Aphorisms and Metaphors by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution is Randall Jarrell‘s novel of academic farce. The book is supposed to be based on Jarrell’s own experience teaching at a progressive New England girls’ college in the 1950s. The novel is not really a novel at all, but a series of witty and cutting character sketches, very much in the vein of Characters by Jean de la Bruyère. Bruyère was a close observer of 17th-century French court life, and all the pageantry, pettiness, and political intrigue provided him with ample material for his Characters. Jarrell was a close observer of mid-20th-century academic life, and keenly skewered all its political intrigue and pretentiousness.

Pictures from an Institution is rife with epigrams, aphorisms, and brilliant metaphors. Jarrell’s metaphors, in particular, are excellent case studies in the power of figurative language to convey the most precise image of a thing by describing that thing in terms of something it is not. For example, the unctuousness and politically correct blandness of the president of Benton, the fictitious college at which the book is set, is deftly conveyed by the following:

His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable … Not to have given him what he asked … would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars.

Jarrell is also extremely skilled at deploying metaphor to create a kind of emotional valence around his characters, as in these descriptions of one of Benton’s teachers:

She was a bow waiting, in dust and cobwebs, for someone to come along and string it; and no one came, no one would ever come.

Somehow, after almost sixty years in it, the world had still not happened to her, and she stood at its edge with a timid smile, her hand extended to its fresh terrors, its fresh joys—a girl attending, a ghost now, the dance to which forty years ago she did not get to go.

Among the all-time greatest descriptions of physiognomy, surely this line must find a place:

Mr. Daudier had been pushed up and down New England several times, head-first, by a glacier; this face was what was left.

Plus, Pictures from an Institution is just strewn with excellent aphorisms:

In a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful for what is there and what cannot yet be there.

Strangers are best to fool, but home-folk are the nicest to show off to.

People eat and sleep and live all year, but they are educated only nine months of it.

Nostalgia is the permanent condition of man.

The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine.

A way of life is a way of escaping from perception, as well as of perceiving.

It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.