Letters of Life

How a Sea Gull is like an Essay

The discussion took them to dinner, lay dormant in the presence of the servants, started again as soon as they were alone, and lasted long after midnight.

Up, down and round the argument circled and swooped like a gull, now out to sea,

Flying Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) on the ...

out of sight, cloud-bound, among irrelevances and repetitions, now right on the patch where the (raft of the argument) floated. — Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisted.

This bit of energetic prose describes a troublesome discussion amongst members of an aristocratic English family in the 1920s. It’s from Brideshead, a remarkable novel I am currently immersed in.

However, the word argument, used here in as civil a way as you can imagine, brought to my mind a friend’s 80,000-word dissertation circumnavigating a thesis statement; also called an argument.

Much analysis and rationale buttress his argument, and it is an amazing piece of work. Still, there were many metaphors bandied about which my friend good-naturedly used to describe his opus: Labyrinthine and maze-like are some examples, and how he sometimes couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

But I rather like the metaphor of the highly-charged sea-gull, flying all around the sky, seemingly tethered, like a kite, by an invisible string to the surface of the ocean, free, yet not liberated, frequently precise in swooping in on his target, yet borne on breezes that take him on brief (10 paragraph) sojourns to the sky.

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