active part of the creature is used to describe the shape of the phone; it is a metonymy within a metonymy, the image of an organic action lodged within a technological object's hinge function.

An interesting pairing in an introductory literature course would be to read Gibson's novel juxtaposed with a screening of the Coen brothers' latest film, Burn After Reading. Like Gibson's novel, in this film the intrigue of spying pales in comparison to the everyday personal adventures offered up by Home Depot, "Hard Bodies" workout centers, and iPods. The literature class might trace how metalepsis functions as a logic of informational coding in the spy narrative: where metalepsis occurs, the form becomes the content and the reader becomes the spook. But as Gibson and the Coen brothers both wonder, what happens when the code does not conceal a national secret? What would it mean to make a metalepsis of nothing?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

From Bourdin and Nietzsche to the genre of aphorisms

My letter to The New Yorker was published in the September 15, 2008 issue. It is in reference to a fascinating article by David Grann on Frédéric Bourdin, the French con-man who pretends to be various children. In this letter I juxtapose Bourdin's evocation of Nietzsche's well-known aphorism about fighting monsters with another of Nietzsche's aphorisms on what maturity consists of: becoming seriously childlike, again. The fine point of this query sharpens depending on the amount of irony that one detects in Nietzsche. The most effective aphorisms involve ironic slippage; in this case, it is not clear whether maturity is something to be 'achieved' in an proactive sense, or whether it is no more (and no less) than a misperceived ascent that is, in fact, more of an inescapable return.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I would like to design a literature course on the aphorism: how this old form becomes all the more poignant—or elusive, I'm not sure—in the concentrated text-spaces of online reading. I can imagine a syllabus based around Heraclitus, William Blake, Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Lydia Davis—just to name a few of the writers who experiment in this form. We might trace a line from pre-Socratic philosophy to Modernist poetry, if only to find ourselves in postmodern currents of fiction that flow like a Heraclitean river, only different. It occurs to me, too, that successful 'letters to the editor' occasionally read like aphorisms; this could be a strategy, then, for teaching a certain kind of "professional writing," as well.

(I was going to change the title of this post to "...the genre of the aphorism"—but then I wondered: is there something about aphorisms that spurs multiplicities? This could be part of the critical import of aphorisms: that they demand contexts of multiple readings and pluralities of meaning. Out of condensed space, aphorisms generate more thinking and writing. This reminds me of Barthes's theory of the Text as compared to the Work. This could be a line of analysis in a course on aphorisms.)