A Heap of Words

In the last few posts I have attempted to apply the structuralist principle—in language, structures can carry meaning—to a few of the traditional rhetorical figures. I’ve looked at epizeuxis and diacope, antithesis, and gradatio, and in this post I will add one more, congeries.

In a way congeries is the rhetorical figure without a structure. Congeries is the Latin word for heap or pile, and a congeries is just a heap of words, piled up in no particular order. Exactly how big a heap should be is a matter of judgment; as a rule of thumb, it should be big enough to stand out, or to trip over. Sometimes just a few items will suggest a whole pile, but some heaps number twenty or thirty or forty or more. We find heaps of verbs and heaps of adjectives, but most congeries are heaps of nouns. It’s a little awkward to discuss this figure, because many of the examples are pretty long. I will try to give just enough to make my points.

Why would a writer want to write a heap of words without any particular order? Well, if she is describing a heap of things without any particular order. Here, for instance, is a congeries from Raymond Chandler’s The High Window; the narrator, Philip Marlow is describing a hock shop, where he is about to pawn a valuable coin to keep it safe:

The hock shop was on Santa Monica, near Wilcox, a quiet old-fashioned little place, washed gently by the lapping waves of time. In the front window there was everything you could think of, from a set of trout flies in a thin wooden box to a portable organ, from a folding baby carriage to a portrait camera with a four-inch lens, from a mother-of-pearl lorgnette in a faded plush case to a single action Frontier Colt, .44 calibre, the model they still make for Western police officers whose grandfathers taught them how to file the trigger and shoot by fanning the hammer back.

There’s a somewhat similar description of an odds-and-ends shop at the very beginning of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, but I’ve discussed that one in my book, A Matter of Style, so I will leave it out here, and just say that from time to time a writer wants to describe a big mess of stuff, and then this is obviously the right figure. It’s not enough, however, to say that the writer is simply describing what she sees (in her mind’s eye)—the (imagined) reality of a hock shop or an odds-and-ends store; the writer can always choose to describe or not. The description has to add to the story in some way. The congeries in The High Window adds vividness, and the junk provides a contrast to the value of the golden doubloon Marlowe is leaving in this shop to keep it safe.

Some writers never use congeries. I can’t think of one in any of Jane Austen’s novels. If you know of one, please let me know. By and large Austen isn’t much interested in the stuff of the world. Dickens, however, is very interested in stuff, and he uses quite a few congeries. They fit the kind of exuberance which is so characteristic of his writing. In Little Dorrit, for instance, there are a good half dozen. The following passage describes the various jobs that Little Dorrit has found for her shiftless brother, Tip. He starts out working in the office of an attorney, but he leaves that job after a few months:

“I am so tired of it,” said Tip, “that I have cut it.”

Tip was tired of everything…. [Little Dorrit] got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneer’s, into a brewery, into a stockbroker’s, into the law again, into a coach office, into a waggon office, into the law again, into a general dealer’s, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went into, he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it.

Note also the ring composition of “cut it” at the beginning and end of the passage. I will say more about rings in later posts.

I have also found a half dozen instances of congeries in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. When the ship is about to leave, the passengers watch as it is loaded:

In straying groups, mute, unrelated, they [the passengers] returned to the docks and stood about idly watching the longshoremen hauling on the ropes of the loading cranes. Shapeless bundles and bales, badly packed bedsprings and mattresses, cheap-looking sofas and kitchen stoves, lightly crated pianos and old leather trunks were being swung into the hold, along with a carload of Pueblo tile and a few thousand bars of silver for England; a ton of raw chicle, bundles of hemp, and sugar for Europe.

In the following passage from Ship of Fools, Denny, one of the most unpleasant of the mostly unpleasant group of passengers, is regretting his trip and longing to go home:

Denny began to feel tired in the head. He began to look forward to the end of his stay in Germany, and to getting back to Brownsville once again, where a man knew who was who and what was what, and niggers, crazy Swedes, Jews, greasers, bone-headed nicks, polacks, wops, Guineas and damn Yankees knew their place and stayed in it.

The list helps us see that Denny is prejudiced against just about everyone.

One of my favorite examples comes at the very beginning of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. The narrator is describing the arrival of students at the beginning of the college term, and he lists all the stuff the students are bringing back to campus. I have discussed this passage in A Matter of Style, so I won’t repeat it here. The point of the list is to show the shallowness of American consumer culture.

There is a similarly extensive congeries at the end of Vonnegut’s Player Piano—this is one of five congeries in the novel. The story takes place in a dystopian future in which almost all ordinary jobs have been eliminated by automation, leaving most people to live lives of unfulfilled emptiness. The climax of the book is a revolt of the masses in which the mechanisms of the automated society are destroyed, leaving a heap of detritus:

In the early light, the town seemed an enormous jewel box, lined with the black and gray velvet of fly-ash, and filled with millions of twinkling treasures: bits of air conditioners, amplidynes, analyzers, arc welders, batteries, belts, billers, bookkeeping machines, bottlers, canners, capacitors, circuit-breakers, clocks, coin boxes, calorimeters, colorimeters, computers, condensers, conduits, controls, converters, conveyers, cryostats, counters, cutouts, densitometers, detectors, dust precipitators, dishwashers, dispensers, dynamometers, dynamotors, electrodes, electronic tubes, exciters, fans, filers, filters, frequency changers, furnaces, fuses, gages, garbage disposers, gears, generators, heat exchangers, insulators, lamps, loudspeakers, magnets, mass spectrometers, motor generators, motors, noisemeters, oscillographs, panelboards, personnel machines, photoelectric cells, potentiometers, pushbuttons, radios, radiation detectors, reactors, recorders, rectifiers, reducers, regulators, relays, remote controls, resistors, rheostats, selsyns, servos, solenoids, sorters, spectrophotometers, spectroscopes, springs, starters, straingages, switchboards, switches, tape recorders, tachometers, telemeters, television sets, television cameras, testers, thermocouples, thermostats, timers, toasters, torquemeters, traffic controls, transistors, transducers, transformers, turbines, vacuum cleaners, vacuum gages, vacuum tubes, venders, vibration meters, viscosimeters, water heaters, wheels, X-ray spectrogoniometers, zymometers…

The alphabetical order emphasizes the randomness of the stuff.

Congeries, like the other figures, is a resource for writers. Some use it because it fits their general view of the world, or perhaps because it fits their personality. Sometimes a congeries is just right to describe a particular scene or situation. And sometimes the figure supports the overall theme of the story.

The figures I have been discussing these last few weeks are only a few from the rhetorical catalogue. There are a couple of hundred figures, at least, and more waiting to be named, described, and discussed. In addition to these posts on gradatio, antithesis, epizeuxis and diacope, and congeries, I could add posts on alliteration, asyndeton, polysynseton, epitheton, chiasmus, litotes, zeugma, aposiopesis, bomphiologia, macrologia, brachylogia, distinctio, tapinosis, anadiplosis, anaphora, epistrophe, conduplicatio, epanalepsis, polyptoton, epimone, hendiadys…. And so on. And perhaps I will. But not now. My next post will be a summary of the points I’ve been trying to make in these last few posts on the meaning of rhetorical figures, and after that I may shift topics just for variety. As always, I welcome comments.

2 thoughts on “A Heap of Words

  1. The congeries figure seems to me to prompt conflicting responses. On the one hand, such a heap provides a sort of reality effect because of the emphasis on objects without specific and obvious functions in meaning. On the other hand, they can be difficult to read, especially if particularly long (as in the example from Vonnegut), and as such they are a reminder of textuality and form. On that level, the heap of words might be intellectually compelling but it might also interrupt one’s immersion in the storyworld. Thanks for the engaging topic and explanation!

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  2. Thanks so much. Very interesting.Some years back I was reading a Thurber short-short story with a graduate class, and it included a fair-sized congeries. One of the students refused to read the congeries. He said it was just a waste of time. I thought it was fun; Thurber is good at organizing sounds, and the whole list was like a treat in the mouth. But I must admit that I haven’t really read through the Vonnegut. Does he want you to? There’s a story that Richard Strauss wrote a really hard passage in one of his orchestral pieces, knowing that the orchestra wouldn’t be able to play it, but he wanted a sort of smeary jumbled sound, and he figured that was the best way to get the effect. But over the years orchestras got better at the passage and they were able to play it, somewhat to his displeasure. I don’t know if it’s a true story, but it’s instructive. I wonder if Vonnegut is really after an effect, with the knowledge that people in general won’t read each item in the list. On the other hand, when he includes both calorimeters and colorimeters, I think he is hoping someone will notice. I also think that many figures, even fairly short ones, foreground textuality. There’s something about the modern aesthetic which isn’t comfortable with textuality. I don’t find that same feeling in classical literature. Cicero, in his speeches, was trying hard to be persuasive, but he also loaded them up with figures; he clearly did not feel that there was a conflict between textuality and persuasion.

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