The Art of the Figure (Excerpts): Comparison


Arthur Mortensen

from The Art of the Figure, 1998,
not for commercial or any other distribution
without the permission of Arthur Mortensen.

It should be noted at the beginning that descriptions and definitions of figures are not set in concrete.  What Sister Miriam Joseph described, derived from rhetoricians Classical and Medeaval, may vary slightly with other studies.  The same is true here.

To the subject -- the beginning of comparison is deceptively simple. Like people, things and events are compared in one or many details. However, there is value in such simple comparisons, which lies in the precision and significance of the details. For example, saying a black murder suspect is like a black police officer (because both are black) is a useless comparison; it tells us nothing about either one except what a reader's prejudice about black skin fills in.  Such comparisons depend entirely on subjective responses, and have a deservedly bad reputation.   Eichmann and many of the people he had slaughtered were German; were they in any way similar?  Conversely, what would the value be of saying that a white suspect was not like a black cop (because one was white, the other black)? A believer in one racist theory or another, be it black or white superiority, might disagree, but what of the rest of us? Similar or different skin colors are not significant details, except in a general description of either suspect or cop. If we want to know anything about either, and thereby draw meaningful comparisons, the details have to be revealing.

For example, if you say the suspect and the police officer both thought Mrs. Robinson was a great teacher at PS 24, the comparison invokes a question: why did the outcomes vary so radically for two people with similar judgments? A question might arise as to how perpetrator and cop used that teacher's lessons, or how the teacher treated her students differently. In other words, similarity of one detail might reveal dissimilarity of others, the picture expanding instead of shrinking to a simple "he's like/not like him." In that you should begin to feel the potential of comparison, as long as it's understood that A) comparison is always opinion and that B) opinion is useless without significant details. This applies to any comparison, be it comic, tragic or somewhere in between. What does this suggest?

Comparison involves a method. Some of that was invoked in the 16th century (and until the generation that went to school before World War II) by the teaching of various figures for drawing similarities and dissimilarities. Some of the figures of comparison are shown below. There's no need to know the Greek name, but pay attention to how each different figure works as a method is valuable:

Homoeosis: (General term that covered the following two figures used for similarity)

a) Icon: (describe similarity of one person or another, one object to another)

Lou's manner recalls Jack from high school -- remember him? If so, what's the next question?

A diamond, like a ruby, may make a wife cry, or allow a mistress some material satisfaction. A dubious supposition -- note how it reveals the writer's attitudes about wives and mistresses -- one's "in it" for love, the other for gain. Such a clever remark invites demanding questions.

A triangle, like a square, gives boundaries to the architect's imagination. Those boundaries may be restrictive or liberating of course.

Lucy and Raoul are twins in one respect; both are pursuing salvation, Raoul in music, Lucy in sex. Commands details for both

b) Paradigma: (show one thing following another -- the conclusion is more forceful if it follows several events leading to the end)

My great-grandfather worked silver; my grandfather cast brass; my father did gold molds for a dentist; it should be no surprise that I make jewelry. We handicrafters tend to run in groups. Note that nothing here is provable; it's just one of those things, like surnames that fit professions. Or is it? What did his or her other grandparents do?

She'd been in the business too long not to recognize a fellow traveler in Jack. She knew the look, the lingo, the swagger, and the attitude; she'd learned it from a master. Like her Aunt, Susan had never looked at an enemy with anger but with a cold distance, the way a hunter sights a stag, just behind the front shoulder, for a heart shot. Now, Jack did the same thing and Susan found herself moved -- sister by brother, no less. Note that there's no comparison of objectives, only of similar means. Susan may be an account executive, Jack a neurosurgeon. Such allowance for comparing people otherwise unlike is not simply the province of statistical analysis.

Gunpowder led to artillery; dynamite led to high explosive shells; fissionable materials led to doomsday bombs; in all of these discoveries, progress was measured by how far we'd come from war as the occasional death of combatants to war as potential death for anyone on Earth. Note: the idea of progress is itself a use of figurative language; progress is notoriously difficult to prove because it compares results in different times and there is no way of precisely doing that; historical lessons or examples of progress are matters of opinion. How good these opinions are puts them closer to or further from the realm of truth.

Fable: (a story about one thing that is a commentary on something else, usually the human condition -- Aesop's are the most famous; the tone of a fable can be sharp but is usually sardonic; there isn't room here to include entire fables but the most notable ones in the present day are cartoons, particularly cartoons from the 30's, 40's and 50's such as the serials "Tom and Jerry," "Betty Boop," "Popeye," and "Superman," and such features as Disney's "Lady and the Tramp," "Dumbo," and Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat.")

Parable: (Uses poetic, strange, and metaphorical language to convey a moral lesson -- the most famous those of prophets and of Jesus; nowadays, this figure tends to be restricted to priests and politicians and is often trivialized as a result (consult any "small town" stories by recent politicians; parables tend to be short with characters undetailed except in general terms. But, there have been writers who have explore these successfully)

At last, Adam and Eve meet on the edge of the cosmos; they have been fighting each other for ten thousand years, with words, whips, and knives, slashing with words, slapping with knives, speaking with whips. They have come to this last battleground to settle a score that predates their first words to one another: "I love you" and "I want you". How love has come to them over the years; how they have had one another. Blood runs in rivers from their caresses, washing over the landscape of our dreams, drowning our marriages in archetypal floods, and making our children try to swim, once again, as we did, long ago -- poor, futile strokes, pulling us into a madness as current as the stars.

Metaphor: (similarity is implicit, not direct;  usage here comes close to solecism or error; all that keeps the meaning clear is the connection drawn by the reader from the writer's attention to the details of the metaphoric comparison. Potentially the most powerful of the comparative figures, it is where most poets and writers slip into poor imitation, being overwrought, or missing altogether)

An old man's face shows streams and eddies from its former flow, each one a visible memory of a story that may be long forgotten.

A woman I remember used to play soprano in conversations with her neighbors. She didn't bother coming downstairs; she just leaned out the window. She had no use for dulcet tones; she hollered. She could play with another woman all day and go solo for 32 bars at a stretch. People listened; they always do to a master. Note that this borders on insulting a talkative woman; the combination of high praise creates enough ironic distance to carry the metaphor.

She was a fingernail dragging across a blackboard.

These sonnets are a secret love, sidling up, all manners and art, seductive and maybe sincere. There is a lot of editorial suggestion in this metaphor; in responding to it, attention will have to be paid to both the obvious and the subtle.

Jane flew into Lou's life, fluttering and singing, bringing in bits of this and that to nest, and finally settling in. If you're going to explore a cliché, make it interesting.)

Simile: (direct comparison stated; these aren't as interesting as metaphors and can be tiresome unless you dig for the interesting detail or slant)

As a river flows to the sea, so a woman's passion rushes to its source. - The Kama Sutra

As birds fly, spirits soar with the hopes of spring.

As fog dissipates in sunlight so lies lose their power when lit by truth.

An old virgin is like last week's snow; what's white has melted; what's left is yellow and brown.

Sometimes a friendly man is like a beagle; he's so plain and sweethearted that you want to throw a shoe at him.

Allegory: (Allegory is much more developed than parable or fable; in allegory, the sketches and cartoon figures of fable become fully developed characters which, nonetheless, purport to represent some aspect of the system, whether religious, political, economic, or technical, being described by the author. Some widely known allegories are Orwell's "Animal Farm," a depiction of the betrayed utopia of the Soviet Union of the 1930's, Marquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch," a lucid, fantasy about dictatorship, Lem's "Futurological Congress," a wickedly funny send-up of consumerism or his "Solaris," a dazzling exploration of academic theory in pursuit of an object that refuses to fit, Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles," one of the broadest criticisms of the frontier mentality ever written, the Spielberg film "Jaws," as good a warning about the unpredictability and danger of the natural world as you're likely to see, and Ionesco's play "Rhinoceros," a funny and yet cold-blooded depiction of politics gone wrong, Sheila Jackson's "The Lottery," which is less about small town tyranny than the behavior of urban crowds.  In each of these, there are fully developed characters living in worlds that do not, in any objective sense, exist. That's why science fiction is so often used for allegory; for reasons that have to do with the current fondness for technology, the fantastic is more "believable" on another world than among the police state animals of Orwell's "Farm..." It's interesting that Voltaire used the same method two and a half centuries ago in "Micromegas".  The same is true of giant, killer sharks, particularly when they're operated by good special effects teams. As long as the events or the location are virtually impossible in our world, allegory can be a very effective way of criticizing people who don't like criticism, and of analyzing governments and other institutions that might prohibit you from doing so in any other way. Allegory has its place in a free society too; it just has different subject matter).

Onomatopoeia: (Words or phrases that sound like, or seem to sound like the thing described)

The horse neighed;

the gun popped;

the cloth ripped;

the snake slithered;

he hit the ball

Catachresis: (use apparently wrong word to illuminate truth; call it a terse metaphor if you like.)

I lit their ignorance with words.

I stabbed him emotionally with my revelation about Susan.

She drowned my enthusiasm for sports cars by showing me a picture of one wreck.

Alice blanketed George's urge to tell stories after school by telling one about him.

John shelved Andrew's love for Susan by marrying her.

Comparisons are odious, the saying goes. Some comparisons are hateful; these usually fall into the categories of tourists discovering how "foreigners" are just like them, or of one race saying of another that there is absolutely no comparison. General comparisons of this kind often indicate the inability of one group or another to perceive either differences or similarities. Both racist and utopian theories of politics are radical examples of truly odious uses of comparison.

In science, comparisons are often sources of startling paradoxes. Why, since genetic materials are so similar in all living things, are there such enormous differences between life forms? (Research in the activity of prions has begun to expose possible reasons, it is fair to note.)  There is a philosophical tendency to use this kind of scientific observation to justify universal equality between living things. The animal rights movement is the best current example but there have been similar philosophical ventures throughout human history, including the rituals of magic and nature worship in earlier versions of the tribes you and I belong to.

In Elizabethan rhetoric and in their figures, the Aristotelian division of reality into classifications of general and specific, which still obtains in contemporary science (albeit in far more sophisticated form), was used to avoid what they considered logical errors. A dog is not comparable to a man in general terms; a dog is not human. A woman is; and despite the practices of the time regarding men and women, the appearance of logic that acknowledged fundamental equality between men and women predated Elizabethans by thousands of years. Dog and man, though, belong to different classes of living things; comparisons between them can only be in specifics, such as the structure of muscle cells, the compounds in bone tissue, and the functioning of motor centers in brain. Put all of the comparable parts together and you have radically different living things, no matter how many comparisons can be made between their parts.

So, when human qualities are put into dogs by writers and speakers, they're not talking dog, even when they're not deliberately engaging in metaphor, fable, or allegory. Someone who's unusually sentimental about the "human" behavior of a dog projects qualities from themselves or from people they know onto an animal whose behavior cannot be objectively shown to be much different than any other dog. Someone who attributes extremely mechanical or "instinctive" behavior to human beings ignores contradictions with this perception that might be observed by someone else. (This particular blindness typified 19th century deterministic science, as it still informs the politics of demagogues and much contemporary management.)

Comparisons require observation, thought, and clarity. That combination, rarely observed by any of us in writing or speaking, may be why comparisons have gotten a bad press. Most of us don't make good comparisons; it requires too much effort to do it well.

Comparison requires more than the word "like". It also requires "not like" and all of the intervening values. Comparison often involves considering something as less than or greater than, and not just equal to (that's easy with piles of twenty dollar bills; it causes social problems when the discussion turns to which art or theater group merits consideration at subsidy time).

To review how Elizabethans looked at comparison once again:

If the substance is the same, i.e., humanity, then no matter if specific examples are different - the substance is equal. For example if the substance is humanity, then men and women, whether tall, short, white, black, yellow, or red, all equally human; the comparative differences are of details, not of general qualities.

So, if what is compared is in the same class then differences are quantitative. (There are more women than men; there are fewer tall women than tall men)

If what is compared is in a different class then differences are qualitative. (Men talk; dogs bark. Humans build cities; dolphins swim in communities of water)


Related figures:

Comparatio: See previous, comparison of like things, events, or people)

Ralph is like George in several respects....

Auxesis/hyperbole: (an overwrought version of paradigm; the conclusion of the series of comparable events is ridiculous -- usually used for humor, but sometimes by politicians and priests for different purposes)

If the legislature passes this law, it will become a misdemeanor to insult a woman in the state of Minnesota; if a woman from this state becomes President of the United States, will she try to pass a law that makes insulting a female chief executive a capital offense?

A cell is one of trillions; a man is one of billions composed of trillions; our planet is one of billions that may be populated by billions composed of trillions. If we believe physicists like David Bohm, each cell is composed of an infinite amount of information, infinitely divided between an infinite number of particles. In such circumstances the ego is like a big rock, something to hold onto while we tumble into the abyss.

A baby controls the interests of his mother; a child those of his teachers; an adolescent those of educators, the opposite sex, and the parent who has the car keys; an adult, though, is lucky to control what time he or she goes to sleep.

When Jack was a toddler, he took apart wooden toys, and would examine the pieces for hours before deciding that it was time to eat; when Jack was a teenager, he took apart old cars, and would leave the body panels, suspension bits, and engines scattered around the garage, looking over each one for hours until he decided that it was time to take the family car out to get a pizza with his friends; it leads me to wonder just what Jack does now that he's become a doctor -- I imagine him taking apart patients and leaving the odd leg and liver about when he answers his wife's call to come home for a snack; patients must get restless.

Meiosis: (diminish someone or an act by comparing it to something that really is good; similar to irony but the comparison is direct here)

George works as a loan officer on the Brazil desk, where he's lent his clients as much as a billion dollars worth of paper we know will net less than 50 cents a dollar on the principal; now, that shows a man of real thrift.

Lou fired everybody; he was about as efficient as one could hope.

Jack made love to his wife twice last year; I like an attentive husband.

I believe Louise went to church on Christmas day -- she's very faithful.

When he backed out of the parking space, Carl hit two Buicks and a truck. I like a man with good aim.

Paradiastole: (use flattery to calm; implicit comparison of what's upsetting or dangerous to something that's all right -- in error but to communicate meaning)

Oh, don't mind Johnny with his fisticuffs. He's got a fine temper, he has, and wouldn't hurt a flea.

Now I'm not going to argue about your right to sell your merchandise; I think that you've a nice trade but I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't sell heroin to my son.

Oh, no problem, I enjoy being pushed in crowds; it makes me feel close to people, even those I don't know.

George, you're mistaken; I didn't mind your dropping the ashtray during the soliloquy; being upstaged when you're is part of my the part I play.

Go ahead and make your beer bottle whistle; it's got a nice sound to it and, besides, I joined the musicians union so I could audition drunks like you for my band.

Charientismus:(mock with inappropriate language, often used to characterize someone as fey, certainly to make light of the serious --the comparison implicit is inappropriate but says something else)

(As the firing squad aims) Pierce me sweetly with your bullets, men.

(As the atom bomb bursts) What gentle light burns off our eyelids?

(As the plane plunges toward earth) We're settling like a dove to certain death.

(As the alien gets off the spaceship) Oh, my god, another immigrant.

(As the eight-year-old solves a calculus problem) Now, dear, don't be upset because our little girl can count.

Catacosmesis: (express degree through word order; comparison of lesser to greater, useful in commentary, humor)

I don't care if you're God, the President, a Governor, or a real smart kid, we're in a fix and you can't help!

Lastly, you'll be in heaven; just before that you'll be in agony; and for a few years before that you'll parent children, engage in some trade or other, this just after tormenting your parents, and not too long after your mother drops you in a doctor's hands.

From God to ant, the order of things remains.

Dad, don't feel bad that I don't agree with you; I asked mother first, my teacher second, and my best friend third, and they all agreed that I should go to Pittsburgh for the summer.

Epanorthosis: (comparison was in error, the speaker or writer corrects, always useful in arguments or debates)

I speak not with malice, but with love.

George offers not a new order, but an old hierarchy with a new name.

The people vote not with their hearts, but with their pocketbooks.

Tricia cooks not for her tongue, but for her husband's temper.

Matthew dictates not a letter for a friend, but an epistle for a true believer. (this might be considered irony too)

Dirimens copulatio: (show the expected reason, as well as the better reason -- comparison of greater to lesser, sometimes serious, sometimes to indicate or given idiotic advice)

I ask you to join us not only from self interest, but from love.

The state would have you here, not only to sit in the jury box, but to act with judgment.

I want you to arrive not just as a driver of a car, but as a motivation of passengers.

Write not only to tickle the reader's fancy, but to light the hidden places of imagination.

Ask not what General Motors will do for you, but what you can do for General Motors.

Emphasis:(use a general instead of a concrete quality, again, a formal error)

She is woman.

He is courage.

Here comes Mr. Avarice.

That face is pure hound dog.

George is numbers and not much else.

Synonymia: (repeat one's self; comparison is pointless -- it's the same thing; sometimes a chain of these is a good way of expressing irritation or another approach to overstatement)

Does Louise think me handsome, believe me fair, or perceive me as good looking?

I hope for peace; I wish for a cessation of hostilities; I wake up nights with dreams of silent guns.

Howard first complains about his mistreatment; then he whines about his being abused; then he howls about his being forced to feel bad by unthinking boobs.

Exergasia/expolitio: (repeat idea with different figures, a way of making pointless comparisons interesting and sometimes meaningful)

Does she say that I'm handsome, and will she engage in thoughts of my sunny appeal? Does she think me as hot as Zeus? Does she surf toward me, declaring on the beautiful curl.

Will this sailor beach his hopes on me? I wake up, shouting to him, "Louis, wash over me," but will he? The Navy sailed by; will he anchor in my bay? His voice splashed in my ear but did he say "I'm coming"? Before he sails on, will he weigh anchor with me?

To him, crowds were like vitamins to a hedonist, a necessary evil, tolerated as required; among bees, he would have been a solitary queen; as a social beast, his smile masked bared teeth.

Parecbasis/digression: (argue against proposition by suggesting another comparison; these can sting if done well)

Jimmy Hoffa was a powerful labor leader, but I remember Steve, who would help out in a strike, but was beaten to death by friends of Mr. H.

Ronald Reagan helped raise the image of our country, but Jimmy Carter's America had more than 60% of the population who could afford to buy homes. Under Ronald, less than 50% could.

Yes, Eugene O'Neill could drive an audience, but Elmer Rice could write prose. O'Neill's plays had feeling but little craft.

I don't doubt that the new eugenics will have an impact on our health in the future; just look at what the first eugenics movement did for Jews. Here the figure is combined with irony.

Television's impact on society has been extraordinary; nobody reads anymore; nobody draws distinctions anymore; hardly anybody thinks anymore. Good example of overstatement too, another form of comparison

Reditus ad propositum:(long digression, call attention to it, return to subject.)

We're here tonight to honor the Chairman of the Jaycees. (a long story ensues about a farmer's daughter, a sailor on leave, a salesman, a farmer, and a farmer's wife). Oh, and yes, that reminds me, we aren't here to tell jokes; we're here to honor somebody -- who? Oh, yes, the Chairman of the Jaycees.

Anyone reading this far knows one answer -- we use these varieties of comparison all of the time. The rhetoricians who developed an expressive method for comparison by codifying what we do. The value of this structured approach to comparison to help us better control how we do it, and by that making our comparisons clear and to accurately reflect our intentions.

Next time, in these excerpts from The Art of the Figure, we will look at a series of figures devoted to logical expression.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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