What it’s not
Aristotle is really clear in delineating the properties which may be used to describe something in Topics. The motive behind Topics is to identify the constituent parts of an argument. Arguments are derived from propositions that have both a subject and a predicate. If the predicate is interchangeable with the subject, then the proposition is a definition, otherwise it is a property. These properties are enumerated as quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, activity, and passivity.
Having a variety of ESL students in both of my classes, I think it will be a good idea to review many of the descriptive words used to list these properties. I hate flowery description, myself, and there are usually more than enough properties for any given subject to provide a good description without resorting to them. That’s my biggest fear about teaching beginning composition— the “writerly” types who want to load up every page with a bunch of fru-fru nonsense. It’s always best to start with the literal, before you try to start building up chops. Literal description begins with simple properties. The first step towards knowledge begins with arriving at propositions such as these. However, in order to evaluate statements, properties must be compared with the subject to test their scope, their similarity, and their differences from the subject.
It occurred to me last night that it is easy to get stumped when trying to describe something— watching my students scratch their heads when I asked them to make a list of things about themselves to share with the rest of the class made me wonder about ways to overcome that mental-block. I decided that the best strategy I could think of to describe something when you run out of things to say regarding what it is— is to start enumerating the things that it is not.
To that end, I’ve decided to use this fragment of writing by Tom Robbins to illustrate one way of overcoming that block. It also serves as a nice bridge between the literal and the metaphoric, the territory I’ll be exploring next week. It’s always a challenge to come up with ideas for texts that aren’t hard— I like things that are hard, a fascination that not many college freshmen share. Hopefully, this won’t be too challenging to start out with.
It is not a heart: light, heavy, kind or broken; dear, hard, bleeding or transplanted; it is not a heart.
It is not a brain. The brain, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo so highly regarded (by the brain itself), that slimy organ to which is attributed such intricate and mysterious powers (it is the selfsame brain that does the attributing), the brain is so weak that, without its protective casing to support it, it simply collapses of its own weight. So it could not be a brain.
It is neither a kneecap nor a torso. It is neither a whisker nor an eyeball. It is not a tongue.
It is not a belly button. (The umbilicus serves, then withdraws, leaving but a single footprint where it stood: the navel, wrinkled and cupped, whorled and domed, blind and winking, bald and tufted, sweaty and powdered, kissed and bitten, waxed and fuzzy, bejeweled and ignored; reflecting as graphically as breasts, seeds or fetishes the omnipotent fertility in which Nature dangles her muddy feet, the navel looks in like a plugged keyhole on the center of our being, it is true, but O navel, though we salute your motionless maternity and the dreams that have got tangled in your lint, you are only a scar, after all; you are not it.)
It is not a ribcage. It is not a back. It is not one of those bodily orifices favored for stuffing, nor is it that headstrong member with which every conceivable stuffable orifice somewhere sometime has been stuffed. There is no hair around it. For shame!
It is not an ankle, for her ankles, while bony, were ordinary, to say the least.
It is not a nose, chin or forehead. It is not a biceps, a triceps or a loop-of-Henle.
It is something else.
It is a thumb. The thumb. The thumbs, both of them. It is her thumbs that we remember; it is her thumbs that have set her apart.
It was thumbs that brought her to the clockworks, took her away, brought her back. Of course, it may be a disservice to her, as well as to the Rubber Rose, to emphasize the clockworks—but the clockworks is fresh and large in the author’s mind right now. The image of the clockworks has followed the author through these early sentences, tugging at him, refusing to be snubbed. The image of the clockworks tugs gently at the author’s cuff, much as the ghost of Duncan Hines tugs at the linen tablecloths of certain restaurants, little that he can eat now: long time no cheese omelet.
Still, as is well known, our subject’s thumbs brought her to myriad other places besides the clockworks and to myriad other people besides the Chink. For example, they brought her to New York City and, there, before the gentleman Julian. And Julian, who looked at her often, looked at her well, looked at her from every angle, exterior and interior, from which man might look at woman— even Julian was most impressed by her thumbs.
Who was it who watched her undress for bed and bath? It was Julian. Whose eyes traced every contour of her delicate face and willowy body, invariably coming to rest on her thumbs? Julian’s. It was Julian, sophisticated, sympathetic, closed to any notion of deformity, who, nevertheless, in the final analysis, in the sanctuary of his own mind’s eye, had to regard her thumbs as an obtrusion on the exquisite lines of an otherwise graceful figure-as though Leonardo had left a strand of spaghetti dangling from the corner of Mona Lisa’s mouth.
This is an opening bit from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I remember reading it back when I was near the age of a typical freshman. I hope it connects, or at least makes them laugh a little bit.