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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Metaphor revisited


Retirement should be about doing exactly as you like, even if finding out that some of the things you like to do are a bit...odd.  I've decided that I finally have the freedom and the concentration to read In Search of Lost Time, and so have gone back to the first book to pick up all the complex threads again.  That's not to say that a plethora of Proust--both in terms of page numbers and the way he can worry and worry and worry a state of mind or an obsession (yes, I meant to say he obsesses even about obsessions), isn't sometimes a little much.  Then I get out the short stories of Kay Boyle of Elizabeth Bowen, both of which I've been meaning to read, for a change of pace and tone.  It also doesn't mean that I actually know how to read Proust, though Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way (courtesy of dear Ken Probert's library) is proving very helpful. 

But I may have, in my own bumbling way, discovered something when I finished Combray last week.  Marcel is anxious about his desire to be a writer--anxious that he doesn't actually have the gift that should go with the desire.  This anxiety seems to nearly overwhelm him as he describes the second of the two walks his parents usually take when they are living in Combray--the Guermantes Way.  This longer walk offers so much beauty that it is almost overwhelming:  he could write paragraphs and paragraphs about the water lilies alone.  But on some level he is realizing the the ecstasy with which the world comes to him is not enough.  At one of these anxious moments, "suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover....It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming and author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggesting no abstract truth.   But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusions of a sort of fecundity, and thereby distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work" (252).  

For the next four pages, he describes his experience of the "twin steeples of Martinville, bathed in the setting sun and constantly changing their position with the movement of the carriage and the windings of the road, and then of a third steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, which, although separated from them by a hill and a valley, and rising from rather higher ground in the distance, appeared none the less to be standing by their side" (254). Two pages later, he manages to borrow a pencil and paper from the doctor with whom he is traveling and record his impressions.  After describing the three steeples he observes how the turns of the road transform their relation with one another:  "Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the evening light like three three golden pivots, and vanished from my sight.  But a little later, when we were close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields.  They made me think, too, of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as we drew away from then at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night" (256).

What Marcel has discovered is, of course, metaphor.  He's asking a lot of himself, at his age, to find a great philosophic theme that will infuse his work.  But he can find a different--less literal--way of seeing the world that infuses it with significance.  What Marcel intuits here is, of course, the fact that where you stand determines what you see; the three steeples, "golden pivots" in the setting sun, provide him with a chance to note how turns in the road, metaphorical and literal, change his view of these unchanging pivot points that nevertheless look different every moment.  And as if to underline the metaphorical significance he intuits, he turns naturally to metaphor:  they are flowers painted on the sky or three abandoned maidens.  In Search of Lost Time is full of rich prose, but--and I'm assuming I can trust the three translators that have brought their skills to the translation--Proust tends to use far more similes than metaphors, at least in the first volume, Swan's Way.  This fact makes the metaphors of his early writing stand out that much more dramatically.

In the final chapter of Metaphor, Denis Donoghue quotes Quintilian, who offers "the strongest motive for known to me...'it ensures that nothing goes without a name,'" thus adding "'to the resources of language by exchanges or borrowings to supply its deficiencies'" (182).  In keeping with Donoghue's notion that metaphor confers liberty--an earlier observation that might flow from this later moment--he writes "The source of metaphor is the liberty of the mind among such words as there are.  In metaphors, we cry out to change the world by giving things their proper names--which they have lacked" (183-4).  There is something Adamic about metaphor, then; some moment when a turn of phrase actually turns up the real significance of something you have seen or used every day.  But the naming we do when we create metaphors is world-creating, world-shifting.  Forgive me if I sound like an overly-clever undergraduate for a moment, but it seems to me important that there are three steeples involved in Marcel's epiphany, two closer together and one farther away:  perhaps they are themselves a metaphor.  The two that are close are the tenor and the vehicle of metaphor.  The vehicle, this surprising yet apt comparison, causes us to see the tenor in an entirely different way. But the whole project of metaphor, and the varied ways in which the tenor and vehicle resonate with each other like the third steeple of Marcel's vision or the strings on a well-tuned violin, produces a third thing that is almost equivalent to the philosophical project that Marcel seeks.  It creates an interaction between mind and world.

The final chapter of Donoghue's book, "The Motive for Metaphor," takes its title from a poem by Wallace Stevens, whom Donoghue quotes extensively on metaphor.  In a rather somber poem titled "Metaphor as Degeneration," Stevens notes that "being / Includes death and the imagination" (205). That's a world view I can live with; I do believe that our imaginations allow us all to live more fruitfully, more fully.  Imagination doesn't privilege the world--as if all we live for is material; nor does it privilege solely the inner life.  Imagination creates conversations with the world--even moments for world to talk back. Metaphor may give us liberty, but finally the world with its intransigence talks back and reminds us that in the face of our mortality metaphor may only express desire.


The photograph at the top of the blog was taken by Veronica Geminder in Montmartre last spring.  I'm using it as the inspiration for a poem about metaphor, because it seems to me that metaphor is both a window and a stairway going unexpected places.   


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