Metalepsis, The Trope of Tropes

by Mark Staff Brandl

Metalepsis is one of the most interesting and unique of all tropes. I had never considered it deeply until reading Harold Bloom. But what is it?

Also called transumption, metalepsis is the paradoxical transgression of ontological (and not merely narrative) levels of representation, “a trope on a trope,” is the “trope of tropes” in Modern and Postmodern times (according to Harold Bloom, mainly). It can occur in three ways:

  1. Intrusion of the author (breaking the proscenium arch, so to speak). Example: The author Milan Kundera intrudes regularly in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to give philosophical observations.
  2. A play on two words, the second of which has a double meaning (a somewhat childish form; a pun): “The room was not light, but his figures were.” Light meaning both “not dark” and “light-fingered/thieving.”
  3. Most important: use of something later in place or something earlier (or the opposite) — a kind of structural or narrative “pun,” double temporality of a work and its presentation; the story AND its telling; a “mistake” in time; a trope reversing trope; often — playing a metonymy on another trope, a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope; troping on a forerunner’s trope.

Example: Milton’s simile of Satan’s shield comes from Homer’s Achilles (Illiad) and The Faerie Queen’s Radigund, wherein he anachronistically adds facts garnered from Galileo’s telescope: craters. They were in fact always there, so Milton is more correct, yet while the facts are earlier, nonetheless the knowledge of them is later.

Example: Shakespeare: “All the World’s a Stage.” The Kinks: “Everybody’s a dreamer, everybody’s a star, everyone’s a movie star, no matter who you are.” This updates Shakespeare through metonymy (every common person – instead of the world) is a movie star (instead of an actor on a stage). Although in this instance, it is not clearly “Bloomian” enough in that it doesn’t clearly attempt to be earlier. However, the song’s composer Kinks front man Ray Davies has always been socially critical, so I think he is earlier, in that he places the common man before the generally noble characters in Shakespeare.

A few other short examples:

Pallid death
The effect of death is to make the body ashen. Ascribing this result to death itself as an adjective here is an example of metalepsis.

He is such a lead foot.
This means of course, “he drives too fast” but only through an unstated causal chain of logic: Lead is heavy, a heavy foot would press the accelerator, and this would cause the car to speed almost uncontrollably.

Better: In Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy, Tristram blames his unsettled, troubled life and even his own disturbed temperament (the effect) on his parents’ inopportune conception of him (the distant cause). This is a rather comical and extended example of metalepsis.

A sillier example just for fun:

Elvis Presley once sang a song (NOT written by him) wherein he spoke (NOT sang) “Somebody once wrote that all the world’s a stage.”

This is, of course, ridiculous, because we all know this “somebody” to be Shakespeare, and we all know Elvis hardly wrote any songs, yet he makes it sound as if he were impromptu composing that phrase on stage. So, I would write a metalepsis about that as following:

“Some king once sang about all the boards being worlds …”

Bringing in ‘the King of Rock,’ a nickname for Elvis, ‘boards’ as in ‘the boards’ — the stage, but also panels, as in paintings, adding to that inversion with the world ‘world.’ Thus, I get representation ahead of (“earlier than”) illusion.

As I was searching for useful exemplary metalepses once for teaching, an amusing event occurred. A young daughter of friends of ours made one off the cuff while teasing her father. He had been teasing her, saying she was impudent, cheeky. She said “The apple does not fall far from the … horse.” It was hilarious. We all expected, of course, the word “tree” as in the typical expression, yet she played a further more complicated joke by making that a horse. Making her a horse-apple and her father, in effect, a horse’s ass. The tropaic genius of childhood!

I discussed Vincent van Gogh’s metaphor(m) in an earlier article. Let me expand it slightly in the light of metalepsis. Vincent van Gogh plays a metaphor on the brushstroke of the Impressionists — their stroke was modelled after dappled sunlight, in a fashion — thus a simile. Vincent makes it into a flame-like stroke, a metaphor played on a simile, however one which puts passion ahead of and before representation of sunlight, physically, emotionally, even personally-historic (i.e. like a child). He gets to go toward his goal of expression of feelings as more primary in art, while using the breakthroughs of the Impressionists (and Japanese drawing, but that’s another story). It also gives him wider developmental possibilities, through access to foundational tropes of feeling. He “beats” his precursor by being more primary and getting history backwards.

The Bloomian technique lies in utilizing various conceptions of time together with knowledge of inspirational models (“precursors,” as he calls them, that is, art and literary history). Milton was able to be metaleptically earlier than Homer and Edmund Spencer by using what could be called God’s History, the Bible stories of the Fall of Satan. This purports to be even earlier than the Greek tales with which he vies. In a similar, yet unique vein, van Gogh conceives of hostory, true to his nature, in terms of the “developmental,” that is an individual person’s life history. This was Paul Klee’s approach as well.

To personalize it, in my own art, I operate metaleptically in the realms of the personal, class, and the ontological (contraries being before resolutions). I am using my personal (and thereby American) history, to be more primary than pop and conceptual artists. I do this through the fact of my “fathers” (plural) being a sign-painter and display man (my real dad, Earl Brandl) and comic artists (Gene Colan, my spiritual art father). Thereby I am inverting the class-based political history, much like Ray Davies mentioned above. My “stroke” is an enlarged, American Chicagoan, loud, James Brown version of the thick-and-thin beautiful stroke of the traditional comics artist or sign painter, “preached up” to the point of Pollock-like strength (thanks going here to inspiration from African-American preachers) and out-Duchampian-ing the Neo-Duchampians by being earlier, truer to his Spirit (by way of citational complexity such as in Tu M’ or The Large Glass and through installation) and not his Letter (the Found Object extensions of Neo-Consceptualism), an inspiration from the African-American conception of respect for the Jazz fathers, while altering them. This is enlarged as well with an actual deep knowledge of European and other art history of the world (as I am also and art historian). This I unite with sequentiality, from Colan and others, as well as sign-painting and display techniques, from my father, and playful use of art history.

My theory of metaphor(m) stresses the prominence of allusion. Metalepsis, this trope-of-tropes could be one tool for an allusive yet affirmative struggle of reversals, performed with purposeful discontinuity on a stage of one’s own knowledge, with psychological and spiritual desire. The precursor’s, and history’s, presence is nether denied in feigned or sought out ignorance, nor granted a forfeit win through worship. However, remember in this playfulness, the work itself is central. It itself is the achieved trope, not some relic or illustration of the same. Metalepsis can be an important way to rethink history, ones own history and ones work, in our continuing struggle to revitalize art.