Interpretations: The Metonymyville Horror (Put a Ring on it)

by Anjuli Raza Kolb

Patricia Highsmith, whose belated literary celebrity everyone is tearing their hair over, has these exquisite miniatures of horror that are so deadpan in their brevity that they often read like news items or reports, nearly unwritten. They lack even the tiniest indulgence in atmospheric detail or the fast and loose literary pop-psychology that sometimes comes with free indirect discourse. Some of them hardly bother with character. “The Hand,” published in her 1974 collection Little Tales of Misogyny is one such miniature. The story is about a grave misunderstanding; a two-part breakdown in the Herculean effort of language to haul around meaning. It begins, “a young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box—her left hand,” and expires a page and a quarter later as the young man, “feeling now he was insane beyond repair, since he could make contact with nothing, refused to eat for many days, and at last lay on his bed with his face to the wall, and died.”

What can have happened to the young man’s love? What abyss can have opened up with such demonic speed between language and meaning? How could this ubiquitous, socially ratified expression—to ask for a hand when one means a woman’s life, her fidelity, her reproductive organs and genetic material—fail to do its shifty dance of signification? How does the literal reveal the horror of the figural? With stories of such lucid succinctness, what one can say runs the risk of putting a leaden helmet on a fledgling bat, intercepting its tightly calibrated sonar and chucking it earthwards. But since the horror of this story is first, that of misprision—a mistake or misunderstanding, a miss, or maybe a mrs.—and second, of “making contact with nothing,” I think it’s more like rehab than assault to bring Roman Jakobson’s amputated poetics of aphasia together with Highsmith’s “stump concealed in a muff” (not joking!) to let them make phantom contact.

The hand iThe hand ii

In fact, Highsmith’s amputated story—in which the young man comes to realize the barbarity of his request—calls out for all manner of phantom prosthesis. For example, it is terrifying in kind of the same way (though for different reasons) as Beyoncé’s first single off Sasha Fierce: “Single Ladies” whose wildly regressive lyrics suggest to spurnèd gentlemen that they have no claim on the divas because, logically, “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”

Every tremulous feeling I have about this song with its shrugging “I’own know!” chorale of synthpigeons derives from the question: what is IT? WTF? IS BEYONCÉ CALLING HERSELF IT? Reducing her SELF first to her HOO (or her ASS, as the video would suggest), and then to the FINGER? Is the IT that you like the same as the IT that you should have put a ring on (I doubt it)? Doesn’t this chop up the female body in an incredibly violent way? And what sort of ring? Engagement ring? Purity ring? Manacles? A widow’s broken bangle? Does Beyoncé know about the high-cost, low-estrogen contraceptive Nuva-Ring? If you like it, then shouldn’t you also have put a ring UP IN it? Or is that only if you don’t like it, and thus don’t want to reproduce with it? All the single ladies: now put your hands up! (Uh-oh-oh).

Roman Jakobson (b. 1896), one of the founders of Russian Formalism in St. Petersburg, was a linguist and philologist who taught in France and at Columbia, Harvard and M.I.T. from the 1950s on. He lived for almost a century—as a young poet and scholar during the Russian Revolution, through both World Wars, Eisenhower’s campaign. He famously said of the campaign slogan, “I like Ike,” that its grammar maximized redundancy to yield “a loving subject enveloped by its beloved object.” Sound it out. Subject enveloped by Object. The desired enfolding the desirer like rhyming, rimy air. O come let us swoon at this reversal! O swaddle me in the sighs of my indifferent beloved!

He lived through New Criticism, Vietnam, ’68, the organic co-opification of Cambridge, Nixon and Ford, early Michael Jackson. He died four months before the release of Thriller, the year after I was born. What I wouldn’t give to have his functional linguist’s take on “Wanna be Startin Something’s” post-Camerounian mama-se mama-sa mama-coo-sa! Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure, he wouldn’t have believed these signs to be arbitrary; ‘motivated’ was the term he preferred.


Does this look like an IUD? It is a metonymic chain.

His linguistics generated a poetics that was curious about function over both pure formal structuralism and the tediously Romantic “literary merit” approach to reading. Appropriately for the Highsmith connection, Jakobson was one of a number of French intellectuals whose championing of American horrorist Edgar Allan Poe—native of that most Gothic of sea-board cities: Baltimore—earned Poe posthumous accolades at home. You’ll remember that Highsmith, whose Talented Mr. Ripley was made into a film by Anthony Minghella in 1999, and whose selected stories came out in a beautiful edition by Norton in 2001, has been “enjoying” posthumous success and status that far outweighs any recognition she garnered while alive.

Like Jakobson, Poe was meticulously invested in the mechanics of literary production, in the “sweet sound” of words, and eschewed the notion that even poetry and tales about the sublime could materialize in a startling flash. In Poe’s view, rather, his frightful works were the fruits of investing, to anachronistically graft Jakobson’s terms, in the poetry of grammar as much as the grammar of poetry.

But what happens to prose’s poetry for the sufferer of agrammatism? In 1956, the year after Highsmith published the first Ripley novel, Jakobson wrote an especially lovely essay called “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance.” Reading the last section of this essay, which explains poetic and prosaic tendencies by way of aphasia (exactly the kind of heartbreaking failure to comprehend or express language that the unmanned hero of “The Hand” submits to) was the first opportunity I had to wrestle with the idea of metonymy not as a subset of metaphor, but as a separate pole of symbolic communication.

Usually metonymy is taught as a poetic device in which a particular feature describes an object, person, or phenomenon. It is useless, except as a thing to spot in literature to sound smart. Look! A metonym! Look! Synecdoche! Schenectady! You weren’t the first to think of it Charlie Kaufman, director of Synecdoche, New York! I was raised upstate! Where you from at? MASSAPEQUA? For ordinary people like Charlie and you and me, metonymic (grammatical) and metaphoric (parallel) processes are equally present in communication. When one of the poles is “amputated,” however, like a nuptial hand, meaning bleeds out the wounds of speech.

According to Jakobson, the predilection toward metonymy in certain aphasic patients creates a purely narrative context that aligns closely with Realism. Metonymic overload, he says, often obscures the big picture so that “the reader is crushed by the multiplicity of detail unloaded on him in a limited verbal space, and is physically unable to grasp the whole, so that the portrait is often lost.” So there is a dissectional violence to metonymy. Interestingly, cinema also dwells in metonymy for Jakobson because of the technology of the close up, which pieces and unpieces the body—especially the female body, as many before me have written—in ways that call on viewers’ bodily grammar, on their capacity for contiguity, to put it back together.

Poetry, conversely, moves through similarity, which is the proper ken of metaphor. The pole of aphasia Jakobson called “similarity disorder” describes the breakdown of metaphor in language. People with similarity disorder are bound up in the metonymical bent, such that replacing “finger” with “digit” is impossible, but replacing “finger” with “one-shouldered leotard” is perfectly reasonable. (Beyoncé wears a one-shouldered leotard in the video for “Single Ladies,” whose insistence that you put a ring on it (the unnamed finger) is not easily forgotten. Incidentally, it is weirdly hard to find an image of a true one-shouldered leotard in the tripledoubleyous. I put something awesome below instead, it’s called “psalms!!!”). Reading Jakobson a few years ago, I also realized (can you say this?) that I liked metonymy more than metaphor, because it breaks apart so much more easily…that if I had to be an aphasic I’d rather lose parallelism than grammar and contiguity; I’d opt for similarity disorder, for Realism over poetry.


“PSALMS” dance outfit

So metonymy as a literary device, rather than a symptom of a cognitive failure, is the use of a contiguously related characteristic of a thing to describe or, according to me, nickname it (the Greek indicates meta: change, nym: name—a change in name). So I can call my mama any number of things she won’t understand (like ‘arrival time’ for the imaginary arrival time of the imaginary flight my brother and I imagine her to get on if we so much as breathe a thought of distress or pain or ‘Lu’s’ for the banh mi shop near the Chinatown bus depot in Boston that we always stop at when she isn’t home to have made us food, thus describing her through a habit of her absence) because the features or narratives they refer to probably signify very little to her, while they describe her rather efficiently in the discourse my brother and I share. You see how this crumbly thing is simultaneously more intimate and less communicative than metaphor, which more often reaches its target.

The dictionary’s examples of metonymy are less extreme: suits for businessmen, crown for Queen. Synecdoche, in which a part stands in for a whole, remains a subset of metonymy for Jakobson: asking for a hand, for example, instead of the entire bride. Lest you think I lured you in with dusky eye and blackest lash only to abandon you to some dusty philology, I am getting back to stumps. In Highsmith’s story, the amputee’s father explains his malicious synecdochal irony thusly to the suitor: “You asked for her hand and you have it. But it is my opinion that you wanted other things and took them.” The young man, grasping for the literal in the face of this communicative vertigo, retorts “Whatever do you mean?” to which the father replies “Whatever do you think I mean? You cannot deny that I am more honorable than you, because you took something from my family without asking, whereas when you asked for my daughter’s hand, I gave it.”

It is a kind of Aristotelian honor of which the father speaks—an honor in which the trickery of language is flicked aside—but it is also a pretense, a disingenuous insistence that language is stable, and can be sent and received by way of some perfect circuit board along an unfrayed golden wire. As we know, the young man doesn’t believe that he asked for his betrothèd’s hand to be signed for when it was delivered in a package. He doesn’t believe that his request would lead to him burying the hand in the garden after kissing it, the thing having become nearly two weeks old. He doesn’t believe that when he would see her later, visiting him in captivity “like a dutiful wife,” that he would become so disgusted by her that he would have to be moved to solitary, away from “books and company, and he would go really insane.”

“Actually,” Highsmith writes, “the young man had not done anything dishonorable. The father was just suspicious and had a dirty mind.” Better yet, I would suggest, the father had a metonymic mind: “It is my opinion that you wanted other things and took them.” This proclamation evinces a kind of undisciplined, narrative imagination. The sort of jumping-to-conclusions that you need in order to understand a metonym. Dirty mind, metonymic mind. Still, the young man hasn’t learned his lesson: just a few paragraphs later he takes out an ad in the newspapers that the young lady had “quit his bed and board,” bed and board being a metonym for living quarters…mere sentences later he is penniless! The police call him “Not merely disorganized in your way of life, but a psychopath…Did you by chance cut off your wife’s hand?” Then they send him to a State asylum, broke as he is. See? Metonymy is dangerous!

I said first that one of the horrors of “The Hand” is the misprision of the cleaver-happy father who sends along his daughter’s hand via USPS Media Mail. (Okay, this is patently not true. The package containing the hand had to be signed for…let’s leave aside the potential Derridian field day, howevs). Misprision means two things: 1) an erroneous judgment and 2) the “deliberate concealment of one’s knowledge of a treasonable act or a felony” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition. Also: OMFG, did you know that? I didn’t!). The father, of course, intentionally conceals his crime of deliberate misunderstanding, his treason against meaning. He throws the young man’s language back at him: “Whatever do you think I mean!” in order to reveal this concealment. But what of the young man’s concealments? What of the way he hides his desire to possess and control and barter for his beloved through her father in an “honorable” attempt to put a ring on it? And what of her treachery? What of the treason her “smiling prettily” conceals?

For me, the crux of this story is the bride’s blithe refusal to be in any way affected by the liberation of her left (wedding ring) hand from her body. Flatly unconcerned with the young man’s efforts to see her, she carries on “signing checks with her right hand. Far from bleeding to death, she was going ahead at full speed.” She collects his pension. She comes to look at him once a month through a “wire barrier.” She is autistically, agrammatically aphasic; incapable of recontextualizing her boredom with being a wife. Whatevs. Wife. She is just a parallel—a similarity, a metaphor—of what she would have been. Her instrument of conjunction, the hand that reaches out to hold the hand of the other, the joiner of clauses, doesn’t matter one way or another.

If you have seen it, you will recall that in the “Single Ladies” video Beyoncé has this totally confusing titanium roboglove (designed by Lorraine Schwartz) to protect against the kind of womanchoppery that rendered the bride monodextrous and Titus Andronicus’s Lavinia with neither hands nor tongue. Beyoncé *wants* that hand, she *wanted* to give it away to Mr. Jay Ay Why Hyphen Zed. This is adorable, but it is not radical gender politics. And ultimately, as my friend Anne ingeniously points out, the mononymous Beyoncé insists on her wholeness with full body shots throughout the video, as well as her singularity with the final close-up prominently featuring robo-mano and its ring finger, which metonym-for-self she “coyly fondles” (thanks Anne!) with her human hand. IT, it turns out, is Beyoncé, making contact with everything.


Back in the asylum: because the young man refuses to look at his beloved with her muff-concealed stump, she will “make contact with nothing,” but it won’t frighten her. She’ll carry on signing her name on promissory notes. Though amputated, unhanded, nothing will have become any more finite in her aphasia, and her emotional carelessness will reveal her infinity.

I find this character an astonishingly heroic creation for a female writer whose hands might be understood as the instrument of her craft, and for whom amputated meaning must have been a nightly terror. Again, the horror in this story is double: what if my language fails to mean? What if it doesn’t matter? Hilariously, when Highsmith published Little Tales of Misogyny, she was accused of, yes, misogyny. Sigh. Is it fair to elide this if I just say I think it is clear that Highsmith, a bisexual devotedly life-long single woman, suffered some degree of misanthropy of the kind that made the gynecological as horrific to her as the phallic? That bodies and families and intimacies were, for her, the stuff of nightmares? That she lived an uncanny thirteen years in the mountains of Switzerland alone but for the Kantian sublime and echoing footfalls of Frankenstein’s inarticulate monster? That she was notoriously difficult and had what we might carelessly refer to in our silliest of moments as “intimacy issues?”

In a review of the Norton collection, James Sallis wrote that “one wonders if Highsmith may not in fact be the ultimate realist.” The deadpan, reportage quality of these miniatures that I began by describing certainly seems to bear this theory out, the bonus being the way the story makes short work of metonymy’s horror. Terrifying realism. The dread of contiguity. Disorienting opacity. “The Hand” helps me disavow what I ordinarily think of as Realism—more specifically socio-realism—and adulterously shack up with sociopathic realism (which is not very realistic, as it describes amputated meaning by way of narrative and material impoverishment). Why? Because sociopathic realism’s existence is symptomatic of the imperium of horror in all kinds of representation. In this story, it’s embodied in the cataclysmic failure of self-representation by the unfortunate young man who dies facing the wall, making contact with nothing.

Jakobson divided language into six distinct ‘functions’ that range from aesthetic to affective to directive in purpose. One of the truly frightening things about teaching literature is the unstayable fount of smart people, both young and tannic, who continue to resist this kind of prosaic “complicating” grammatical move as if it were ‘merely semantic.’ Why author function? Why not just Author? Why the phatic (can you hear me? Are you listening)? Why not just Poetry? For anyone interested in the ethics of poststructuralism and deconstruction, the answer to this question will seem elementary in part thanks to Jakobson (even though he was disavowed by certain of its practitioners). For him, to reverse engineer speech and text was to blueprint the binarisms in language—notably the marked/unmarked binary—that called ideology by some other name. Beyoncé’s unmarked, ideology-laden refrain makes use of nearly all his six functions, and thus partially succeeds in masking its underlying heterocongratulations! with truly insane dancing and the lyric “I need no permission! Did I mention, don’t pay him any attention!” But it doesn’t work in the end—SHE’S STILL SINGING TO HIM!—which is perhaps why experiencing that video is like watching The Amityville Horror when I was four; there is so much pleasure, and so much shame.

On a more banal level (don’t call me Miss Teacher) “The Hand” reveals why it’s important to understand grammar, to know the violence your synecdoche imprints, the horror of a metonymy-gone-wrong: so your bride-to-be doesn’t get hacked to bits and then you die of guilt and shame at the bottom of an ontological abyss with no functional language—referential, poetic, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual, or otherwise—incapable of understanding why your dust-diamonded Alexander Wang manacle keeps slipping off that slim and handless wrist.