Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blame Chuck Klosterman

On page 85 of Sex, Drugs and Coca Puffs, Klosterman writes on the inanity of the phrase “comparing apples and oranges,” noting that a person could pick a great many things less similar than these two fruits. He writes, “Their weight is extremely similar. They both contain acidic elements. They’re both roughly spherical. They serve the same social purpose. With the possible exception of a tangerine, I can’t think of anything more similar to an orange than an apple.” He brings up a good point. Perhaps proving that I shouldn’t read the work of people as pointlessly nitpicky as I am, Klosterman’s argument against this phrase launched me into a rumination the likes of which I haven’t had while sober in years: What, exactly, is the thing most dissimilar to an apple?

Mathematically speaking, I suppose that an anti-apple would be exactly that: the absence of an apple. Just as the opposite of the number 22 would be exactly that many ticks away from zero on the number line to the left — or, put more plainly, the number –22 — the obvious answer would seem to be “not an apple” or “the lack of an apple.” However, that makes for a shitty chunk of syntax. “Oh, Herman. You just can’t use the same logic for ice hockey and you do for ultimate Frisbee. You’re comparing apples to the absence of apples.” Also, while the addition of 22 to -22 equals zero, one apple plus the absence of an apple doesn’t equal nothing. It still equals one apple, or possibly one apple and an empty spot next to the apple. “Was I supposed to have another apple?” you’d ask.

No, there has to be a better answer.

The notion of an opposite is tricky. Aside from numbers, the only things I can think of that have demonstrable opposites are directions — left and right, backwards and forwards, probably others — and colors — though I’m told that a shade of brown containing perfectly equal parts of the three primary colors as well as equal amounts of black and white would have no complement. When in comes to more complex subjects, I find that people often claim one thing to be another’s opposite when they actually mean that the two things actually are quite similar, with only one or two important differences. For example, if you ask even a novice comic book nerd to name the opposite of Superman, they’d probably tell you it’s the Bizarro Superman. However, Bizarro is a lot like Superman. Similar builds, for example, excluding the gray skin that marks most denizens of Bizarro World. Similar outfits. Both live in large cities, Metropolis or Bizarro Metropolis. And both have superpowers. Should not the opposite of Superman be a weakling? And female? Decidedly Un-Superwoman?

There’s a Seinfeld episode, “The Bizarro Jerry,” in which Elaine attempts to refute the notion that Bizarro is, in fact, Superman’s opposite. Jerry explains Bizarro’s characteristically contrary speech patterns, noting that Bizarro would say “hello” when leaving and “goodbye” when arriving. Elaine’s response: “Shouldn’t he say ‘badbye’? ... Does he live underwater? … Is he black?” Bizarro doesn’t really qualify as Superman’s opposite, when you think about it, yet the logic appears elsewhere. The Flash, for example, has a nemesis who functions as his opposite — the infuriatingly stupidly named supervillain Reverse-Flash — but has more in common with Flash than does, say, Marcia Brady. Taking a step outside the DC comics universe, I’ll point out two more: Darkwing Duck has an archenemy named NegaDuck, and Mario has Wario, and yet both work more as differently colored versions of the hero, with key personality aspects twisted toward evil.

More often, I feel like a thing’s perceived opposite could serve just as easily as its double, depending on your perpective. Take Twin Peaks, for example. As hinted at in its very name, doubles populate this show. In nearly every episode, characters must confront others who work simultaneously as both opposite and double. Most obviously, there’s the introduction of the Cooper doppelganger in the series finale, who looks and acts like Cooper but commits acts of evil and insanity when Cooper would act heroically and logically. On a more subtle level, Twin Peaks offers us Audrey and Donna, the former a spoiled rich girl and the latter a sweet-natured girl next door. However, in the pilot that introduces them, they look enough alike that new viewers often have trouble telling them apart at first. As the show progresses, you begin to notice that beneath her bratty exterior, Audrey is motivated by good intentions, whereas Donna exhibits more and more of a dark side. Notably, at the end of the series, the two learn that they probably share the same father, which, in the context of this discussion, couldn’t a more appropriate revelation.

But I’m off subject. I’d intended for this essay to focus on apples and whatever their opposites might be.

If one were to find a better candidate for the position of “anti-apple,” I suppose, one would have to avoid the logic that has created the Bizarro effect. I think this could be accomplished by making a list of a given thing’s most important attributes, then making a list of qualities that could constitute opposites, and then thinking of something that has all of the qualities on this second list.

So what, then, are the qualities of an apple?
  • It’s edible.
  • You can hold one in your hand.
  • It’s a product of a living thing, even if it’s usually not living when you’re eating it. (Unless you’re a squirrel living in an apple tree, in which case I look forward to the comments you may leave on this post.)
  • It’s spherical.
  • It promotes health of its consumer.
  • And it’s generally a thing that people have positive associations with.
(Note that I’m leaving off color for now. Apples are probably most often depicted as red, but I feel like I see roughly as many green apples as red ones. I’d wager that most asked to mentally picture an apple would dream up a red one, but I feel I’d actually have a green one in mind, because I’m partial to Granny Smiths. Also, green and red are opposite colors anyway. Thus, I feel this is too complicated a factor for the moment.)

So, then, following my logic, these would be the following the characteristics of the anti-apple:
  • It’s inedible.
  • It would not be able to be held in your hand, either by virtue of too harmful, too large to pick up or simply intangible.
  • It’s inorganic.
  • It has sides, I guess. Or it’s covered in spikes. It’s just not smooth?
  • It’s not particularly healthy.
  • People generally don’t like it.
A stream-of-consciousness list of initial responses, rejected for obvious reasons: Sea urchins? No, that’s stupid. Porcupines? Stupider. A football? No, can be held in hand. A computer tower? Nope, I’m just looking at things in the room. Those early-age computers that took up entire rooms? No, people liked those. A sword? No, you can hold that. A leprechaun? No, they’re imaginary, and I didn’t come up with “real” as one of the most essential qualities of an apple. Wax lips? No, I think you actually can eat those. (This went on for some time, with some of what popped into my head being quite embarrassing. I’ll save you the worst of it and skip to my final three conclusions.)

The three finalists:

A grease fire.

Because you wouldn’t classify one as organic, per se, though they can thrive on such elements. You certainly can’t eat it. You can’t hold it, in the sense that it would horrifically burn your hand to do so. It lacks any definite shape, which I feel would make it more an opposite of a near-sphere than anything else. And grease fires are both unloved and unhealthy, likely the former as a result of the latter. Possible disqualifications: I’d bet you’d be more likely to find a grease fire in your kitchen than in any other room of the house. And, if pressed to imagine what room you’d most likely find an apple in, I feel like post people would say “kitchen” as well.

An army tank.

Although some military nuts might light up at the sight of an army tank, I feel like the vast majority of humans wouldn’t. Army tanks make an awful lot of noise and, worse, can blast you into smithereens in an instant. It’s has a varied, irregular shape. You can’t pick it up, as a result of its size, and you can’t eat it, as a result of its components. And, you can’t neglect the verbal zing of the sentence “You’re comparing apples and army tanks.” Possible disqualification: You could debate how unlikable they are, especially if the United States were engaged in a more popular war.

A mine, but specifically the kind that floats in the sea.

This might seem like more of stretch than the others, but I think it’s my candidate of choice. Marine mines do have a basic round shape, I’ll admit, but I feel like they more often are covered in spikes or at least protuberances, at least. They have variable size, probably, but you can’t hold them in your hand, because they would blow it off. It’s probably the one of these three that you’d least likely encounter, especially in a familiar setting. (Like, I’ve seen army tanks before but I’ve never seen a marine mine outside of a movie of that one episode of Baywatch.) Finally, they’re highly unpleasant. Possible disqualifications: Something I’m missing because I actually know very little about marine mines.

So there you have it. I’ve taken the matter this far. Now, please tell me: Which of these three do you feel best deserves the title of “opposite of an apple”? Or am I completely off-base on this one and some other thing better deserves the honor?


  1. I think I like your illustration. Let's leave it at that.

  2. I would offer an expended plutonium rod as another possible choice, in that it has all the qualities you mention, plus it has no remaining purpose, while even a rotted apple can be put to positive use.

    However, I think you and Mr. Klosterman are guilty of over-thinking. The phrase "comparing apples and oranges" point in fact refers to situations where two items have apparent congruity but where too close a comparison can lead to overlooking details. Mr. Klosterman is correct that apples are very similar to oranges. You'd expect that in fruit that grows from a deciduous tree. However, the plants that they grow on are dissimilar enough that you cannot graft an orange tree branch onto an apple root stock, where you could graft a fruit such as a pear.

    To really get the phrase, consider where these plants are grown in the old world. Apples are hardier, colder climate fruit, and fit right at home in the British isles, Northern France, and most German speaking countries. Compare that to oranges, which are more often grown in tropical locales as India and the Middle East. I think that this may have been the key classical contrast; Oranges are from the Colonies, and Apples are from the Motherland.

    As to the rest of your doppelganger discussion, Bri tells it so much better than I do, so I'll give her a chance to wander over and speak.

  3. Regardless of whether we're misinterpreting the true spirit of the phrase "comparing apples to oranges," I feel the the debate holds water, at least on my end, because it's more about the nature of opposites than anything. And I don't feel that the nature of the three that grows these fruits nor their geographical origins should figure in too heavily into how they whatever their opposites might be work, just because I feel those aren't things people think about too much when they consider the essential qualities of either. And I do feel that a thing's opposite should be based on essential qualities.

    But yes --- if there's an interesting argument about dopplegangers waiting to be unloaded on me, I'd love to hear it.

    Bri, are you listening?

  4. In regard to what Pedro brings up:
    I would, indeed, believe the apple and the orange are runners for what we refer to as "reverse dopplegangers" which is a phrase that pisses Smeg off to no end.
    Basically, the apple and the orange do, in fact, have similarities, but their essential differences are interestingly aligned with one another in a way that goes beyond mere coincidence. According to the extended and ridiculous theory of reverse dopplegangerism, two items (or people, etc.) have both essential similarities, yet also have differences that are specifically and eerily aligned. My go to example is, of course, the Wicked Witch and the Scarecrow: the Witch is plagued by water where the Scarecrow is plagued by fire; the Witch desires Dorothy, yet displays traditionally male/phallic attributes in doing so (her broomstick and her nose being the most obvious) and the Scarecrow is the most obvious sexual partner for Dorothy (particularly through his own regular doppleganger, Hunk) despite being aligned with nominally (and stereotypically) feminine attributes. So, the two aren't mere opposites: their opposite components are intrinsically linked.
    Likewise, the apple and the orange... both are globular pieces of fruit, both serve to hold seeds, etc., etc. Yet their are differences that could be said to have links as well: the apple is crisp while an orange is soft; the apple's skin is thin and edible while the orange's skin is thick and inedible.
    I suppose I should read this over and see if it makes sense, but I think I'll leave it as is.

    Though, another phrase that has always bothered me that you could perhaps look at, Drewseph: "They go together like peas and carrots." Peas and carrots don't go together in my mind... not even in a R.D. sense. Always thought it should be peas and corn myself.

  5. I like the concept, but, like Smeg, I feel there could possibly be a better name for the concept other than "reverse dopplegangers," which logically would seem to mean "double," even though I understand the concept you're expressing. Twin Peaks would not be a bad source of examples for it, would it? Because, in the way I'm approaching the matter, "reverse doppleganger" basically means what I'm trying to get at when I talk about simultaneous opposites and doubles.

    The Germans must have a word for this, no? I'd say we should append the German word for "reverse" onto "doppleganger," but I feel like a more clever way would be to take the "walker" out of "doppleganger" and make it "dopplehangerouter" or "dopplebystander."


  6. Of your options, I like grease fire the best. I really like tanks and mines are just to round for me. Grease fire is closest to the image that popped into my head right off the bat of Uranium. I'm pretty sure it isn't organic, it doesn't have a definite shape, it's not edible or healthy, and it's not generally liked... and it solves the grease fire problem because you normally wouldn't find it in your kitchen.