16 September 2010

Fear of Metaphor, Part 1

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet" Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet Act II. Sc. 2.

"A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily

"'Le style c’est l’homme', 'Le style c’est l’homme meme'. The first expression has cheap epigrammatic brevity. The second, correct version opens up quite a different perspective. It says that a man’s style is a picture [image] of him." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 78e
Welcome to the beginning of a new series of posts on the topic of metaphor.

Let's start with some basics. A metaphor is a rhetorical device which attempts to identify one thing with another. Unlike a simile or analogy, a metaphor asserts that one thing is another thing, not just that one is like the other.

My Handbook to Literature defines metaphor as "An implied analogy which imaginatively identifies one object with another and ascribes to the first one or more of the qualities of the second or invests the first with emotional or imaginative qualities associated with the second." (313-14)... "I.A. Richards' distinction between the tenor and the vehicle of a metaphor has been widely accepted and is very useful. The tenor is the idea being expressed or the subject of the comparison; the vehicle is the image by which this idea is conveyed or the subject communicated." (314)

Examples are plentiful:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Gospel of John 1:1

Moth: They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol'n the scraps.
Costard: O, they have liv'd long on the alms-basket of words. -Wm. Shakespeare, Love's Labour 's Lost. Act V. Sc. 1."

"...while he learned the language (that meagre and fragile thread, Grandfather said, by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness where the spirit cried for the first time and was not heard and will cry for the last time and will not be heard either)…" Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 109

Metaphors are strange and wondrous things. How is it we can say of a man that he is a lion, or a wolf, or a jackrabbit, or a robot? How is it we can say of a woman that she is a kitten, or a bunny, or a cougar, or a planet? And then, even more strange and wondrous, how can we expect to be understood when we do so?

And when writers speak of language as a "meagre and fragile thread," a "great feast," or as a bewitcher, or even as "God", are they speaking of the same thing or different things or different aspects of the same thing? Or do all the metaphors about a thing add up to give us a picture—however incomplete—of the thing, or at least our understanding of the thing? Or are they merely expressive?

Aren't some metaphors better than others? Don't some just fit better? Aren't some simply more precise? And when we get to greater degrees of exactitude are we still using metaphors, or are we merely being descriptive?

What, then, counts as a metaphor? And how do we recognize them when we see them?

Some metaphors are obvious. But recognizing them becomes more problematic when we go beyond individual words, phrases, or thoughts. How do we deal with extended metaphors? Some say an entire novel or poem might be an extended metaphor for ... [whatever]? What if it is and we treat it literally instead of figuratively? Do we miss something? Can it still be meaningful? Is it still a metaphor? etc.

Is the presence and recognition of metaphors strictly contextual? Isn't there a community aspect as well—commonplaces? For example, if we're reading a poem, we know to look for them. If we're listening to a political speech, we know to listen for them. But is that enough?

Is it as with Justice Potter Stewart's gloss on hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it?

What does the nature of metaphor tell us about the nature of language itself? And why, if you're a writer, are they so damned difficult to create? Do the metaphors we use tell us more about ourselves (qua users) than the things they are meant to illuminate?

These are some of the questions I hope to pursue in this new series of posts. I invite you to stay attuned.

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