Sunday, December 15, 2013

A covert comparison

In the novel Hard Times, Mr James Harthouse, a Lucifer-figure in the languid guise of a swell, invites Tom (his quarry) up to his rooms, to begin the course of moral seduction, and to continue the process of depravation so well-begun by the young man’s narrowly nominalist pedagogic antecedents.  He offers him a smoke, and then

a cooling drink adapted to the weather, but not so weak as cool.

Which is to say:  a stiff one.

This sentence is a gem of compression, and a wonder of indirection.  Even knowing its implicated meaning, you are not quite certain how the trick was done.   And here, moreover -- and what lifts this effect above the level of mere elegance -- the semantico-syntax perfectly mirrors the method of the Devil when first he approaches his prey (and before you have signed your soul away in blood):  smooth, suave, but always just a bit óff  in ways you can’t quite put your finger on.

I attempted such effects myself, with increasing brazenness, in a series of detective stories (I Don’t Do Divorce Cases and subsequent productions), in which the client who shows up at the detective’s door  has been effectively sent by the Devil, and who is later, ever more clearly, the Devil himself.


However, I am no credentialed theologian, but only an LPL  (Licensed Practical Linguist), and so must leave off such speculations and return, like some reverse Cincinnatus, to my own field, and attend to the furrow which is mine to plow:  to wit, the linguistics of the thing.

This “not so weak as cool” is an example of one type of qualitative comparison: rather than assessing two items quantitatively along a single dimension (as, “John is taller than Bill”), it assesses a single item in two contrasting dimensions, as:

longer than it is wide
more sinned-against than sinning
more clever than scrupulous
The more usual syntax in a case like ours, is “not so much X as Y”, but the abbreviated version may occasionally be found in writing that strives for elegance:

Van Dine, The Bishop Murder Case (1928):
"`Did you find [it] difficult?' -- `Not so  difficult  as tricky.'" (i.e., not so much...)
However, our two examples differ in the details of their semantics.  In the Van Dine quotation, it really means:  “I wouldn’t really describe it with your word difficult;  the word tricky, while semantically related, better meets the case”.    That is to say, we are still in a sense moving in a single dimension of assessment (albeit one qualitatively rather than quantitatively graded), and are groping for the mot juste.   In the Dickens mot, by contrast, there are genuinely two distinct dimensions of assessment -- the temperature vs. the alcoholic strength of the drink -- and both designations are juste;  the relative placement along these separate scales is indicated by the comparison.   The Dickensian case really does differ from the Van Dinean, and this is reflected in its syntactic possibilities:  the Van Dine example could equally well have been phrased “not so much `difficult’ as ‘tricky’ ”, whereas the one from Dickens could not be similarly rephrased -- “not so much ‘weak’ as ‘cool’”, which does mean something but means something quite different.

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