Saturday, August 18, 2012

Similes Like Ladybugs

 I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I do not like the tiny tickle of a fly that’s landed on my skin. On the first day of Marching Band camp in 1974, the drum major told us that while at attention we couldn’t move, not even to swat away a fly. He yelled it at the two-hundred of us with such fierceness, I had the sudden conviction that I would never dare to swat a fly at attention, even though he never specified any bite to back up his bark.  But I knew holding still would be hard. Refraining from swatting a fly that had landed on my face would be harder even than marching and playing in a black uniform worn over my usual clothes in 95 degrees of August heat and the 95-percent humidity of the soup Missourians call air. I hate the feeling of a fly on my skin.

But when I feel that annoying tickle, and a shake of my arm doesn’t end it, and then I look down to see a ladybug, all my repulsion suddenly disappears. Ladybugs are cute; they’re like little spotted Volkswagens. (OK, actually VW Beetles are like oversized ladybugs.) They’re not afraid of a little shaking; they want to spend some quality time with you. I’ve never known them to swarm or to attack picnic food, and I’ve never heard of an association between ladybugs and disease. When I see one, I stop whatever else I’m doing or thinking about, and I just enjoy the moment.

The first thing that struck me about Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter was his frequent use of weird similes. Several from the first forty pages or so stood out from the rest of the prose, prickling my sense of lostness in the world of the book and making me think about the language of the narration. They annoyed me at first, like a fly on my skin, but I soon found that I enjoyed these still little pockets of contemplation within the flow of the story.

The first odd simile I noticed concerned “a great stone building like the grandiloquent boast of weak men.” I thought it strange to use the ephemeral to help describe the concrete and material. I don’t think it would have jumped out at me if Greene had described some weak man’s boast by saying it was like a great stone building. But I enjoyed contemplating the connection, and when I returned to reading, I knew what kind of people to expect inside the building.

I’m embarrassed to say that Greene stumped when he said one character calling another’s name was like Canute crying against a tide. I had to look up Canute to be reminded of the story of the king who proved his earthly limitations to his sycophants by commanding the tide to stop. I got a refresher on history (whether legendary or actual), and I got some foreshadowing on what might happen later in the story if man and ocean ever came into contact.

One of the strangest similes comes when the main character, Major Scobie, steps into his bathroom to find “a rat that had been couched on the cool rim of the bath, like a cat on a gravestone.” Why compare a rat with a cat? The only things I’m aware of that cats have more than rats are positive things: beauty, dignity, potential for relationship. And why compare the bath to a gravestone? The picture made sense: a dark, furry animal atop a hard, white manufactured object. But what was I to get out of this connection? In puzzling this one over, I ended up learning more about the cat on the gravestone than about the rat. What business does a cat have in a graveyard? I’m afraid he may have been about some unspeakable mischief.

The oddest of all these similes says that the frequently laughing Father Rank “swung his great empty-sounding bell to and fro, Ho, ho, ho, like a leper proclaiming his misery.” Again, I think I learned more about the describer than the described. To a leper, his cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” cease to have any meaning after much repetition, just as any word (even one’s own name) seems to become an objective shell of sound after being repeated fifty times. I don’t know what to say about Father Rank after this description. He seems otherwise a decent fellow.

After writing the introduction to today’s post, I thought of Pascal, who called the fly mighty because he can stop a human’s thoughts, quietude, or determination just by landing. The ladybug is just as mighty, but Pascal’s argument for humility wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if he had used her instead.

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