“These essays take Willy Loman’s character to a higher, deeper level.”

I should title today’s blog “Lost In Space.” Every once in awhile I get a horror that makes clear to me why my comparison between constructing an argument and planning a trip doesn’t seem to help my students much: they are spatially challenged.

How else could something be taken to a “higher, deeper level”? Are we talking about those undersea mountain ranges, perhaps? In my student’s phrase is one adjective to be taken literally and the other figuratively, as in a very high and intense mountain, or a very deep but exhilarating voice–or a stoned mole who digs his tunnel deep? I don’t cotton to pairing a figurative adjective with a literal one, though, especially when the reader couldn’t be expected to know which was which—and especially  when both adjectives are attached to “level,” which does imply spatial position.

I suppose that at the end of the play Willy Loman’s character, or at least mood, could be described as both higher and deeper: He is in despair about his own future but elated that his insurance policy will put money into the hands of his beloved son. I don’t know that these ideas would apply to a character “level,” though. I think what the student was talking about was critical essays that added new dimensions to her understanding of what Miller was doing with the character of Willy, or perhaps that offered analyses of Willy that increased his importance as a character in the play or maybe in the conversation about modern life. But I still can’t understand how a “level” can be both higher and deeper, like a floor that can be reached at any time by pushing EITHER the up or the down button in the building’s elevator. Maybe in Flann O’Brien’s novels, or maybe in that John Malkovich movie, but not in the world I inhabit.

This confusion is evident also in the woman whose husband’s death was hanging over her and dragging behind her. Does it do these things alternately, or is my student suggesting that it can do both simultaneously? Surely “over” and “behind” are separate and different spatial relationships, just as “higher” and “deeper” are.

“Deeper” is a particularly risky adjective for my students, for some reason. One could speculate that since it has an important figurative meaning, an inept sentence might make it seem literal despite the writer’s intention, and a professor might find laughs where none are really warranted. But the same is true of many adjectives that can be applied to thought as well as to objects, and only a few of them show up among my Horrors.

The word “level” is another matter, and a pet peeve of mine as well, so I’ll save it for a blog of its own.

For now, I’m just going to cop out and adopt the title “Lost In Space,” with all that that implies.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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