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Ethopoeia: Beyond Simile and Metaphor

In the dream of the one who dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.

— Jorge Luis Borges

Beyond its classical rhetorical devices, ethopoeia is broken down into ethos and pathos, the character and representation. As far as this ride goes, these two elements are the brain and the heart of the matter, the beginning and the end. Words often calcify over time, turning to the gray of the dead reef, before being broken into pieces or resurrected elsewhere, for some other use. Some words are confined to cliche, while others are glutted up by the hollow language of politics and left to sweep up later, like so many peanut shells on a fairground. When fictional characters do more than speak to us, but speak through us, there is something beyond metaphor or likeness. That character might be a different age or gender, even a different species, but there is that ‘something’ that might make the reader feel that she ‘is’ that character. It’s impossible to argue that the reader is forever changed by this experience, since such a cognitive shift — even the slightest — will leave the reader as herself, at that present moment, without a way to regard who she was the moment before. Just as the flower blossoms while we’re not looking, so the experience of ethopoeia opens up something in the reader, a something that unfolds in the midst of reading, far deeper than subtext and beyond the cosmos of perceived control.

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream — past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was — there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had — but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.

— Bottom’s Dream

Finding another ‘self’ in the midst of that becoming, ethopoeia, is like a dream. While all that’s unfolding — from the text in the pages, to the intertwined visions and feelings — all come from the reader becoming that character. Perhaps it’s the way that character faces the crowd, with a menacing half-sneer while inside she’s squirming, or it could be the way she speaks when she’s terrified, with quick wit and a wink. Or it could be nothing, a something beyond words. Outside of the realm of mathematics and Platonic Forms, opposites probably don’t exist, since human beings are far too fickle to be either ‘this’ or ‘that’. Ethopoeia is the kind of magnetism that draws the reader into the character with such subtle force, one becomes indistinguishable from the other — never mind the attraction of opposites — as far as the world inside the reader’s head. To call this a result of imagination is true, but such imaginings that are the world of the mind in that moment. Nothing else exists, only the next breath(s). Just as Bottom’s Dream seemed enough like a dream to be mistaken for a dream, so the uncanny experience of ethopoeia seems enough like reality to be reality, all while it actually is. Both dreams and ethopoeia are beyond language, forever confined to the one who experiences it, since it’s intertwined with consciousness, that singular magic that distinguishes ‘her’ from ‘her’, until there’s the seamless collision into Her.

Things keep their secrets.

— Heraclitus

Writers tend to write from a place of experience, whether it’s their dog hidden in the habits of a realm-crushing dragon, or the twisted way the tyrant was treated as a child, a bit of herself is in every word. Ethopoeia — as far as this ride goes — is an experience that comes from nowhere, since there’s no seeking it directly. In this case, the writer is categorically absent, since the reader is the one doing the creating and receiving. Beyond personal proclivities for Fantasy or Sci-fi fiction, hard Realism or Historical Fiction, when a character characterizes the reader, in such a way that is a moment within moments, a truth unto herself, withdrawn from Time and Space, without history, since the history is being rewritten, this is ethopoeia, a fleeting thing that changes everything.

Hayden Moore

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