Metaphors and Conceits   Leave a comment

When is something like something else?  Well, when is it not?  It’s easy to explain the arcane by saying how it is like the familiar.  Can we go the other way?  Can we use an obscure reference to clarify – or to at least expand upon – the familiar?  What the hell, you ask, is a ‘conceit’ and how dare I conflate that term with a metaphor?  Tell me, you ask, how my former spouse is anything like a metaphor.

The term “conceit,” as a literary concept, dates back to the nineteenth century, but admittedly is not in common use today, at least in this usage.  A conceit, to Shelly or Wordsworth, would simply be an extended metaphor, one that keeps cropping up through the work, and is used as a glue to link disparate elements together a bit better.   The way I explain it to my SummerKeys students is this: it is not a story or plot element; it is a fine thread that is woven through from beginning to end, that helps develop character and add feel to place.

If the work spans a long time (such as a multi-generational tale) it can be a useful unifying element that may even go unnoticed by  the reader.  If the work covers a short period, it may be less useful and in fact might just get in the way.

I’ll give you an example, based on my own work.  In Neap Tide, the story of St. George and the Dragon is used as a conceit, partially to put certain kinds of ‘action’ deeper into subtext, and partially to explain behind-the-scenes communication between characters.  This novel, despite being rather short (72,000 words) takes place over six months however the backstory stretches back twenty years, and the conceit is introduced early on.

The story of St. George, a revered Christian martyr, probably derived from that of Perseus and Andromeda (which, in turn, likely has earlier precedent) , and is actually a common theme in much of today’s entertainment.  The Saint happens on a beautiful maiden who has been left as a sacrifice to the dragon; valliantly he battles and ultimately slays the beast, saves the maiden, and then everybody lives happily ever after.  (At least Andromeda did – Perseus became her faithful husband.  George died otherwise, still chaste.)   In early Christian iconograpy the story often depicts the dragon as female (in some images, complete with breasts and vulva), and occasionally during the battle the dragon is depicted on top of George.  (More on this in a bit.)

The iconographic interpretation varies; it can be taken as a cautionary tale of the evils of sex, it can be simply George dealing with Satan, or dispatching the Roman Empire.  (We all know the devil is a woman, right?  Or at least some times, a woman can be the devil.)  It was pretty much up to the local priest to determine which spin to take, since the pictures were the only thing accessible to the illiterate population and it was his job to use the stories to keep his flock in line.

Sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century (certainly post-Reformation) some sacreligious rascal decided ‘Riding St. George’ was a nice metaphor for the ‘woman-superior’ coital position; the term shows up in some of that era’s erotica.

In Neap Tide, by introducing the POV character’s knowledge of the St. George legend, then allowing a supporting character to flesh out the later meaning (sorry, I couldn’t resist that), that usage is established in  the reader’s vocabulary.   When the reference comes at a critical moment, one short phrase can replaces a series of descriptive (and redundant) sentences, allowing for faster pacing.  It also buries meaning in subtext, so that the lazy (or youthful) reader won’t get it.

Is it intentional that the lazy reader won’t get it?  As Sarah Palin would say, “You Betcha.”  That is part of my authorial design.  You like to start with the ending, you say?  In that case I want you to get hopelessly mired in the thicket of my subtext, lose interest, and go pick up a vampire novel instead.

Posted November 22, 2012 by JD Rule

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