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Tropically Yours

This isn't a post about palm trees, parrots, or torrential rains, but it could easily involve those things. It isn't about The Tropics but trope-ics, that is to say one of the most basic ways of using language, as well as one of the oldest, least understood, and ill-used these days.


There are many ways to carve up language, but I'm thinking of one of the most basic, namely denotation vs. connotation, or literal vs. figurative uses. The former is the most straightforward and widely used. It's the domain of facts and is employed by scientists, historians, journalists, and accountants. There's a roughly one-to-one correspondence between what is said and what is meant. It's thrives where clarity is the thing. 


Connotation is the opposite: obfuscation is its MO. Loath to express a thing straight, it leads one on a wild goose chase for meaning, for a reason. Figures of speech are its method––in a word, tropes. Linguists have identified over 250 tropes; last I heard there were 256. There are books that lay them all out, and many tropes are functionally extinct, gone the way of the dinosaurs, encountered only in works of ancient lit. 


Of the 256 tropes only a handful are used in daily life, the most common of which are metaphor and its companion, simile, as well as personification, another type of metaphor, and metonymy. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things, and a metonymy is a substitution of one thing for another. The difference can be found in the lines "She roared her approval" and "The pen is mightier than the sword," respectively.


Among tropes not everything is equal. There are easy, hackneyed, "lazy" uses of them and ones that are creative, complex, fresh, and mind-blowing. Ovid has fun illustrating the difference in the Metamorphoses when his troll-like antihero, Polyphemous, tries wooing Galatea. He calls her "snowy white," "smoother than a seashell," "more pleasing than shade," "swifter than the deer," "sweeter than ripe grapes," "softer than swans' down"––you get the idea. He even likens her to "an untamed heifer"––that'll win her affection for sure (XIII, ll. 1144-1160*). It's clear he grabs the first thing that comes to mind and doesn't give it much thought, which we might expect given he's a one-eyed character, with single vision. (Contrast that with Flaubert famously spending several hours searching for "le mot juste.")


In fact Ovid gives us a lesson in the lesser and more effective uses of tropes in the work. As an example of the latter he narrates a weaving competition between Arachne, a craftswoman "of plebeian origin" whose skill is so renown she draws the attentions––and jealousy––of Athena, the patron of weavers. Arachne has the pluck to challenge the deity to a weaving duel, and unfortunately she, Arachne, wins, incurring Athena's wrath; she turns Arachne into a spider. Ovid writes, "Then, as the goddess turned to go, she sprinkled/Arachne with the juice of Hecate's herb,/and . . . she lost her hair, then lost her nose and ears;/. . . now she was very small,/but what remained of her turned into a belly,/from which she now continually spins/a thread, and as a spider, carries on the art of weaving as she used to" (VI, ll. 198-208).


Unlike Polyphemous with his pat, accessible, and unidimensional use of tropes, the gesture of transforming Arachne into a spider embodies a universe of meanings, one that's still being unpacked millenniums after Ovid wrote the poem, around 8 CE. More than ever it has readers thinking about the power of women; the birth-giving function; the birth-giving nature of art; writing as birthing; ideas as a form of pregnancy; writing as art; writing as a complex web; writing as a lure or trap; art as a winning-over; speaking truth to power; the way art can invert the hierarchy; the ability of art to topple the great; the way art mirrors life; the self-reflexive nature of art; tropes as powerful and even dangerous––the possibilities are endless and could fill a book or mountain of books, all by the use of a single trope in this instance: a writer is like a spider.


In fact Arachne is Ovid himself. Her story prefigures his destiny. Like the weaver he took on a god, in his case Emperor Augustus. In the same way Arachne's weaving points up the power-excesses and abuses of the gods (the word text comes from the Latin textus, or textile, weaving), Ovid does the same in his poem, taking on the Roman powers that be, so much so that he invoked Augustus's ire. The penalty? Solitary exile on a frozen island in the Black Sea, in what is today Romania. 


Ovid knew the down- and upside of an effective use of tropes, what it buys you, including notoriety. He remarks at the end, "My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove/nor sword nor fire nor futurity/is capable of laying waste to it./. . . my words will be upon people's lips,/and . . . in my fame forever will I live" (XV, ll. 1099-1112).


I don't know of a work of literature or art that demonstrates the power, polyvalence, impact, possibility, or beauty of tropic language as much as Ovid's Metamorphoses. It stands in contrast to so many works published today in which writers pay so little attention to tropes and their potential. I'm constantly suggested titles––must-reads!––from the New York Times bestseller list, and I'm so often dismayed to find either a literary wasteland, devoid of tropes, or a shallow use of them, as though, like Polyphemous, the writer grabbed the first thing that came to mind. 


There are some great new works out there, don't get me wrong, and the NYT list reflects popular, not critical tastes. But I also once tried teaching a novel by an award-winner of one of the major literary prizes in America, and halfway through my students declared, Professor! Where's the beef?! They knew what to expect in a work of literary merit and were woefully disappointed.


It was the last time I assigned a work like that, opting instead to go with works I knew invited both discussion and rereading, in which meanings are not apparent at first blush and require thinking, unpacking, discussion, and argument, after which they can be approached all over again, only to discover a whole other constellation of meanings, often contradictory to the first reading. That's what effective tropes do. They snare you and don't let go. They own you.


*Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W. W. W. Norton, 2010.

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