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Grand Affiliations

By (August 1, 2014) 13 Comments


By Denis Donoghue
Harvard University Press, 2014

Perhaps the simplest way to think about metaphor is as the connection formed when meaning is transferred from one thing to another. This is not the only way to construe metaphor, of course; early English literary critic George Puttenham, in his 1589 Arte of English Poesie, argues that metaphor is “the figure of transport,” whereby an abstract or difficult idea is transposed by a more readily grasped idea, so that “every man can easilie conceive the meaning” originally intended by an author.  Or ask a cognitive linguist, who would point out that metaphor’s ability to make complex words and ideas accessible has shaped not only the way we speak, but also the way we think, in the sort of linguistic determinism described by what is popularly termed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in their work Metaphors We Live By, “[W]e typically conceptualize the nonphysical in terms of the physical – that is, we conceptualize the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated”:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action.  For this reason, most people think that they can get along perfectly well without metaphor.  We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in ordinary life, not just in language but in thought and action.  Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

In his compelling new work, Metaphor, Denis Donoghue suggests that the very act of reading itself is “an enchanted interpretation that sometimes involves foraging among the available senses of a word or a phrase to settle upon the one that seems most justly telling in its place,” so that metaphor becomes the act of saying that “something is something else.”

But these are definitions and arguments about metaphor. It is much more satisfying to experience the richness of metaphor when it is in action.  George Herbert’s “Prayer (I),” from his 1633 sequence The Temple, strikes me as a particularly transcendent example of its power:

        Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
                    Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
                    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
        The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

        Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
                    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
                    The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,
        A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

        Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
                    Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
                    Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,

        The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
                    Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
                    The land of spices; something understood.

The force of metaphor in this dazzling poem compels the reader to connect disparate, non-literal, and in some cases physically impossible ideas to the seemingly innocuous and familiar concept of prayer – and, in so doing, the very idea of what prayer is or could be must itself shift.  Little lapidary moments crackle in the poem’s lines: the soul in paraphrase; reversed thunder; Heaven in ordinarie; something understood.  Yet no one image takes particular precedence over the others.  Herbert does not even guide our interpretation in any overt way – prayer is not like these items, nor is prayer these items.  Rather, prayer and these elements exist on the same plane, and the elements are meant to lead us to a deeper, more complex, or more intimate understanding of the experience of prayer.  That is, the point of the poem is to shake us from our preconceptions, however correct they may be on practical terms, and to push us towards something new, something unexplored, something understood.

Izaak Walton, in his Life of Mr. George Herbert, notes that the publishing and distribution of his poems was crucial to Herbert, who hoped they would “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”  After all, Herbert’s position in the early modern debate between prayer (which often apriesttothetempleinvolved a dialogue between priest and congregation) and preaching (a unidirectional flow of sermon) favored intimacy and response.  John Drury, in his recent biography of Herbert, Music at Midnight, observes that prayer was for Herbert “best of all: private in his poetry and public in his church.”  In Herbert’s prose piece, A Priest to the Temple, he deploys what Drury glosses as a “dinner-table metaphor” to describe the action such a “public” sermon might serve.  Herbert argues that a sermon could “procur[e] attention” in his congregation “by dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths, truly affecting, and cordially expressing all that we say; so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is hart-deep.”*

Words truly seasoned before they enter our mouths – our mouths both literal, in that we will speak the words, and our mouths metaphorical, in that our mouth stands for our mind.  This is the sort of active interpretation many such metaphors demand: the reader has to sift through the catalogue of his or her experience (I have dipped food, I have seasoned food, I have eaten food) to find the element that will connect to the less-effable aspects of sermon and, in so doing, create a new notion of sermon with a living connection to everyday life.

And this connection is what Herbert’s “Prayer (I)” offers to the reader.  The means by which the priest and his congregation converse during prayer – furtive, secret, gentle – are the same means by which the poem converses with its reader.  For, stepping back a moment, it is appears that “Prayer (I)” flips the general relationship established during metaphorical action on its head: it should be that prayer is made more intelligible by its metaphorical connections to its antecedents.  But the beauty of Herbert’s poem is that the metaphor flows in the other direction: we begin with a stable, tangible term, and then explode its possibilities so that we may view it in an entirely new light.  The last term, something understood, is what prayer is meant to achieve, what the ideal relationship between priest and congregation is meant to achieve, and, ultimately, what the ideal relationship between poem and reader is meant to achieve.

Enter Donoghue’s Metaphor, which extends a similar invitation to its readers, to read and to recognize how the apparently detached or ungraspable literary idea might be more readily and naturally conveyed to the mind through other means.  As Donoghue remarks:

How to read a metaphor – that is the conjunction of [various] interests, because on the face of it is a metaphor – as in “on the face of it” – is bizarre. Why say that something is something else?

Why say that something is something else?  That is the core problem at play in Metaphor, which meanders gently from the charmingly personal to the keenly microscopic in its treatment of its (largely literary and philosophical) material.  Why indeed say that something is something else? “The motive for metaphor,” argues Northrop Frye (quoted by Donoghue), “is a desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part…we are also a part of what we know.” This is largely the point of Metaphor, as well as the point of metaphor: microcosm – the individual, and his or her own personal experiences and ideas – understands that it exists in contiguity with macrocosm – the world at large, however unknowable it might seem. And this understanding, for both Frye and Donoghue, is a cause of joy.

A true readerly pleasure in Metaphor is the intense, tactile connection Donoghue strikes between himself and the text at hand. Donoghue would have his reader “sad that the thing is merely what it is; it has no other life.”  This hypothetical reader would then desire to move beyond “obvious likeness” to give the original thing “another life, perhaps a better one.” This is the purpose of Metaphor: to make us see how and why metaphor can revitalize our understanding not just of what we read but of how we read.

Donoghue brings a lovely confessional element to his analysis. As a student, he says, he

loved Latin, the foreignness of it…. In Warrenpoint I sang the syllables [of “Panis angelicus”], which I stroked – I see now – as my boyish taste required: the words and their meanings had to fend for themselves. In fact, the question of their meanings never occurred to me, and I lived agreeably enough without it…. Latin to me was an experience like those of smelling incense and striking the gong.

It takes very little to conjure in the reader’s mind Donoghue as a small child in Warrenpoint, County Down, Northern Ireland, and this rests on the strength of his storytelling – a storytelling necessarily buoyed (as he would be the first to announce) by the utility of metaphor.

The density of associations Donoghue makes is interesting enough to carry the reader across long swamplands of personal history and personal idiosyncrasies. He includes lengthy deviations into metonymy, irony, synecdoche, and (most logically) simile. Careful inspection of poems by Wallace Stevens (or incidental letters of Henry James and Grace Norton; or a spat between critics Robert QuinMankin and Stanley Cavell; all of which lead to some devastatingly close readings by Donoghue) come off less as modes of analytical comparison and more as one might think of a lover comparing his current beloved to other inferior ex-lovers, uncovering all their faults in the face of the elegance and motility of metaphor.

For example, in a chapter devoted largely to the Stevens poem “The Motive for Metaphor,” and the eponymous text by Frye, Donoghue examines Yeats’s poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” (“It’s not a simile,” writes Donoghue), Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory (which supplies us with “a beautiful, caring motive,” writes Donoghue), and Stevens’s “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together” (Donoghue observes of the Stevens’s word “bisqued” that “it may enter the language as a metaphorical nuance, or it may be rejected as a bizarrerie”). These are ways around and through the metaphor, an attempt by Donoghue to burnish it, the better to set it off from its compatriot figures of speech. Yet they delve deeply enough to sidetrack the reader from Donoghue’s pages-long reading of “The Motive for Metaphor,” without ever really providing a satisfying motive for metaphor.

At other times, Donoghue is most obviously a curator, unpacking critical history on metaphor, lifting each artifact from the box where it lay insulated in academic excelsior, dusting it off, examining it with the keen eye of appraiser.  Donoghue, contra Lakoff and Johnson, contra Kafka, contra Stanley Fish, contra I.A. Richards (with whose dull distinctions of tenor and vehicle Donoghue burdens the reader from the first page), contra even (good lord!) Vico and Aristotle – Donoghue concedes points, finds faults, develops his own memories to arrive at hybrid personal-critical museum-piece definitions of metaphor. Interrogating Richards’s tenor/vehicle distinction, Donoghue observes that “[m]etaphor is the mutual relation of tenor and vehicle, a relation achieved by holding the two simultaneously in one’s mind” – but, he points out, “How that is done is a puzzle.” While he is willing to adopt Richards’s terms, he is also willing to admit to some bafflement as to their practical implementation.

In a more Aristotelian register, Donoghue considers that

[m]etaphor is the transfer of a word from its proper or ordinary position in a sentence or a phrase to a position alien to that or distant from it…. [M]etaphor is a cognitive act, or at least it may be, a device to make further experience possible.  But this is problematic. Metaphors can’t establish anything.  They conspire with the mind in its enjoyment of freedom, but they can’t demonstrate that anything is the case…. At best, they are a suggestive figure.

Again, Donoghue appears to agree with the general theory, but not wholeheartedly, finding the “cognitive act” of utilizing metaphor “problematic.” Donoghue may have been comforted by the criticism of Aristotle forwarded by George Eliot in The Mill and the Floss, in which the narrator finds Aristotle’s praise of metaphor at odds with the philosopher’s lamentation “that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else.” Such dissatisfaction with attempts at concrete definitions of metaphor bleeds into Donoghue’s own thinking: “The best metaphors are revolutionary, not merely descriptive,” he claims, then adds, “although descriptions too may be revelations.”

Perhaps the best example of the beauty of Donoghue’s readings lies in his attempt to catalogue the idea of metaphor:

We normally – and justly – speak of metaphor as an irruption of desire, specifically the desire to transform life by reinterpreting it, giving it a different story.  The proper, straightforward meaning of a force is fine – no, all right, if not quite fine – and it is mostly what we live on, but if it were entirely sufficient, metaphor…would not exist; there would be no call for [it].  We need [it] because ordinary, proper meanings are not enough…. We have, in metaphor, the possibility of seeing those proper meanings gloriously enhanced, thrown aloft into grand affiliations.

Here we are invited to connect the humble metaphor to desire, and in particular interpretative and creative desire. We need metaphor to explore and unpack the world around us. Yet, as Donoghue points out, the finest thing about metaphor, the very reason for its being, is that it actually also shows us the limitations of our interpretation and our creation. Our own “ordinary” words “are not enough” – so in steps metaphor to show us how glorious we might be. Of course, notes Donoghue, were we really that glorious, we would not require metaphor, so the constant tug of desire is kept in place by metaphor’s workings.

oneloquenceBeyond all the to-and-fro is a constellation of information, a shift of stars from one period in time, from one genre, from one author to another, however distant, however apparently disconnected – because Donoghue’s hypnotic prose style sees them all through to their logical links.  For all that there is something slightly formulaic about Metaphor – see his 2000 The Practice of Reading, which is similarly wide-ranging and personal; or his 2010 On Eloquence, which similarly seeks to rescue eloquence from the shackles of banal rhetorical form – there is also something gently revolutionary about it.

In modern academic literary criticism, there is seldom if ever any room or time for the critic to pause in admiration of the object of criticism. Do we, academics, feel it is required, or relevant, for us to say of Herbert’s Prayer (I) that it might give us gooseflesh?  Not to say – but to admit, for allowing for personal feeling seems to be a concession, a failing somehow, which is surely nonsensical, as the beauty of what we read is of course what drew us to literature in the first place. Donoghue, more sure of himself, suffers no such self-consciousness, and the power of his work lies in his identification of the critical and the personal. It is all right, he might say, for you to be drawn emotionally to what must later consume you intellectually.  It may in fact be necessary.

One key unanswered question is why we must press upon metaphor now.  Is there something specific to this point in history – something along the lines of what compelled the profusion of metaphor in the early modern period, say – that makes metaphor essential to our way of thought, and an essential point of inquiry?  This is a question I would like answered (or, better, to answer myself), and alas Donoghue does little to contextualize his exploration.  He makes an achingly brief foray into the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, in 2012, on Buckley v. Valeo, the effect of which was to “declare that money is speech…to activate the metaphorical capacity of the English language.”  If money can speak, it is a short hop to corporate personhood, one of the most vexing metaphorical connections assailing America at this time.

Indeed, any step beyond literary-theological-philosophical is likely to lead to thorns that will snag in the broader consciousness of the reader of Metaphor.  Is it simply that metaphor is so ingrained in our thought processes that we can comfortably disregard its implications when we see it?  Or shouldn’t it be that metaphor tugs and pulls, forces us to read deeper and more meaningfully?  Why connect money to speech, corporations to people, prayer to pilgrimage?  What is at stake in these connections?  Donoghue, frustratingly, doesn’t answer these questions – but what he succeeds at doing is to force us to scrutinize with greater care, to convince us to bring a portion of ourselves to what we read, and to get us to think outside the (metaphorical) box to which our everyday associations has confined us.  Making metaphor personal is the key to eliciting deeper reading. While his range is limited, Donoghue’s intentions are pure, and the reader can easily forgive Metaphor’s various tangential arcs and microscopic lenses.  For the payoff is to get us to see what Donoghue thinks of as the audacity of metaphor:

Metaphor…expresses one’s desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one’s devising.  So the first part of the metaphor…is likely to be diminished or even dislodged by the [second part] as the interinanimation [a word coined by John Donne] of the words proceeds.  More than likeness is entailed; the process is audacious.

So audacity becomes, at last, the means by which we achieve something understood.
*I am grateful to Carolyn Dewald for this connection
Lianne Habinek is an Assistant Professor of English at Bard College and a frequent Open Letters Monthly contributor.