‘What’s the point of it, then?’ Robyn challenged him. ‘Why use cloth to advertise cigarettes?’
‘Well, that’s the name of ’em, isn’t it? Silk Cut. It’s a picture of the name. Nothing more or less.’
‘Suppose they’d used a picture of a roll of silk cut in half
– would that do just as well?’
‘I suppose so. Yes, why not?’
‘Because it would look like a penis cut in half, that’s why.’
He forced a laugh to cover his embarrassment. ‘Why can’t you people take things at their face value?’
‘What people are you referring to?’
‘Highbrows. Intellectuals. You’re always trying to find hidden meanings in things. Why? A cigarette is a cigarette. A piece of silk is a piece of silk. Why not leave it at that?’
‘When they’re represented they acquire additional meanings,’ said Robyn. ‘Signs are never innocent. Semiotics teaches us that.’
‘Semiotics. The study of signs.’
‘It teaches us to have dirty minds, if you ask me.’
‘Why d’you think the wretched cigarettes were called Silk Cut in the first place?’
‘I dunno. It’s just a name, as good as any other.’
‘”Cut” has something to do with the tobacco, doesn’t it? The way the tobacco leaf is cut. Like “Player’s Navy Cut”
– my uncle Walter used to smoke them.’
‘Well, what if it does?’ Vic said warily.
‘But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It’s a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, “smooth as silk”. Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name “Silk Cut” to suggest a cigarette that wouldn’t give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer. But after a while the public got used to the name, the word “Silk” ceased to signify, so they decided to have an advertising campaign to give the brand a high profile again. Some bright spark in the agency came up with the idea of rippling silk with a cut in it. The original metaphor is now represented literally. But new metaphorical connotations accrue – sexual ones. Whether they were consciously intended or not doesn’t really matter. It’s a good example of the perpetual sliding of the signified under the signifier, actually.’
Wilcox chewed on this for a while, then said, ‘Why do women smoke them, then, eh?’ His triumphant expression showed that he thought this was a knock-down argument. ‘If smoking Silk Cut is a form of aggravated rape, as you try to make out, how come women smoke ’em too?’
‘Many women are masochistic by temperament,’ said Robyn. They’ve learned what’s expected of them in a patriarchal society.’
‘Ha!’ Wilcox exclaimed, tossing back his head. ‘I might have known you’d have some daft answer.’
‘I don’t know why you’re so worked up,’ said Robyn. ‘It’s not as if you smoke Silk Cut yourself.’
‘No, I smoke Marlboros. Funnily enough, I smoke them because I like the taste.’
‘They’re the ones that have the lone cowboy ads, aren’t they?’
‘I suppose that makes me a repressed homosexual, does it?’
‘No, it’s a very straightforward metonymic message.’
‘Metonymic. One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D’you want me to explain it to you?’
‘It’ll pass the time,’ he said.
‘Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself.’
‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’
‘Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it’s dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.’
‘I told you that.’
‘Yes, I know. What you didn’t tell me was that “drag” is a metonymy and “cope” is a metaphor.’
Vic grunted. ‘What difference does it make?’
‘It’s just a question of understanding how language works. I thought you were interested in how things work.’
‘I don’t see what it’s got to do with cigarettes.’
‘In the case of the Silk Cut poster, the picture signifies the female body metaphorically: the slit in the silk is like a vagina -‘
Vic flinched at the word. ‘So you say.’
‘All holes, hollow spaces, fissures and folds represent the female genitals.’
‘Freud proved it, by his successful analysis of dreams,’ said Robyn. ‘But the Marlboro ads don’t use any metaphors. That’s probably why you smoke them, actually.’
‘What d’you mean?’ he said suspiciously.
‘You don’t have any sympathy with the metaphorical way of looking at things. A cigarette is a cigarette as far as you are concerned.’
‘The Marlboro ad doesn’t disturb that naive faith in the stability of the signified. It establishes a metonymic connection – completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible – between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the life-style, or the fantasy of living it.’
‘Rubbish!’ said Wilcox. ‘I hate the country and the open air. I’m scared to go into a field with a cow in it.’
‘Well then, maybe it’s the solitariness of the cowboy in the ads that appeals to you. Self-reliant, independent, very macho.’
‘I’ve never heard such a lot of balls in all my life,’ said Vie Wilcox, which was strong language coming from him.
‘Balls – now that’s an interesting expression . . .’ Robyn mused.
‘Oh no!’ he groaned.
‘When you say a man “has balls”, approvingly, it’s a metonymy, whereas if you say something is a “lot of balls”, or “a balls-up”, it’s a sort of metaphor. The metonymy attributes value to the testicles whereas the metaphor uses them to degrade something else.’
‘I can’t take any more of this,’ said Vic. ‘D’you mind if I smoke? Just a plain, ordinary cigarette?’
‘If I can have Radio Three on,’ said Robyn.
It was late by the time they got back to Pringle’s. Robyn’s Renault stood alone and forlorn in the middle of the deserted car park. Wilcox drew up beside it.
Thanks,’ said Robyn. She tried to open the door, but the central locking system prevented her. Wilcox, pressed a button and the locks popped open all round the car.
‘I hate that gadget,’ said Robyn. ‘It’s a rapist’s dream.’
‘You’ve got rape on the brain,’ said Wilcox. He added, without looking at her: ‘Come to lunch next Sunday.’
The invitation was so unexpected, and issued so off-handedly, that she wondered whether she had heard correctly. But his next words confirmed that she had.
‘Nothing special,’ he said. ‘Just the family.’
‘Why?’ she wanted to ask, if it wouldn’t have sounded horribly rude. She had resigned herself to giving up one day a week to shadowing Wilcox, but she didn’t want to sacrifice part of her precious weekends as well. Neither would Charles.
‘I’m afraid I have someone staying with me this weekend,’ she said.
The Sunday after, then.’
‘He stays most weekends, actually,’ said Robyn.
Wilcox looked put out, but after a moment’s hesitation he said, ‘Bring him too, then.’
To which there was nothing Robyn could say except, ‘All right. Thank you very much.’
(Courtesy of Madame Renee Morel.)