It’s hard not to admire a good simile. They make literature more evocative: ‘Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.’ (Nabakov from Lolita.) They add venom to political bite: ‘He looks like a female llama surprised in the bath.’ (Churchill on De Gaulle.) And they help etch the cry for social justice into a nation’s memory: ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream.)
Inspired wordcraft such as this is enough to leave you dizzy. But, alas, this is not the time to praise good similes but to bemoan the bad ones.
Anybody who’s spent time in front of a gaping white page knows that expressing oneself in a clear, original, and incisive manner is Herculean chore requiring both persistence and wit. Similes are a particular gamble because a good one can invigorate your work, while a bad one can leave readers unmoved, or worse, wincing. (Would students across America be memorizing King’s speech if he spoke of justice rolling down like a stray tennis ball on a uneven court?) The task is challenging enough for novelists and poets, but as agonizing as creation may be, the most these writers risk with a bad simile is their pride. (In a memoir, Fania Pascal recalled telling Ludwig Wittgenstein that a tonsil operation had left her feeling ‘like a dog that has been run over.’ Wittgenstein promptly castigated her use of language because she couldn’t possibly know what a run-over dog felt like.)
No, the mettle of a simile is truly tested in non-fiction, specifically when a writer’s efforts to inform or persuade have broad and lasting consequences. An apt simile might sway a presidency is used during the debates or inspire a massive investment if unleashed during a business pitch. Or, that same apt metaphor might have the power to save the planet.
Consider the case of James Hansen, the environmental scientist who has emerged as the world’s foremost authority on the dangers of global warming. In his unnerving book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Hansen recounts the various times he was called to Washington D.C. to give briefings on climate change. At one point in 2001, it seemed the Bush government was ready to take the problem seriously and Hansen was asked to address a select group of officials that included Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. Hansen discussed the problem of carbon and what he considered the terrifying rise in the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from 280 ppm in 1750 to 370 ppm in 2000. And then he hit them with his big simile. He pulled a tiny 1-watt Christmas tree bulb from his pocket and brandished it before his powerful audience. The net effect of human-made climate change on the planet, he announced, “was equivalent to having two of those bulbs burning night and day over every square meter of Earth’s surface.”
Now, be honest: Does the Christmas bulb simile work for you? Are you terrified? Flooded with angst over global warning? Compelled to change your energy consumption patterns? I thought so. And, guess what, Cheney, Powell, Rice, and company weren’t persuaded either. They left the meeting underwhelmed by the climate change threat and whatever interest the Bush government once showed in the issue evaporated after the events of September 11, 2001.
Can we blame this crucial missed opportunity on one scientist’s bad simile? Probably not. But, as carbon dioxide emissions continue to soar and the American government continues to dither, we can legitimately wonder where we would be today if there had been a splash of Nabakov and a dash of Churchill in Hansen that day.