Monthly Archives: June 2017

‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.

[curtain]

But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.

 

 

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The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.

– Wikipedia

ToomTabard

(David Mundell – photo from BBC website)

As Secretary of State for Scotland at a time when we have our own devolved government, David Mundell is a worthy inheritor of the title Toom Tabard, originally given to John Balliol, whose claim to the throne of Scotland was dependent on his being vassal to Edward I of England. ‘Toom Tabard’ means ‘empty coat’ and signifies one who has the trappings of power without the substance.

Mr Mundell, never a man to shy away from a cliche when it presents itself, today delivered this curious pronouncement:

“The people of Scotland sent Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP a very, very clear message in last week’s general election – with the cataclysmic performance of the SNP compared to the 2015 general election. They want that threat of an independence referendum taken off the table.
“Nicola Sturgeon should not be in denial about that. She should wake up, smell the coffee and be absolutely clear with the people of Scotland, as now members of her own party are indicating, and take that threat off the table.”

As others have pointed out, an election result that leaves you with more seats than all your opponents combined (nearly half as many again – 35 to 24) is the sort of cataclysm any party would gladly suffer.  In the five elections prior to 2015, the SNP won 3 seats in 1992, 6 seats in 1997 and 5 in 2001 (all from a total of 72 contested) then 6 seats in both 2005 and 2010, when the number contested was 59. If Mr Mundell is looking for a realistic baseline to measure from, then the low single figures of that 18 year span are surely more indicative than the astonishing 56 out of 59 seats the SNP won in 2015. The only cataclysm in recent elections in Scotland has been the collapse of the pro-Union vote.

(In the interests of historical accuracy, it should be remembered that the ‘union’ referred to in the titles ‘Scottish Unionist’ and ‘Scottish Conservative and Unionist’ is the Irish union of 1800, not the Scottish Union of 1707: it was Irish Home Rule that the Unionists opposed – so it is better to call the Scottish anti-independence parties – Tory, Labour and Liberal – pro-Union rather than Unionist)

It is against that background that we should consider Mr Mundell’s bizarre notion that an independence referendum constitutes a ‘threat’ – to what, and to whom?

The Conservative election campaign in Scotland was, to say the least, peculiar. It was led by Ruth Davidson and consisted entirely of the repeated assertion that the SNP were only interested in a second Independence Referendum, which they were ‘always banging on about’, to the extent that they were ‘neglecting the day-job’ of running Scotland. The campaign’s actual policy content was zero.

The oddnesss of this is worth dwelling on: Ruth Davidson, technically, had no involvement in the General Election, since she is not a Westminster MP but leads her party in the devolved parliament in Holyrood. Likewise, the ‘day job’ of running Scotland falls to the devolved government and has nothing to do with Westminster; finally, the question of a second independence referendum was not an issue in the General Election: it had already been voted on by the Scottish Parliament on 28 March, with MSPs voting by 69 to 59 in favour of seeking permission for a referendum before the UK leaves the EU.

To reiterate: the Conservative campaign was exclusively concerned with a matter that was not at issue in the election and had in any case already been settled by the legitimate authority. This suggests that if there is an obsession with the independence referendum, it is on the part of the Conservatives rather than the SNP (who, incidentally, made no mention of a second referendum in their campaign).

And the obsession is not with winning a second referendum, but with preventing it from taking place. The logic of this is worth examining. The position of the Conservatives (and indeed the other pro-union parties, who largely parroted the Conservative campaign) is that it would be better for us all if the question of independence was off the agenda for at least a generation. That, of course, is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint, whether one agrees with it or not.

Now, if a second independence referendum repeated or indeed enhanced the result of the first in 2014 (55% No, 45% Yes) it is clear that the matter would be settled for a generation: none of the present pro-independence politicians would feel there was much credibility in going to the country a third time having lost twice.

The inference to be drawn from that is that if the Conservatives and their pro-union allies were confident that a second referendum would deliver the same result as the first, or better (from their point of view), then they would be keen to have one, since it would deliver exactly what they want: the removal of independence from the political agenda for the foreseeable future, with accompanying discomfiture of the SNP.

But, as we have seen, they are not keen: in fact, they are pathologically opposed to having a second referendum, to the extent, as we have seen, of making it the sole focus of their General election campaign, even though it was not an issue. What inference can be drawn from that?

Logically, there is only one: that they fear the Scottish people have changed their minds since 2014 and that a second referendum will reverse the decision of the first. On the evidence, that fear is well-grounded.

In the 2014 referendum, Scots were assured that if they wished to remain part of the EU, they should vote No, as (it was claimed) a Yes vote would jeopardise Scotland’s membership: they would have to reapply, with no guarantee of being admitted. In the 2016 EU referendum Scotland voted by a substantial majority (62%) to remain (as did Northern Ireland, by a smaller margin – 55%) but the UK vote overall was to leave (though only 17 million out of an electorate of 46 million voted to do so – 16 million wished to remain and 13 million did not vote).

Furthermore, as the results of the 2015 and 2017 elections, measured against the baseline of the five previous elections, suggest, there has been a sea-change in Scottish politics: the great majority now favour a party whose principal aim is Scottish independence.

In other words, since 2014 there have been two substantive changes: the UK government is committed to a course which the Scottish people have emphatically rejected; and from having minimal support, the pro-independence party has risen spectacularly to a position of dominance which, even at its reduced 2017 figures, any of the pro-union parties would give their eye-teeth for, and probably sell their own grandmothers into the bargain.

Add to this that a minority Conservative government is now seeking alliance with the DUP, who are simultaneously asserting that they will pursue ‘the interest of the people of Northern Ireland’ (who voted to remain in the EU) yet will support Brexit on the grounds that, as a Unionist party, they must follow what the UK as a whole voted for, and you have a situation which is confused, to say the least.

The paradoxical Mr Mundell views the SNP’s continued electoral dominance as a cataclysmic failure, and grounds for their abandoning a second independence referendum (which has already been democratically decided on), yet seems unable to draw any similar conclusions from his own party’s having called an election expressly to strengthen their hand in Brexit negotiations only to lose their majority. In fact, we are being told that it is the country’s best interests not to have another election soon.

This is projection, in the psychological sense, as defined at the top of this article. When Mr Mundell says that the Scottish people do not want another referendum and the Tory press tell us that the country has no stomach for another election, what they really mean is that the conservative party has no stomach for either because they fear to lose both.

Of course, there is no guarantee that they would. A second independence referendum might repeat the result of the first; a further general election might give the conservatives the majority they seek: neither is a result I would welcome, but as a democrat I feel strongly that it is a matter for the people to decide.

I do not view democratic processes as a threat. I am suspicious of politicians who do.

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