Monday, March 10, 2008

Recycled metaphors, pre-owned words

Last week I posted this paragraph from The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean because I found the metaphor fresh and compelling. Yesterday I picked up Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (the Moncrieff translation because that's the only one I have) and encountered the very same metaphor:

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

This passage appears at the end of the "Overture,"the opening chapter in which Proust provides a sort of raison d'etre and reading manual for the work as a whole. It's an important enough passage that I should have remembered it when I saw the same image in The Orchid Thief--and maybe, at some level, I did remember it. I hadn't been planning to re-read Proust this week, but by Sunday afternoon, I had already exhausted my Spring Break reading. Maybe some dim memory of that blooming paper image drove me to reach for Proust when I had been inclining toward Dickens.

Was Susan Orlean aware that she was employing a recycled metaphor? Does Proust's use of the metaphor nearly a century ago make it any less fresh and compelling? And where did Proust find the metaphor?

I've always been a sucker for the bright, sparkly image, but this experience reminds me that it is always wise to kick the tires and look under the hood just in case someone is trying to hide a pre-owned vehicle under a shiny new coat of paint.

Wait a minutes...hasn't that used-car metaphor been used before?

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