Throughout this first semester of American Literature, a pair of bizarre metaphors have stuck with me for their singular strangeness. Good figures of speech work because they connect a new experience with a familiar one. “Walking through the fetid jungle was like trying to swim through a soaking wet wool blanket,” for example. Never been to the jungle? That’s OK, because we can all imagine being swamped by a wet blanket. It’s like that.
In a famous scene in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab admits that the white whale had bitten off his leg; Ahab savagely wails and screams the fact, “with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.”
So, how exactly did Ahab sound when he crazily lamented the loss of his leg to the whale? Well, he sounded like a moose when his girlfriend trots away, or something. You know. That sound.
Oh. Because we’ve all spent time in Alaska with lovelorn wildlife.
Melville’s contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was even more esoteric. At the beginning of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s narrator says this of the vague, depressing terror of first seeing the decrepit old mansion: “I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into every-day life — the hideous dropping off of the veil.”
Because that’s something we can all relate to. Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I saw a creepy old house and thought, “Dude, this is just as sad as the last time I was coming down from being high on opium…”
It wouldn’t be so bad if Poe hadn’t thought that this was such a useful comparison that he used it again later in the story: “His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision — that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation — that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.”
What, precisely, did Usher’s voice sound like? Well, silly, it sounded like the voice of an opium addict, of course!
One suspects that this says more about the author than the narrator: “How should I bring this detail to life for the reader? Oh, I know! I’ll compare everything to opium! I know that makes everything clear for me…”