Thursday, May 1, 2014

Day 3- On Enid Blyton, the extended transferred epithet and religion

If I had to name just one person I spent most of my childhood with, that would be Enid Blyton. I remember spending whole summer months letting myself get sucked into her world- with flying cars and pixies and adventure lurking at every turn. In the early years I even wondered how it would be if all my toys came out at night and had little fights or skated on soap.

Anyway, there was one story (one of my favorites) about a boy who sees an enchanted book at a store. The book opens from both ends- each tells a different story. Both stories are about the boy's own life and what his future would be like. On one story, he makes his choices based on ambition- spends more time at his business, is often cruel etc. On the other- his choices are based on family and love, and though he doesn't make too much money, he is content.

As a kid reading the story, it was obvious which side to pick- the kind side. But you see, that's the problem with the stories kids are told. They have not one inch of the gray that fills real life, or to use the cliched phrase, they are too black and white. Anyway, that's not the point for today.

The thing I really want to highlight is how authors tend to bunch qualities together. In this story, for instance, the boy (when he grew up, that is) would not only spend too much time at business, but would also be mean to his customers and get angry all the time. Then the reader's mind would almost automatically associate the making money with the other "bad" qualities of being cruel, when in fact it is possible for a man to make money and still be a good person.
In contrast, if you pick a story like "Atlas Shrugged", there are the people who make money and sound cruel but are actually kinder through their actions. But there, Ayn Rand also has some fictional associations- like the fact that the smart people are all blunt, arrogant AND successful, while the villains are all not just evil and people-pandering but quite stupid; or the fact that all the "good" people speak the same kind of language and anyone who uses any amount of subtlety in their speech is some sort of conniving villain.

I see this as a very interesting literary device. It is very close to the transferred epithet in the sense that the effect (or our judgement) of one quality is actually transferred on to others. Which is why I want to call it the extended transferred epithet. But the reason it is interesting is because it is also very very powerful.

Take these verses, for instance..

"But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."

"Know that a king who heeds not the rules (of the law), who is an atheist, who is rapacious, who does not protect his subjects (but) devours (i.e. mistreats) them, will sink low (after death)"

The first is from the Bible (Revelation 21:8) and the second is from a translation of the Manusmrithi (Ch8, Topic17, Verse309).

In both cases, a set of negative characteristics are combined with the "faithless" and the "atheists". Of course, with most religions "faithless" is bad enough to warrant prosecution- it is often considered evil by definition. But the subtle propaganda that lets religions persist, especially in the age of technology and information, exists in these places- in stories where the villains are evil AND non-believers, where the books proclaim that the faithless are also always immoral (conveniently skipping over the faithless moral human being). Religions are not only full of these; they are so prevalent that most people tend to actually believe them (like believing all faithless people are also immoral). Which is why I said it is a very powerful device.

Anyway, let me finish off today by saying that I think the extended transferred epithet is a beautiful literary device. It is convenient and powerful. But that's precisely why one should be wary of it.

P.S: There may be a real name for this literary device. I tried looking for it but couldn't find it. So I came up with my own name for it instead! :P

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