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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


The Poetry of Pants

Monday, August 02, 2004

There is an e-mail doing the rounds which contains examples of bizarre metaphors used by students in GCSE English Language exams. Some of them are simply funny; one can but imagine the motion of the person who "walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs". Others suggest the violently warped mind of an author who "hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall".



For me, however, poetic language defamiliarises. It uses conventional words, the words we use for all practical daily purposes ("walk into my office," "ow that hurt"), in different ways; it (re)draws attention to the nature of the objects or the emotions it describes. This is why I find a phrase such as "His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer" peculiarly moving, simultaneously witty and challenging. It suggests the mundane nature of our domestic and daily existence in a world of underwear and washing; simultaneously throughout such an existence, no matter how trivial, we are in a state of violent and perpetual fracture, attempting to recover from self-conscious disharmony and to reunite lost friendships.



It is very easy to react to the admittedly unusual image with patronising laughter, yet its obscurity demands deconstruction. It draws attention to its own use of language, its ambiguities and tonal contrasts between humour and seriousness. To provoke this reaction is far more preferable to that lazy automatism with which we respond to that most dangerous of phrases, with its easy and natural associations, the cliche. No doubt the examiner responds to 'powder soft snow' and 'sparkling eyes' with a red tick of curriculum satisfaction. I am more interested by tumbling underpants.

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