Hitting the Bottle: Transcription of a Lecture in Advanced Rhetoric (English 438)
Hitting the bottle day and night was not the best way for Hemingway to save his marriage.
[He wrote this on the board and said he was going to follow three-part Puritan sermon form, which we covered in January, to explain it. He wrote the three parts on the board--Text, Explication, Application. Two classes earlier, reading "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," we got on the topic of Hemingway's drinking problem. I recorded this lecture on my cell.]
In this sentence, students, "bottle" is an example of metonymy, which is a figure of speech involving association, not comparison as in metaphor. "She's a witch" is a metaphor because it implies through comparison that a given woman resembles physically or morally or both a hag [some students giggled]. But to say to a woman "Pick up your broomstick and fly out of here" is the metonymic way of calling her a witch because we associate broomstick with a witch's means of travel and in fact this metonym was drilled into our heads at a very young age when we first saw The Wizard of Oz or went trick-or-treating for the first time. Have you ever seen a witch without a broomstick? That's a rhetorical question. Of course not.
But of course there's always more: discourse on witches, as we saw with the Puritans, reflecting negative views of domesticity, spinsterhood, vaginal power, and women, independent or ugly women, clever women, women who can read, women on the outskirts (metaphor or metonymy?) of the colony. All kinds of misogynistic attitudes are embedded in "broomstick," which shows how effective metonymy can be. Another example. If I told you in my family my mother wore the pants, you would say, Nicole? "Your mother was in charge, not your dad." Right. [Nicole smiled.] That's what it would mean. Supposedly women, the so-called weaker sex, wear dresses while big powerful daddy wears pants and makes all the big decisions. That's metonymy. Likewise, "hitting the bottle" uses metonymy to say a lot about Hemingway and his four marriages.
[He scrunched up his eyes, breathed deeply for ten seconds or so, then resumed at a slower pace.]
Now part three. In my case the bottle--and note that none of this would apply to the Mountain Dew bottle that Shannie brought to class today or the Aquafina bottle that Melanie has on her desk, and that's because metonymy works within a particular context--is almost literally killing me because it refers to the fact that someone I know is addicted to the fluid in a specific material bottle--no, no, correct that, dozens of bottles strewn around the house, under our bed and couch, under the bathroom sink, deep in the closet behind sweaters and quilts, under the driver's seat of her car, in the hope chest, in short wherever I normally don't go, her secret places--addicted to the clear liquid contained not within an actual bottle or flask but sloshing inside a plastic liter container, not glass, not an actual bottle.
Now look at this. If we substitute "o" in bottle with "a"--presto--"battle," a new metaphor [he wrote bottle on the board and went at it with finger and chalk]. She battles the bottle, I battle her, our baby being a major casualty [Melanie, an older student, sighed]. And change the "b" to "r" and you have "rattle," an onomatopoeic metaphor. This battle rattles me, makes me crazy. And change the "a" back to "o" and delete "tle" and what's left is "rot"--from bottle to battle to rattle to rot.
That I tell my friends she hits the bottle nightly obviously means she drinks a lot, she doesn't hit anything any more than Hemingway does in our Text, not literally, certainly not me or the baby, she is quite a gentle soul, hasn't even "hit rock bottom," an assonant metonym, by the way.
But one fateful day she ran out of drink. Hadn't been able to sneak out and buy some. Five hours later, boom, withdrawal. I was there. I will never forget the fit, another loaded word--butwhohasthetime--never forget this: [he lowered his voice and looked toward the ceiling and began talking in trance-like units]
the canister of Pledge she was polishing the bedside table with
launched by the spasm crossing the room airborne
striking the hope chest
which contained a bunch of bridal stuff and billets-doux [I had to look this up, it took me awhile to find how this is spelled because it sounds like billay-do]
yellow-dyed by time
empty bottles too
From the baby's room
I heard it ding the chest
dropped the diaper
ran like mad
she was already down
in a realm where fine words do not obtain
arching and flopping on the floor
more fish than female deprived of oxygen
while doing household tasks suddenly faltering on a carpet
blood spraying out black beads
eyes dripping the syrup of sight
foam like melting sponge clinging to clenched lips.
She gasped for a pin-drop of air
spitting, quaking, howling
legs clubbing the floor
hands swiping it for something to hold
a grain of gravel, a speck of dirt
her face swelling hot brown-pink paint
close to bursting and coating the beige walls.
I ran screaming for a phone
looked for nine-one-one
couldn't find the nine
did at last
ran back shouting into it and found her catatonic
don't die my darling
don't die my darling
scooped her up
heavy like a dying thing
don't die don't die my darling
fearsome eyes distended
beset by invisible ghouls
clawed out amidst guttural curses
flopped back down
blue eyes bigger than
and wider than
and voice like
four paramedics had broken in
baby in my arms
baby wide-eyed watching mommy
sitting up with help
men in white preparing to cart her away
where am I who are they my name is my daughter's name is the year is I don't know
blotchy face mustering a little pucker
for a dry kiss of welcome back
having been forsaken by God for three minutes
one day before her thirty-fourth birthday
crucified on the last day
of her thirty-third year
outside the sun glared one hundred
Fourth of July degrees
[Distant siren, hum of lights, a cell phone in the corridor, voices, bodies shifting in cheap seats, sniffling, and then]
The bottle. A metonym. Let's leave it at that. See you tomorrow. "Quiz?" asked Nicole. No quiz, definitely no quiz on this. [And gathering his things, he said "I'm sorry" as he walked out of the room.]
About the author:
Recent work by Steve Hamelman, a mountain biker, rock drummer, and father of three radiant children, can be found in Dirt Rag, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, and Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. His book on rock music, But Is It Garbage? On Rock and Trash (University of Georgia Press), came out a few years ago. Hamelman is a professor of American literature and media theory at Coastal Carolina University and is the drummer for Virtue Trap, now in its tenth year of gigging in the Myrtle Beach area.