A: What’s your head all bandaged up for? B: I got hit with some tomatoes.
A: How could that bruise you so badly? B: The tomatoes were canned.
There is a fascinating figure of modern day speech called ‘The Container for the Thing Contained’… TCFTTC
For example, when someone says ‘the City of Rome welcomed Caesar’, or ‘Toy town was in uproar’, or ‘the White House denied it all’. What they are actually doing is using the word that describes ‘The Container’ (Rome, Toy town or the White House) when they actually mean ‘The Thing Contained’ (the people of Rome, Pinocchio and other wooden puppets, or the President of the United States and even more wooden puppets).
Ages ago now, I once wrote a piece about my school teacher who was utterly obsessed with ‘The Container for the Thing Contained’ (TCFTTC). And as a result of which, I must have spent much of my school life looking for examples of the opposite – the use of ‘The Thing Contained for the Container’.
Eventually I triumphed in my quest and came up with a scenario in which a husband and wife were having a massive argument and battling over breakfast… Whereby the wife dutifully grabbed a full bottle from off the table and shouted, “I’ll hit you with the bloody milk”.
Naturally, I was justifiably very proud with this discovery and mentioned it to my teacher in class that very day.
And since there was nothing in her text book about ‘The Thing Contained for the Container’, she became highly ventilated about the whole sordid affair and punished me by stopping my food parcels, parole, or something very similar that was as equally hurtful.
And now, many years later, after re-reading that earlier essay, I developed a somewhat mild obsession with ‘TCFTTC’ on my own account, and, as a result of over 45 years worth of very patient research, I have come to a conclusion of earth shaking importance.
‘The Container for the Thing Contained’ is not merely a figure of speech; it is actually a basic trait of human behaviour widespread throughout the whole of humankind.
I reached this conclusion after I had spent a cumulative total of nearly five years in dentist’s waiting rooms and in the lavatories of the upper middle class. For it was in these places where I was compelled to read some of the glossiest of all magazines, together with the colour supplements of the Sunday newspapers (see: HOLD THE PRESS!!).
Gradually I began to see a pattern in what I was reading: every third page was an advertisement and every second advertisement was for a part work or a collection of some sort. Thus the partakers of this glossy middlebrow intellectual pabulum are constantly being exhorted to buy a 47 volume encyclopaedia, or to subscribe to a 92 CD set of Elvis Presley or Mario Lanza, or a 112 disc set called ‘The History of Jazz’, or ‘Four Hundred Great Overtures’, or ‘Your 93 Favourite Symphonies’. Or ‘A Thousand and Twenty Six Melodies that Haven’t Appeared on Any Other CD Set Yet’, and so on.
There are recipe cards available in weekly instalments that enable you to produce no less than seven thousand different combinations of soup, flan, fondue and canapé, all tidily printed on easy-to-wipe, easy-to-read, easy-to-follow, and not so easy-to-cancel collectable cards. There are whole sets of books produced in mock cowhide called ‘The Pirates’ or ‘The Cowboys’, with new sets on the way such as ‘The Astronauts’, ‘The Plumbers’ and ‘The Greengrocers’.
Yes, by means of a simple coupon you can enter into a contract of such cast-iron constitution that it makes Faustus’ little agreement with Mephistopheles look like a nod and a wink. And within twenty eight days you will start receiving the complete works of Dickens (Charles, Monica, Frank or Veronica), Conrad (Joseph or Jess), Hardy (Thomas, Oliver or even Kiss Me) or Lawrence (D.H, T.E, Gertrude or Durrell).
One firm went even further and offered two matching bookcases (offer applies to Australia only), one containing the 47 volume encyclopaedia and the other containing a selection of The World’s Greatest Books bound for you in luscious gold-tooled fibretex or some similarly sumptuous polyester vinyl derivative. This pair of bookcases (which will grace any home and enhance any decor) is marketed under the title ‘The World’s Greatest Literature’ (I am over eighteen).
None of this meant anything to me at all, until I ventured out of the lavatories of the upper middle class (leaving them as tidy as I found them) and went into their living rooms…
It was there where I found myself confronted with the results of said advertisements – two rows of white melamine shelves jammed to the brackets with the uniform spines of ‘The World’s Greatest Literature’ and ‘The World’s Greatest Music’.
The owners would glance over their shoulders at the serried ranks of luscious fibretex and refer casually to ‘the Dickens’ or ‘the Shaw’. And yet a brief examination of the books concerned would usually reveal that they had never been opened and fully digested (much like these blog posts); some had spines so brittle that they cracked on opening, others had their pages fused together at the top edge by a melted layer of luscious fibretex, and still others were apparently written in Chinese (much like these blog posts too).
So what were these people talking about when they referred to their unopened and unread books? They were of course using ‘The Container’ to imply ‘The Thing Contained’. They had made a mental leap from handling ‘The Container’ (as they took the books out of their boxes) to thinking that they had already consumed the ‘Thing Contained’ through their fingertips as they neatly stacked them onto the shelving provided.
Now I’m not pleading total innocence of this vice myself.
Many times I have glanced at a series of articles printed in full colour on eight successive pages ‘For Me to Cut Out and Keep’, sent off a cheque for $19.95 for the plastic ring binder and then ‘Forgotten All About Them Permanently’. And what I don’t know now about ‘Warfare Throughout History’, ‘The Phoenicians – Fathers Of Trade’, ‘Hellenic Heros’ and ‘The Byzantine Influence’ would almost fill seven plastic ring binders alone.
So what is it that drives us to this curious activity? What causes us to accumulate ‘Containers’ and fool ourselves that we are the masters of ‘The Things Contained’?
Well the answer comes from experiments done on what scientists commonly call ‘the decerebate frog’. To put it simply, in its natural state, the frog is green and cold blooded, has slimy skin and produces children that resemble animated bogies.
From that point of view they do not greatly resemble human beings, apart from those you meet in politics or maybe even show-biz, although to a much lesser extent.
However, if you surgically remove the top two thirds of a frog’s brain, it is still capable of most of the normal frog like activities (swimming, jumping, a-wooing going and turning into a handsome prince), but for some reason most biologists think that it then becomes a better model for human behaviour. I may have misunderstood them, but I think that’s the gist of it.
Anyway, if you present a two thirds de-brained frog with a source of low-grade non-selective information (say a mail-order catalogue), then it will invariably respond to that information under the influence of three primitive urges: (a) greed, (b) the urge to impress the neighbours, and (c) the urge to collect things in sets.
Even more recent research has shown that the primitive drive to pay out $19.95 per month is rated just behind hunger and sex in the ‘Primeval Urges Top Ten’, and is fifteen places ahead of the urge to help old ladies across the road, and even more so, eighty places ahead of the urge to talk to one’s wife at breakfast.
So it comes as no surprise then, that from the decerebate frog upwards, animals will continually try to amass ‘Containers’.
I was talking about this very point in front of the fireplace, at a rather smart works gathering only last week, when I inadvertently tripped over ‘The Literature’ and banged my head on ‘The Music’. And just like in my earlier schooldays, I soon found that ‘The Things Contained’, can often cause precocious little boys (The Container) a whole lot of trouble.
You can actually blame James Thurber for all of this, he once wrote a passage in the ‘New Yorker’, March 21st, 1942. It begins like this… “Miss Groby taught the writer English composition 30 years ago. What she loved most of all were Figures of Speech. A small girl asked him the other day if he could give her an example of metonymy. There are several kinds of metonymies, but the one that comes to mind most easily is Container for the Thing Contained”…
I might also add here, that if you have just read ‘These Things Contained’ (these text based musings) within this blog rather than the ‘Container’ (the whole website), and have enjoyed reading this piece in particular, or any other piece in this site for that matter, then I offer you a huge heart felt thank-you and an exclusive look into the ‘Container’ I call my Testimonials page for a glimpse of the many kind words ‘Contained’ within.
And please feel free to ‘Tear Out And Keep’ them: A plastic binder is available from the publishers at a nominal charge of only $19.95. (I am over eighteen).