Few of us face our feelings head on. Polite euphemisms and humor are draped over that which stings us as habitually as tablecloth over tabletop. I am not here to argue we should all stare at the naked timber, tracing the growth-ring grooves in the wood without fear or shame. Few of us want to and even fewer of us can. Defense mechanisms defend us for a reason. We need safeguarding, for we are neither safe nor guarded. I adore the tablecloth. I’m a writer, how could I not? Storytelling is the hiding of one thing behind another. Writers warp their realities into their stories, changing what they won’t face into that which they adore to confront. Worlds and words of their own.
Literary analogies, story-level metaphors, help us think through what is too large to understand. Whole histories cannot be captured in a sole thought, no more than the multitudes we contain can fit in a single concept. Yet, we come close through analogy. Literary greats and littles used them to describe the Soviet Union as an unassuming Animal Farm, or to portray an ennui so overpowering we feel little stronger than an insect in The Metamorphosis, or to anthropomorphize the raging madness of obsession in the flesh-draped bones of Moby Dick. But with the warping of stories comes new meaning. Truth does not survive becoming a metaphor unscathed. Unintended layers of associations are plastered on. These layers can easily turn good intentions into horrible connotations. When analogizing a group of people defined by what is oft used to hurt them – be it their class, ethnicity, or sexuality – these connotations can become truly noxious, dangerous even.
Egalitarianism is built on the idea that we are all different but, more importantly, equal. If a writer uses the non-human to describe a people, an immediate and vast difference, an inherent inequality, is created between them and their oppressor, who is normally another variety of non-human. Allow me to expand.
Excluding obvious stereotypes like the crows in Dumbo, or calamitous cornucopias of monkey-caricatures elsewhere, and examining only mostly well-intentioned works, pitfalls can be found without much perusing. Take Animal Farm, turning one of the 20th century’s many incomprehensible travesties into a digestible tale of idealistic farm-animals being slaughtered by the ambition of their corrupt swine-commanders. But replacing the many peoples of the Soviet Union with animals immediately creates a biological divide between them. A book preaching the virtues of equality does so by dividing its subjects into genetic cages. The pigs take charge and the horses are worked to death. Initial admiration for the novel is smothered when realizing pigs are biologically smarter and horses biologically stronger, so this division of work, however unfair it is portrayed, is oddly logical. In reality, there are no pigs and horses among us, only the poor and rich, a distinction infinitely more arbitrary than the vast difference between pigs and horses. There is no biological truth behind class, but this book accidentally insinuated exactly that.
A more recent example. Bright. An impressively mediocre stab at neo-fantasy. Will Smith smugly struts about the soiled streets of a modern-day-city inhabited by fantastical creatures. The orcs of this world listen to rap-music in graffiti-crammed slums, speak with slivering slang, and hold their pistols sideways. Black-face reincarnated in the annals of Tolkien. The analogy of orcs as African-Americans is so obviously problematic it leaves one speechless. Minorities painted throughout our many racist ages as violent, animalistic even, are now analogized as hulking beasts with tusks protruding from thick lips, sniffing loudly. In nearly every fantasy world ever writ orcs are biologically more prone to violence than other races. ‘Fuck it, let’s use them to portray African-Americans’ thought writer Max Landis. Jesus.
This might appear to be as bad as it gets. It is not. Luther: Fallen Sun, another so-and-so Netflix-venture into the expected, somehow out-xenophobes orc-black-people. Andy Cercis, over-acting with the enthusiasm of somebody just present for the paycheck, gives a mystifying monologue near the climax of the film: he speaks of his fear to be himself, to come out for who he truly is; about his desire for a community of people with the same problems, equally rejected by society and parent. Earlier he sings the queer anthem ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross. He has a subtly flamboyant hairstyle and a flair for the dramatic. It’s laid on as thick as a thirty-layered tablecloth. Yet he is not gay. He is a serial killer. An analogy between gay men and serial killers. My cries of ‘what?’ slowly became ‘What!?’ and finally grew into ‘WHAT!?’ throughout the film, as my eyes ballooned in astonishment. The film never addresses this. There are zero actually established queer characters. There is no moment redeeming any of this. Again, with all my forced verbosity, I have little more to add than ‘WHAT!?’
Fittingly, like many analogies, these are extremes to portray the everyday. Most analogies are not this problematic. Still, it is a question warranting a solution. I believe the answer to lie in literature’s greatest tool: the adding of yet more tablecloth. What else? Avoid direct links between object and end result of analogy. While I assertively alleged the insect of Kafka’s Metamorphosis to symbolize depression, I don’t know. It could be many things. It could be queerness; the family’s rejection could undoubtedly be a clue towards this. It could be the general feeling of alienation. It could be class. It can be an infinite amount of things. Is Moby Dick really obsession? Or is the unknowability and meaninglessness of human existence? Is it God? Or is it just a big fish? These questions avoid othering the other further and allow the reader to think for themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that the horses were the working class, the orcs were minorities, and the serial killers symbolized gay people. But there should be. There should be opaqueness. A brilliant recent example of this is The Banshees of Inisherin. In it, two island-bound Irish men have a sudden falling out that turns meaninglessly destructive, all under the oppressive score of orchestra-like cannon-fire echoing from the mainland. The Irish civil war rages there. It becomes clear the two men symbolize this conflict, with all its needless bloodshed and chaotic cruelty. The question quickly becomes, who symbolizes the Free State and who the IRA? But where we seek the dark comfort of the oaken tabletop we find only the cloth confusion of its cover. There is no clear answer to this. We are left to think on our own, pondering the plurality of the piece. A perfect example of an analogy done well. Multi-interpretability remains the strongest shield and easiest escape-route for the writer who plans to plunge into the murky depths of the analogy of otherness.
Written by Arthur Mulder