Thursday, August 7, 2014


You would not think that I needed, at the age of 64, to go to Sage Hill and work with Ken Babstock in order to learn about metaphor.  In my defense, I now realize that as a teacher I spent way too much time with undergraduates simply attempting to help them identify the implied tenor (the thing or idea or action that the author is writing about) and the vehicle (the thing that replaces the tenor by way of comparison or substitution), and then trying to get them to be playful (When reading poetry?  Never!) and consider the significance or the meaning of the collision of these two ways of looking at the writer's subject.  This is a terrible way to do this:  it makes the reading of metaphors into a kind of decoding, a kind of literary Enigma Project.  Now there's a metaphor for you.  (Yesterday when Bill and I were looking at new sofas, I was trying to explain to a salesman what I was looking for when I used the word "streamlined" or "minimal."  I finally tried "as if the sofa isn't trying to look like an SUV."  He got it.  They didn't have any.)

Ken's approach is much more dramatic:  for him, a good metaphor creates a kind of "explosion," a species of alchemy.  His Griffin-prize-winning collection, Methodist Hatchet, signifies by its title--what makes a Methodist hatchet different from, say, a Catholic hatchet?--the way Ken will relentlessly question what language will do.  The poems are full of metaphors almost too particular to their context to use as examples. What does it mean that shrikes are rhetoric's murre?--a figure from the title poem.  But here's a more straightforward example from "Fending Off the Conservativism in Adorno":  "bread's now a four-pound cow pat of walnut sourdough that petrifies by Wednesday."  Yes, we've bought that particular sour dough, and it was indeed amazingly dry by Wednesday.  But comparing walnut sourdough to a four-pound cow pat makes that fact startlingly visceral and distinctly disgusting in its pretensions to be artisanal bread.

So I came home to read Denis Donoghue's latest book, Metaphor.  At 86, Donoghue is entitled to be as autobiographical as he likes to see where it takes him.  It takes the scholar to his Irish Catholic upbringing before his voice turned, when he was a boy soprano, singing the hymns of Aquinas; now he is inclined to consider, through translations and close reading, what Aquinas means by "figure," a Latin term for figurative language or metaphor.  While that particular line of questioning didn't resonate with me, it nevertheless made very clear that the idea of metaphor, the querying of metaphor has a very long tradition and that its history has deep roots in our sense of the sacred:  Donoghue quotes Father Ong's description of metaphor as a "transubstantiation of language." Metaphor descends beneath mere play with similar appearances or rhetorical decoration to explore or instantiate a moment when our sense of the world is temporarily changed or thrown into disarray by language. Perhaps this is part of the explosion, the charge, that Ken pushed me to achieve.

Early on, Donoghue is categorical about this "transubstantiation."  Thinking about his experience of reading "The Wasteland," Donoghue lands on the following lines:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings.

A woman combing her hair is suddenly--and eerily--transformed into a violinist playing a pianissimo passage:  we can see the visual similarity if we're not too nice about it.  Donoghue comments "If the lines make us imagine for a moment a different world than our own, all the better....The effect of Eliot's metaphor is to give her a new life, not by deleting the old one but by drawing a new image across it, that of a woman with long, black hair playing the fiddle.  The woman has been given another life for the time being.  So have I, when I read it" (2-3). In the most powerful metaphors, there is no "is" between tenor and vehicle:  nothing in Eliot's lines say that the black-haired woman is also a violinist.  The verb "fiddled" effects the image, slips us momentarily into another world, but in no way replaces the tenor.  In this way according to Kant, metaphor shows both the mind of the writer and that of the reader using the imagination to think beyond itself (48), to consider two things in the same instant. 

Donoghue also suggests that one of the experiences created by the use of metaphor is freedom for both reader and writer.  One of Donoghue's most strident examples of this freedom is Milton's metaphors and similes, which were sometimes derided by his contemporaries because they "obeyed no laws."  The vehicle, according to Origen, has the capacity to float free of the tenor or even to supplant it--something a strong metaphor should be able to do--other wise, it's mere decoration.  Donoghue remarks that metaphors "conspire with the mind in the enjoyment of its freedom" (64).  This is certainly the case for the writer who, through the conventions that govern metaphor, is free to surprise, shock, query, delight with an apt or even a comprehensible but counterintuitive metaphor that calls into question what we thought we knew about the tenor.  That freedom extend to the reader who is free "to replace the given world with an imagined world of one's devising" (86).  A simile allows us to see the world differently, but the "like" or "as" makes the vehicle into something else only for the time when we consider the comparison; simile is more polite and self-effacing.  A metaphor, on the other hand, involves a change in the world and a change in our perception of the world.
On Wednesday, Bill and I went to Moose Jaw, partly to go to the Moose Jaw Art Gallery, which may be small, but which offers many delights, and on a scale small enough that you can mull over what you have seen.  The ceramic piece at the top of the post is one of a group created by Les Manning for an exhibition called Common Opposites; it's called "Anvil/Boat."  Throughout this work, Manning is juxtaposing one element of clay--its roughness, to another element of ceramic  practice that makes use of glazes.  If we quickly identify the bottom of the piece as the anvil, we are left wondering how the top portion represents a boat.  I can't help feeling as if the piece as a whole operates as a metaphor for all kinds of oppositions, like open and closed, protected and vulnerable. In literal terms, the "anvil" portion of the work is not really very anvil-like:  I don't think a piece of clay would make a good surface for beating out the shape of a piece of armour, for example.  It would fracture under the first blow.  So what exactly is an anvil or a boat?  These visual forms are almost vehicles for tenors implied by the words in the title that Manning gives his work, and as such they ask all kinds of questions about how we conceive of anvils and boats--besides noting their playful juxtaposition.  Directly above is an installation by Judy McNaughton called "Lamb's Tales."  She is honest about the metaphoric side of her work, noting that while the decision to cast all these delightful lambs came from helping her brother at lambing time, the "implications are metaphoric:  the thin threshold between life and death and how this parallels other transitional states." 

I'm not done with metaphor.  I still have four more chapters of Donoghue's work to read.  As well, he's made me a little more aware of the many ways we can create metaphors besides saying "this is that."  We can use verbs, as Eliot has done above.  We can let the metaphor remain on the level of comparison implied by "this is that," or we can find a more interesting way of getting the two images to interpenetrate each other and shift the very ground the reader stands on.  As well, I'm finding myself curious about the metaphors in Proust's Remembrance of Lost Time, which I've begun again with the intention of getting all the way through this time.  In the twenty-first century, one would be inclined to call the work ill-shaped, with too little scene and a plethora of summary, yet I find the work seductive.  In part, I keep looking for those moments when the narrator's endless reflections stumble onto some recognition, some statement about the human condition that is completely surprising.  Other times, I think I'm reading metaphor to metaphor--and enjoying every moment in between.

Care to share your favourite metaphor in the comments section?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Kathleen! One of my favourite metaphors is from Carl Sandburg. "The fog comes / on little cat feet."