Food Chains

In a text of great interest to the authors of this blog, George Orwell offered a rule for prose enthusiasts: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Both O. and I have cautioned readers that Mr. Orwell could not have meant what he wrote in “Politics and the English Language” literally.  [I let the adverb “literally” do double duty because I enjoy such ambiguities.  I read “literally” as acceptable modifying either “wrote” or “meant” or both verbs.  Nyuk!  Nyuk!  Nyuk!]

However, Mr. Orwell’s rule, scaled back to an admonition, should be heeded.  In this morning’s The New York Times Book Review [15 November 2009, p. 14], I read [ambiguous tense, too, makes me Nyuk!  Nyuk!  Nyuk!]

Sir Harold Evans knows his way around a story, having served as the editor of The Sunday Times of London, The Times of London, and all manner of publications up and down the food chain.

I have recoiled occasionally when hierarchies of mass media and other orderings have been designated “food chains.”   What does the author intend such a trope to mean?  Which newspapers, for example, would be autotrophs, the producers at the bottom of the food chain who turn inorganic materials into food?  Are wire services autotrophs?  Or are those who create news for wire-service reporters the initial producers?  In “Wag the Dog,” are Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro playing producers?   [Nyuk!  Nyuk!  Nyuk!]

Maybe spinners and planners “produce” news by shaping opportunities for reporters to report and photographers to photograph.  [Another text of great interest to the owners of this blog is Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, which told all about “pseudo-events,” events created to be reported in mass media.]  If so, exactly how far “up and down” any food chain might Sir Harold have ranged?  If we take The Times of London to be a primary consumer of photo opportunities and story opportunities [however produced from “raw materials”], do we salvage the “food chain” metaphor by treating reporters as primary consumers who are then selectively eaten by secondary consumers [editors and publishers?]?

The metaphor might work to an extent in modern America, where some autotroph producers events or occasions to induce coverage, which in turn becomes reportage, and that secondary consumption is then chewed up and spit out in broadcasts.  Am I the only one who finds this chain of foolishness unrevealing?

However, the “food chain” metaphor may work for the title and subtitle of  Sir Harold’s book:  My Paper Chase puns on newspapering and recycles the title of an American movie and an American television series;  the subtitle — True Stories of Vanished Times —  is droll as well, recycling the styles of two newspapers Sir Harold edited.

Nyuk!  Nyuk!  Nyuk!

Very Like a Whale by  Ogden Nash


One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn’t just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
thus hinder longevity.
We’ll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were
gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
wold on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don’t imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I’ll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn’t fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people they say Oh yes, they’re the ones that a lot of
wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets,
from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.


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