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‘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.


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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When I was young and studying philosophy at Edinburgh University I remember becoming excited about the figurative use of prepositions; they seemed to crop up everywhere, openly and in disguise as Latin prefixes, in uses that clearly were not literal. Reasoning from the fact that the meaning of any preposition could be demonstrated using objects and space, I concluded that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, and that this might act as a limit on what and how we thought.

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What strikes me about this now is not so much the idea as the assumptions on which it is based: I have made Language in its full-blown form my starting point, which is a bit like starting a history of transport with the motor-car. As I have suggested before, what we think of as ‘Language’ is a relatively recent development, arising from the invention of writing and the influence it has exerted on speech, simultaneously elevating it above all other forms of expression and subjugating it to the written form. It is the written form that gives language an objective existence, independent of human activity, and relocates ‘meaning’ from human activity (what Wittgenstein terms ‘language games’ or ‘forms of life’) to words themselves; and alongside this, it makes possible the systematic anaylsis of speech [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment].

In that earlier theory of mine I took for granted a number of things which I now think were mistaken. The first, as I have said, is that the milieu which gives rise to the figurative use of words is the developed form of language described above; that is to confuse the identification and definition of something with its origin, rather as if I were to suppose that a new species of monkey I had discovered had not existed before I found and named it.

Bound up with this is the model of figurative language which I assumed, namely that figurative use was derived from literal use and dependent upon it, and that literal use was prior and original – in other words, that we go about the world applying names like labels to what we see about us (the process of ‘ostensive definition’ put forward by St Augustine, and quoted by Wittgenstein at the start of his Philosophical Investigations) and only afterwards develop the trick of ‘transferring’ these labels to apply to other things (the word ‘metaphor’ in Greek is the direct equivalent of ‘transfer’ in Latin – both suggest a ‘carrying over or across’).

Points to note about this model are that it is logically derived and that it presents metaphorical thinking as an intellectual exercise – it is, as Aristotle describes it, ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The logic appears unassailable: clearly, if metaphor consists in transferring a word from its literal application and applying it elsewhere, so that the sense of the original is now understood as applying to the new thing, then the literal use must necessarily precede the metaphorical and the metaphorical be wholly dependent on and derived from it: to say of a crowd that it surged forward is to liken its action to that of a wave, but we can only understand this if we have the original sense of ‘surge’ as a starting point.

However, there is a difficulty here. It is evident that there can be no concept of literal use and literal meaning till there are letters, since the literal meaning of ‘literal’ is ‘having to do with letters’. Only when words can be written down can we have an idea of a correspondence between the words in the sentence and the state of affairs that it describes (what Wittgenstein in the Tractatus calls the ‘picture theory’ of language). If what we term metaphors were in use before writing was invented – and I am quite certain that they were – then we must find some other explanation of them than the ‘transfer model’ outlined above, with its assumption that literal use necessarily precedes metaphorical and the whole is an intellectual process of reasoned comparison.

The root of the matter lies in the fact already mentioned, that only with the invention of a written form does the systematic analysis of speech become possible, or indeed necessary. Before then (as I suggest in ‘The Disintegration of Expression‘) speech was one facet or mode of expression, quite likely not the most important (I would suggest that various kinds of body language, gesture and facial expression were possibly more dominant in conveying meaning). It was something that we used by instinct and intuition rather than conscious reflection, and it would always have been bound up with some larger activity, for the simple reason that there was no means of separating it (the nearest approach would be a voice speaking in the dark, but that is still a voice, with all the aesthetic qualities that a voice brings, and also by implication a person; furthermore, it is still firmly located in time, at that moment, for those hearers, in that situation. Compare this with a written sentence, where language for the first time is able to stand on its own, independent of space and time and not associated with any speaker).

In other words, when metaphor was first defined, it was in terms of a literate language, and was seen primarily as a use we make of words. (Given the definition supplied by Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘a metaphor is just a long Greek word for a lie’, there is an illuminating parallel to be drawn here with lying, which might be defined as ‘making a false statement, one that is not literally true’. This again puts the focus on words, and makes lying primarily a matter of how words are used and what they mean. The words or the statement are seen as what is false, but actually it is the person – hence the old expression ‘the truth is not in him’. Deceit consists in creating a false appearance, in conveying a false impression: words are merely instrumental, and though certainly useful – as a dagger is for murder – are by no means necessary. We can lie by a look or an action; we can betray with a kiss.)

There is a great liberation in freeing metaphor from the shackles that bind it to literal language (and to logic, with which it is at odds, since it breaks at least two of the so-called ‘laws of thought’ – it violates the law of identity, which insists that ‘A is A’, by asserting that A is B, and by the same token, the law of contradiction, which insists that you cannot have A and not-A, by asserting that A is not-A). It allows us to see it from a wholly new perspective, and does away with the need to see it either as an intellectual act (‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’) or as something that necessarily has to do with words or even communication; I would suggest that metaphor is primarily a way of looking at the world, and so is first and foremost a mode of thought, but one that operates not through the intellect and reason but through intuition and feelings.

To illustrate this, I would like to take first an example I came up with when I was trying to envisage how metaphor might have evolved. Two brothers, out in the bush, come on a lion, at a safe distance, so that they can admire its noble mien and powerful grace without feeling threatened. One brother smiles and says ‘mother!’ The other, after an initial look of puzzlement, nods his head in affirmation and laughs.

The explanation I furnished to accompany this is that their mother is a formidable and beautiful woman and that the first brother, seeing the lion, is reminded of her, and by naming her, invites his brother to make the same comparison that has already occurred to him, which he does after a moment’s puzzlement, and the two take pleasure in this new and unexpected – yet apt – use of the word.


I think that the focus here is wrong: it is still concerned to make metaphor about words, and to see it primarily as a way of communicating ideas.

I would now like to alter the story slightly. A man on his own in the bush catches sight of the lion (from a safe distance, as before). On seeing it, he is moved: the sight of it stirs him, fills him with a mixture of awe and delight. And it is not what he sees, but rather what he feels, that calls his mother to mind: the feeling that the lion induces him is the same as he has felt in the presence of his mother. That is where the identification takes place, in the feeling: the outer circumstances might differ (the lion in the bush, his mother in the village) but the inner feeling is the same. If we think of an experience as combining an external objective component with an internal subjective one (and I am carefully avoiding any notion of cause and effect here) then the origin of metaphor lies in experiences where the external objective component differs but the internal subjective component is the same.

Why am I wary of saying ‘the sight of the lion causes the same feelings that the sight of his mother does’ ? Because it strikes me as what I would call a ‘mixed mode’ of thinking: it imports the notion of causality, a modern and analytic way of thinking, into an account of an ancient and synthetic way of thinking, thus imposing an explanation rather than simply describing. (This is difficult territory because causality is so fundamental to all our explanations, based as they are on thinking that makes use of literate language as its main instrument)

What I want to say is this: causal explanations impose a sequence – one thing comes first – the cause – and elicits the other, the effect. So if we stick with the man and the lion we would analyse it like this: ‘sense data arrive in the man’s brain through his eyes by the medium of light, and this engenders a physical response (spine tingling, hair standing on end, a frisson passing over the body) which the man experiences as a feeling of awe and delight.’

We can demonstrate by reason that the lion, or the sight of it, is the cause and the emotion the effect, because if we take the lion away (for instance, before the man comes on it) the man does not experience the emotion (although he may experience ‘aftershocks’ once it has gone, as he recalls the sight of it).

But there is a fault here. If we leave the lion but substitute something else for the man – an antelope, say, or a vulture – does it still have the same effect? It is impossible to say for sure, though we may infer something from how each behaves – the antelope, at the sight (and quite probably the scent) of the lion might bound away in the opposite direction, while the vulture (sensing the possibility of carrion near by or in the offing) might well move closer.

My point is that the analysis of cause and effect is rather more complex  than I have presented it here, which is much as David Hume makes it out to be, with his analogy with one billiard ball striking another; as Schopenhauer points out, what causes the window to shatter is not the stone alone, but the fact of its being thrown with a certain force and direction combined with the brittleness of the glass (and if the stone is thrown by a jealous husband through his love rival’s window, then we might need to include his wife’s conduct and the construction he puts upon it in the causal mix). Change any one of these and the result is different.

My being human is as much a precondition for the feelings I experience in the presence of a lion as the lion is, and I think that this is a case where, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘we murder to dissect’ – it is much more enlightening to consider the experience as a single simultaneous event with, as I have suggested, an inner and an outer aspect that are effectively counterparts. So the lion is the embodiment of the man’s feelings but so is his mother, and the lion and his mother are identified by way of the feelings that both embody; and the feelings are in some sense the inner nature or meaning of both the lion and the mother (think here of all the songs and poetry and music that have been written where the lover tries to give expression to his feelings for his beloved). This interchangeability and the identity of different things or situations through a common feeling aroused in each case is the foundation of metaphor and, I think, the key ‘mechanism’ of Art.

(This has an interesting parallel with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, as expressed in the title of his work Die Welt als Wille und Vortsellung, variously translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’ or ‘The World as Will and Idea’. In this he borrows from Eastern philosophy to present the world as having a dual aspect – objectively, as it appears to others and subjectively, as it is in itself. Its objective aspect, Representation, is made known to us via our senses, and is the same world of Objects and Space with which this discussion began; we cannot by definition see what it is like in itself since it only ever appears as object, but once we realise that we ourselves are objects in the ‘World as Representation,’ we can gain a special insight by ‘turning our eyes inward’ as it were, and contemplating our own inner nature, which we know not by seeing but by being it.

And what do we find? For Schopenhauer, it is the Will; and the revelation is that this is not an individual will – my will as opposed to yours – it is the same Will that is the inner nature of everything, the blind will to exist, to come into being and to remain in being. (This bears a striking resemblance to the position advanced by evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins, for whom humankind is effectively a by-product of our genetic material’s urge to perpetuate itself).)

I would diverge from Schopenhauer – and the evolutionary biologists – in their pessimistic and derogatory account of the inner nature of things, on two grounds. The first is that it makes us anomalous. Schopenhauer asserts that ‘in us alone, the Will comes to consciousness’ but is unable to explain why this should be so, while his only solution to the revelation that all things are just the urges of a blind and senseless will is effectively self-annihilation (not a course he chose to pursue himself, as it happens – he lived to be 72). There is a lack of humility here that I find suspect, a desire still to assert our uniqueness and importance in a senseless world. If the Will is indeed the inner nature of all things (and that is questionable) why should we consider ourselves the highest manifestation of it?

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The second ground is the nature of the feelings that I describe, which are the opposite of pessimistic: they are uplifting, feelings of awe, elation and delight. There is a fashion nowadays for explaining everything in terms of genetic inheritance or evolutionary advantage (‘stress is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight reaction’ for instance, or any number of explanations which couch our behaviour in terms of advertising our reproductive potential) but I have yet to come across any satisfactory explanation in the same terms of why we should feel elated in the presence of beauty, whether it is a person, an animal, a landscape, the sea or (as Kant puts it) ‘the starry heavens over us*’. The characteristic feature of such experiences is ‘being taken out of yourself’ (which is what ‘ecstasy’ means) a feeling of exaltation or rapture, of temporarily losing any sense of yourself and feeling absorbed in some greater whole.

I would venture that this disinterested delight is the single most important aspect of human experience and is (in Kantian phrase) ‘worthy of all attention.’

*The full quotation is not without interest: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.” (Critique of Practical Reason)


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‘These great concurrences of things’


One of the main ideas I pursue here is that the invention of writing has radically altered the way we think, not immediately, but eventually, through its impact on speech, which it transforms from one mode of expression among many into our main instrument of thought, which we call Language, in which the spoken form is dominated by the written and meaning is no longer seen as embedded in human activity but rather as a property of words, which appear to have an independent, objective existence. (This notion is examined in the form of a fable here)

This means in effect that the Modern world begins in Classical Greece, about two and a half thousand years ago, and is built on foundations laid by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; though much that we think of as marking modernity is a lot more recent (some would choose the Industrial Revolution, some the Enlightenment, some the Renaissance) the precondition for all of these – the way of seeing ourselves in the world which they imply – is, I would argue, the change in our thinking outlined above.

This naturally gives rise to the question of how we thought before, which is not a matter of merely historical interest, since we are not talking here about one way of thinking replacing another, but rather a new mode displacing and dominating the existing one, which nevertheless continues alongside, albeit in a low estate, a situation closely analogous to an independent nation that is invaded and colonised by an imperial power.

What interests me particularly is that this ancient mode of thought, being ancient – indeed, primeval – is instinctive and ‘natural’ in the way that speech is (and Language, as defined above, is not). Unlike modern ‘intellectual’ thought, which marks us off from the rest of the animal kingdom (something on which we have always rather plumed ourselves, perhaps mistakenly, as I suggested recently) this instinctive mode occupies much the same ground, and reminds us that what we achieve by great ingenuity and contrivance (remarkable feats of construction, heroic feats of navigation over great distances, to name but two) is done naturally and instinctively by ants, bees, wasps, spiders, swifts, salmon, whales and many others, as a matter of course.

So how does this supposed ‘ancient mode’ of thought work? I am pretty sure that metaphor is at the heart of it. Metaphor consists in seeing one thing in terms of another, or, if you like, in seeing something in the world as expressing or embodying your thought; as such, it is the basic mechanism of most of what we term Art: poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, dance, music, all have this transformative quality in which different things are united and seen as aspects of one another, or one is seen as the expression of the other – they become effectively interchangeable.

(a key difference between metaphorical thinking and analytic thinking – our modern mode – is that it unites and identifies where the other separates and makes distinctions – which is why metaphor always appears illogical or paradoxical when described analytically: ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle puts it, or ‘saying that one thing is another’)

This long preamble was prompted by an odd insight I gained the other day when, by a curious concatenation of circumstances, I found myself rereading, for the first time in many years, John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep.

Now Buchan is easy to mock – the values and attitudes of many of his characters are very much ‘of their time’ and may strike us as preposterous, if not worse – but he knows how to spin a yarn, and there are few writers better at evoking the feelings aroused by nature and landscape at various times and seasons. He was also widely and deeply read, a classical scholar, and his popular fiction (which never pretended to be more than entertainment and generally succeeded) has a depth and subtlety not found in his contemporaries.

What struck me in The Island of Sheep were two incidents, both involving the younger Haraldsen. Haraldsen is a Dane from the ‘Norlands‘ – Buchan’s name for the Faeroes. He is a gentle, scholarly recluse who has been raised by his father – a world-bestriding colossus of a man, a great adventurer – to play some leading part in an envisaged great revival of the ‘Northern Race’, a role for which he is entirely unfitted. He inherits from his father an immense fortune, in which he is not interested, and a vendetta or blood-feud which brings him into conflict with some ruthless and unscrupulous men.

Early in the book, before we know who he is, he encounters Richard Hannay and his son Peter John (another pair of opposites). They are out wildfowling and Peter John flies his falcon at an incoming skein of geese; it separates a goose from the flight and pursues it in a thrilling high-speed chase, but the goose escapes by flying low and eventually gaining the safety of a wood. ‘Smith’ (as Haraldsen is then known) is moved to tears, and exclaims
‘It is safe because it was humble. It flew near the ground. It was humble and lowly, as I am. It is a message from Heaven.’
He sees this as an endorsement of the course he has chosen to evade his enemies, by lying low and disguising himself.

Later, however, he takes refuge on Lord Clanroyden’s estate, along with Richard Hannay and his friends, who in their youth in Africa had sworn an oath to old Haraldsen to look after his son, when they were in a tight spot. They attend a shepherd’s wedding and after the festivities there is a great set-to among the various sheepdogs, with the young pretenders ganging up to overthrow the old top-dog, Yarrow, who rather lords it over them. The old dog fights his corner manfully but is hopelessly outnumbered, then just as all seems lost, he turns from defence to attack and sallies out against his opponents with great suddenness and ferocity, scattering them and winning the day.


Again, Haraldsen is deeply moved:

‘It is a message to me,’ he croaked. ‘That dog is like Samr, who died with Gunnar of Lithend. He reminds me of what I had forgotten.’

He abandons his scheme of running and hiding and resolves to return to his home, the eponymous Island of Sheep, and face down his enemies, thus setting up the climax of the book (it’s not giving too much away to reveal that good triumphs in the end, though of course it’s ‘a dam’ close-run thing’).

Both these incidents have for me an authentic ring: I can well believe that just such ‘seeing as’ played a key role in the way our ancestors thought about the world and their place in it.

It is, of course, just the kind of thing that modern thinking labels ‘mere superstition’ but I think it should not be dismissed so lightly.

The modern objection might be phrased like this: ‘the primitive mind posits a ruling intelligence, an invisible force that controls the world and communicates through signs – bolts of lightning, volcanic eruptions, comets and other lesser but in some way striking events. The coincidence of some unusual or striking occurrence in nature with a human crisis is seen as a comment on it, and may be viewed (if preceded by imploration) as the answer to prayer. We know better: these are natural events with no connection to human action beyond fortuitous coincidence.’

The way I have chosen to phrase this illustrates a classic problem that arises when modern thinking seeks to give an account of ancient or traditional thinking – ‘primitive’ thinking, if you like, since I see nothing pejorative in being first and original. The notion of cause and effect is key to any modern explanation, so we often find that ‘primitive’ thinking is characterised by erroneous notions of causality – basically, a causal connection is supposed where there is none.

For instance, in a talk I heard by the the philosopher John Haldane, he cited a particular behaviour known as ‘tree binding’ in which trees were wounded and bound as a way of treating human wounds – a form of what is called ‘sympathetic magic’, where another object acts as a surrogate for the person or thing we wish to affect (or, to be more precise, ‘wish to be affected’). An account of such behavior in causal terms will always show it to be mistaken and apparently foolish – typical ‘primitive superstition’: ‘They suppose a causal connection between binding the tree’s wound and binding the man’s, and that by healing the one, they will somehow heal the other (which we know cannot work).’

But I would suggest that the tree-binding is not a mistaken scientific process, based on inadequate knowledge – it is not a scientific process at all, and it is an error to describe it in those terms. It is, I would suggest, much more akin to both prayer and poetry. The ritual element – the play-acting – is of central importance.

The tree-binders, I would suggest, are well aware of their ignorance in matters of medicine: they do not know how to heal wounds, but they know that wounds do heal; and they consider that the same power (call it what you will) that heals the wound in a tree also heals the wound in man’s body. They fear that the man may die but hope that he will live, and they know that only time will reveal the outcome.

Wounding then binding the tree seems to me a ritual akin to prayer rather than a misguided attempt at medicine. First and foremost, it is an expression of hope, like the words of reassurance we utter in such cases – ‘I’m sure he’ll get better’. The tree’s wound will heal (observation tells them this) – so, too, might the man’s.

But the real power of the ritual, for me, lies in its flexibility, its openness to interpretation. It is a very pragmatic approach, one that can be tailored to suit any outcome. If the man lives, well and good; that is what everyone hoped would happen. Should the man die, the tree (now identified with him in some sense) remains (with its scar, which does heal). The tree helps reconcile them to the man’s death by showing it in a new perspective: though all they have now is his corpse, the tree is a reminder that this man was more than he seems now: he had a life, spread over time. Also, the continued survival of the tree suggests that in some sense the man, too, or something of him that they cannot see (the life or soul which the tree embodies) may survive the death of his body. The tree can also be seen as saying something about the man’s family (we have the same image ourselves in ‘family tree’, though buried some layers deeper) and how it survives without him, scarred but continuing; and by extension, the same applies to the tribe, which will continue to flourish as the tree does, despite the loss of an individual member.

And the tree ‘says’ all these things because we give it tongue – we make it tell a story, or rather we weave it into one that is ongoing (there are some parallels here to the notion of ‘Elective Causality’ that I discuss elsewhere). As I have argued elsewhere [‘For us, there is only the trying‘] we can only find a sign, or see something as a sign, if we are already looking for one and already think in those terms. Haraldsen, in The Island of Sheep, is troubled about whether he has chosen the right course, and finds justification for it in the stirring sight of the goose evading the falcon; later, still troubled about the rightness of his course, he opts to change it, stirred by the sight of the dog Yarrow turning the tables on his opponents.

His being stirred, I think, is actually the key here. It would be an error to suppose that he is stirred because he sees the goose’s flight and the dog’s bold sally as ‘messages from heaven’; the reverse is actually the case – he calls these ‘messages from heaven’ to express the way in which they stir him. There is a moment when he identifies, first with the fleeing goose, then with the bold dog. What unites him with them in each case is what he feels. But this is not cause and effect, which is always a sequence; rather, this is parallel or simultaneous – the inner feeling and the outward action are counterparts, aspects of the same thing. A much closer analogy is resonance, where a plucked string or a struck bell sets up sympathetic vibration in another.

This is why I prefer Vita Sackville West’s definition of metaphor to Aristotle’s: for him, metaphor is the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things; for her, (the quote is from her book on Marvell)

‘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’’

A subject to which I shall return.

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The Exploration of Inner Space II : by way of metaphor


In a recent piece, prompted by Eliot’s line
‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’
I suggested that we have constructed a carapace that protects us from Reality much as a spacesuit protects an astronaut or a bathysphere a deep-sea explorer.

This in itself is an instance of how metaphor works as a tool of thought and I think it is worth examining. There is, as I have discussed elsewhere  a certain hostility to metaphor and this should not surprise us, since metaphor – ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle defines it – effectively violates at least two of the three so-called ‘Laws of Thought’ that underpin rational argument:

Identity – ‘A is A’ (metaphor asserts that A is B)
Contradiction – ‘A is not not-A’ (again, metaphor asserts that ‘something is what it is not’)
(The third law, Excluded Middle, states that where there are only two choices, there is no third possibility (so ‘A or not-A’) That may also be violated, but let’s not go into that now.)

Yet despite that – in fact, I would assert, because of it – metaphor is a key tool for thinking about the world and how we are situated in it.

There is no mystery to its mechanism, as I think can be illustrated from the particular case we are discussing. The essence of metaphor is ‘seeing as’ – considering the thing we are trying to understand in terms of something we already understand. In most cases, what we are invited to see is a set of relations – ‘x stands to y much as a stands to b.’ So, in this case, I say that we should think of ourselves standing in relation to Reality as someone who is protected by a carapace or intervening layer that comes between them and their surroundings.

This, of course, is to do no more than unpack what is already implied in Eliot’s line and to reinforce it by concrete imagery: we understand the importance of the spacesuit and the bathysphere, so we are being invited to see our experience (by which I mean ‘what it is like to be alive and conscious’) in terms of being surrounded by an environment from which we must protect ourselves by interposing some mediating layer since we cannot cope with prolonged exposure to it.

There will be people who view this sort of talk with some degree of hostility and scepticism, and it was to forestall them that I modified my earlier expression ‘thinking about the world and how we are situated in it’ to ‘our experience’ as a signal to step back from conventional terms which could be misleading. This is because we are not looking down a microscope here, at something (e.g. plant cells) whose place in a particular scheme of things is already agreed; we are taking a step back to where the ‘schemes of things’ are dreamed up in the first place, namely ‘inside the head’ (or inner space, if you like): we are operating in the realm of the imagination, attempting to disentangle problems of thought.

This highlights a difficulty inherent in philosophy, which someone once described as ‘a kind of thinking about thinking’: how do you get back to the starting point and avoid being ensnared by preconceived ideas? How do you use an existing way of thought to think about a different way of thinking? It is a kind of paradox. Wittgenstein touches on it in the Tractatus (6.54):
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

Descartes was trying to do the same thing in his Discourse, where he aimed to get back to some bedrock of which he could be certain, to use as a foundation on which to build a system of thought, and came up with his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (some thousand years after Augustine had said the same thing). It is in that wanting to be certain that Descartes goes wrong – in the territory where we are operating, nothing is certain, everything is provisional; the question is not ‘what can I be sure of?’ but rather ‘how can I see this?’

Thus (to return to the matter in hand, our metaphorical carapace) we proceed obliquely, by suggesting ‘ways of seeing it’ that coincide or seem complementary. It should be no surprise that the first is yet again drawn from poetry, since that is where metaphorical thinking is at home:

detail of Averkamp's Winter Landscape(Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape (detail))

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

That is WB Yeats’s poem, The Cold Heaven. As Seamus Heaney observes (in his brilliant essay ‘Joy or Night’ in The Redress of Poetry)

‘This is an extraordinarily vivid rendering of a spasm of consciousness, a moment of exposure to the total dimensions of what Wallace Stevens once called our ‘spiritual height and depth.’ The turbulence of the lines dramatizes a sudden apprehension that there is no hiding place, that the individual human life cannot be sheltered from the galactic cold. The spirit’s vulnerability, the mind’s awe at the infinite spaces and its bewilderment at the implacable inquisition which they represent – all of this is simultaneously present.’

I was strongly reminded of Yeats’s poem, particularly the lines

I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

when I came across a deeply moving account by a mother of life with her daughter. This is an extract – I urge you to read the whole piece here – a terrific piece of writing.

‘I have had to learn to do these things quietly because my daughter needs me to.  She is seven; bright, super funny, articulate, thoughtful and loving.  She also has autism spectrum disorder.  If you saw her on a good day, you’d maybe think she was a little shy and kooky.  You’d maybe wonder why I am letting her wear flip-flops in the winter rain.  You’ll never see her on a bad day as she can’t leave the house*.

She has severe sensory processing difficulties.  A normal day exhausts her and when she feels overwhelmed, even a gentle voice trying to soothe her with loving words can be too much to process, making her feel crazy.  She describes walking into a room of people as “like staring at the sun”. She’s incredibly empathetic but you may not realise as she feels her own and others’ emotions so deeply she can’t bear it, and so sometimes she has to just shut down. ‘

(that asterisk, by the way, links to this footnote:
‘*3 months of non-stop bad days and counting, not left the house since December 3rd 2014’ – the blog was written on 3 March)

I apologise for appropriating another person’s anguish to use as an illustration but I hope I do not do so lightly. I have my own experience of the pain that results when someone you love cannot cope with the world and I am increasingly convinced that a great deal of what we term ‘mental illness’ – particularly in the young – has to do with their difficulty in reconciling Reality (or Life, if you like) as they experience it with the version that those around them seem to accept – it is a learning difficulty or impairment; they just cannot get the hang of how they are ‘supposed to’ see things.

In fact, ‘supposed to’ is just the right idiom here, for the subtle nuances it has in English:

‘that’s not supposed to happen’
‘you’re not supposed to do that’
‘it’s supposed to do this’
‘because that’s what you’re supposed to do!’

– it conveys not only a divergence between how things are and how they are meant to be – the infinite capacity of life to surprise us, the inherent tendency of all plans to miscarry (‘the best laid schemes o mice an men gang aft agley’) – but also the tension between social constraint and the individual will: ‘you’re not supposed to do that!’ is what the child who has bought into the conventions early on (that would be me, I fear) squeals when his bolder companion transgresses (and that squeal is followed by an expectant hush during which the sky is supposed to fall in, but doesn’t).

The world is not as we suppose – or perhaps it would be better to say that it is ‘not as we pretend,’ since that brings out the puzzlement that many – perhaps all – children experience at some point, that the adult world is an elaborate pretence, a denial of the reality that is in front of their noses.

Here is Eliot again, from Murder in the Cathedral:

Man’s Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children’s party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration,
All things become less real.


the hollowness of achievement and the emptiness of success is a commonplace of adult writing, and it complements a central theme of much children’s writing, that the world is a marvellous and enchanting place full of magic and wonder (and terror) – but adults, as a general rule, cannot see it (which has just this instant reminded me of a favourite and curious book of my childhood, The Hick-boo**. about a creature only children could see – the adult exception being an artist).

And that is a hopeful note to end on, for now: that there may be a better way to mediate Reality than the conventional carapace, namely Art (in its most inclusive sense – painting, sculpture, poetry, storytelling, music, dance). That is something I shall come back to.

**to be exact, ‘The Hick-boo, a tale of a tailless transparent goblin’ by MH Stephen Smith (Hutchinson 1948).


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‘Is there light in Gorias?’ – reflections on metaphor and truth


‘Metaphor: a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger‘

Chambers Dictionary

Saddling metaphor with a definition like that (which is typical, even down to the threadbare example) is akin to giving it a criminal record – wherever it goes, it will never be trusted: what this definition says is that metaphor is essentially dishonest, at best an exaggeration, at worst a downright lie.

The crucial fault of this definition is that it prejudges the issue: the writer has already decided that a ferocious person is not and cannot be a tiger – he wants to insist on a world where tigers and people are separate and distinct, where that distinction between one thing and another is crucial, a matter of logic: A = A; B = B; therefore A does not and cannot ever equal B.

What metaphor points to is a world where tigers and people can overlap and merge, a world where resemblance and connection is more important than distinction and separation, where A and B can be the same. In other words – and this is a point of fundamental importance – metaphor indicates that logic does not furnish a complete or adequate description of the world.

(This might be likened to people who live in a city and have no understanding of country ways, or people who mistake their own land and culture for the entire world and think that ‘we don’t do that’ means ‘that isn’t done.’)

2006ah4175_tipus_tigerWhat is needed is a new definition, one that is not intrinsically hostile – I would suggest

‘Metaphor: a linguistic device which invites us to consider one thing in terms of another, to clarify or deepen our understanding; one of the key instruments of thought.’
(and for ‘simile’ I would simply say ‘a variety of metaphor’ because there is no importance in the difference between them)

What this definition makes clear is that metaphor is not only an honest enterprise, but an aid and a benefit to thought, something that improves our understanding; but it does more than that – by a slight shift in perspective, this definition does away with a world of mischief.

It prevents the grave error of supposing that the terms ‘symbolic’ and ‘metaphorical’ are opposed to ‘literal’, to their detriment – in other words, that only what is literal is true, and anything else is not – it is mere symbol, just metaphor. My definition does away with the fear that by describing something as ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic’ we are denying that it is true – as such, it should be of great service to theologians.

There is such a thing as literal truth, but like logic, it deals with only one aspect of the world, and quite a small part of it. To have literal truth you must first have letters. By that, I mean that you must have the notion of language existing independently of speech. Speech is particular: the words spoken are mine, yours, someone’s. It is only when we make the great leap of giving speech permanent form through letters that the notion of language as something independent of individual speakers arises, and from that, the concept of literal truth.

Literal truth is not a property of the world, but of words – and strictly speaking, of written words, though in any literate society the spoken language is informed and mediated by its written form. Thus a written account, or a spoken account that can be transcribed (consider why we use court reporters to transcribe all that is said in a court of law) can be literally true, if there is a correspondence between what it says and what happened. If there is a disparity between the account and the event, then the account is judged to be false or untrue.

It should be clear from this that only a limited range of things can be true in this way – descriptions of events that set out to give an accurate account of what happened, such as we might find from a witness in a courtroom, or a reporter at the scene, or a description of an experiment in chemistry. (Other accounts – such as the report of a football match – may consist of a mixture of material, only some of which can be literally true – the score, the time of the goals, the names of the scorers, the teams – while the rest is judgement and opinion. One man’s gripping contest might be another man’s dour tussle; the fact that one team enjoyed seventy percent possession does not contradict the assertion that the other team dominated the game and played the better football – the fact about percentage possession may be literally true, but that the other team dominated the game is a matter of judgement)

Where such descriptions are untrue, some might be false while others might be inaccurate or mistaken – falsehood implies deliberate intent on the part of the reporter, who knows the true state of affairs but chooses to give an inaccurate account for some reason; on the other hand, a careless, inobservant or inexperienced reporter might simply be inaccurate – he failed to see all that was happening, or misinterpreted it; there was no intention to deceive.

‘Facts are chiels that winna ding an downa be disputit’ as Burns wrote; but the point I want to make here is that the realm of the factual is only a small part of our experience – opinion, thought and feeling cover a great deal more, and in that realm ‘truth’ has a different meaning that should not be confused with the correspondence between words and facts that is the definition of ‘literal truth’. There we speak of things ‘ringing true’ and apprehend truth as a quality found in a painting, a story, a piece of music, a poem; and having found it, we do not persuade others of its truth by argument, we simply point and ask ‘do you get it?’.

Verification is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far: there is no process for verifying the truth of King Lear or a Beethoven quartet. These are things that are understood in a different way; ‘truth’ means something else here. That is what makes disputes between science and religion so arid and pointless.

(in writing that, and casting about for a suitable analogy, I was reminded of Alan Garner’s story ‘Elidor’ which supplies the title to this piece – in it, the sacred objects that the children bring back with them – cauldron, sacred stone and spear – assume the mundane appearance of a broken teacup, a bit of rock and an iron railing. Concepts of great importance in one realm lose their significance when transported to the other)

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The Shadow and the Stone: reflections on the mechanism of metaphor

shadow of Pedersen bicycle on grass
I mentioned elsewhere that there is a puzzle in our use of metaphor to expand our range of thought: if we think of the unknown in terms of the known concrete, as Vita Sackville-West has it, how does that get us anywhere new?

I think I have the answer: it is by a process not unlike doing sums by proportion – ‘z is to y as y is to x’.

Let us take as a common-sense index of reality a rock or stone (we think of Dr Johnson striking his foot against one ‘with such force that he rebounded’ in his attempt to refute Berkeley). If I say to you, ‘what I’m talking about is as real as that stone over there’ then you have a very clear sense of what I mean: it is not some phantom that is going to disappear as I approach it, it is real and solid and there.

But suppose I go on to say, ‘in fact, what I’m talking about is even more real than that stone,’ then you will reasonably ask for an explanation: ‘how can that be?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘think of it like this: you see that shadow cast by the stone? Well, in terms of reality, what I’m talking about stands to the stone in the same way the stone stands to its shadow.’

(This is, in effect, a summary of Plato’s celebrated simile of the cave, which seduced me when I was 14,  and indeed of his whole Theory of Ideas or Forms.)

Notice the ‘active mechanism’ here: it is the relation between the stone and its shadow, which is one of logical dependence: you can have the stone without the shadow, but not the shadow without the stone: so the stone has the quality of being real and independent, whereas the shadow is totally subservient, incapable of independent existence. The trick is then to slide this relation across, so to speak, so that the qualities of the shadow are now attributed to the stone, so tying it, like a shadow, to the thing beyond – the ‘super-real’ Form or Idea – to which the stone’s qualities are now transferred; thus the bridge does not vanish halfway into mysterious fog, as I supposed – we are offered a very clear idea of how it is attached to the other side: the span we are asked to imagine is simply a duplicate of that we already know, between the shadow and the stone.

There is still an element of trickery here, though – we appear to derive our notion of reality from the very thing whose reality we are invited to deny: it is a kind of transfer of allegiance – as if we were told ‘the way you feel about that stone – how real it is – well, it’s all right to feel that, but really you should be feeling it about something else, something beyond the stone, this Idea I was telling you about.’ But it is clear that this ‘transfer of allegiance’, from what we know and see in front of us to something beyond, cannot be the start of the process – it requires, as a condition, some doubt or dissatisfaction with the world as it appears to common sense.

Plato marshals a range of arguments to justify that doubt and underpin that dissatisfaction: one is the celebrated ‘bent stick’, which is worth mentioning, not for its force as an argument, but for the neat opposition it makes between the senses and the intellect. Plato observes that if we put a straight stick in water, it appears bent; and although we know perfectly well that it is still straight, no amount of reasoning will enable us to see it as straight – so the senses are deceived by appearances, but the intellect alone can arrive at the truth.

This twin division – between appearance (false) and reality (true), the senses (deceptive and inferior) and the intellect (superior and reliable), is fundamental to the whole of Plato’s philosophy and so has had an enormous influence not only on European philosophy, but the whole of Western culture. I am now inclined to think that as an influence it has done more harm than good – it is a false dichotomy, and has resulted in a mistaken adulation of the academic, the intellectual and the rational to the detriment of the instinctive and artistic.

What makes this particularly ironic is that the doubt or dissatisfaction Plato requires as a starting point is not in fact arrived at by the arguments he puts forward – those are all after the fact; the doubt is already there, and its root is instinctive, intuitive rather than rational (In saying this, I do not mean to say that what is intuitive is without reason – on the contrary, there must be reasons, and we should seek them – but we must not forget that it is an intuition, a feeling, that starts us on that quest, not a reasoned argument).

What, then, is the source of that doubt or dissatisfaction? It is an anxiety, if not as old as the hills, then surely as old as humanity itself: the jarring contrast between our soaring imagination, which seems to make us masters of all we survey, and the pitifully brief span we are allotted to exercise it, succinctly expressed in Latin as

ars longa, vita brevis

which Chaucer translates as

the life so short, the craft so long to learn.

Shakespeare touches on it in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The concluding phrase – ‘quintessence of dust’ – recalls the admonition of a couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday:

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

It is the exasperation that makes Ecclesiastes lament:

Vanity of vanities, the preacher says, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit has a man from his labour under the sun? One generation passes away and another comes: but the earth abides for ever

and again:

For here is one who has laboured wisely, skilfully and successfully and must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all.

(I note in passing that the sentiments expressed by Ecclesiastes are very similar to those that occur in Horace’s poetry – I wonder if Horace was familiar with the text, or if it is just further evidence of the universality of such feelings?)

likewise, Yeats speaks of the heart as

sick with desire 
and fastened to a dying animal

The underlying theme is the same : all is fleeting, nothing lasts – as Hopkins has it, in his inimitable style,

How to keep – is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or
brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty… from vanishing away?

while Drummond of Hawthornden, another favourite of mine, gives us this fine expression of the inherent fragility of our greatness:

when he is in the brightest meridian of his glory there needeth nothing to destroy him but to let him fall his own height; a reflex of the sun, a blast of wind, nay, the glance of an eye is sufficient to undo him *

There is little need to labour the point: wherever you look, in any literature in the world, I am sure you will find it.

I think this sense of outrage at the impermanence of life, that all is fleeting, nothing stays, that there is never enough time to realise the great potential which we sense within us, that all we love is too soon taken away from us, is what makes us idealise immutability- a quality that Plato attributes to his Forms, and one commonly attributed to God. It explains also our desire to memorialise ourselves – consider the pyramids – and perhaps the allure that gold, the incorruptible metal, has for us.

But I begin to wonder if we have got this right. The dynamic is preferable, surely, to the static; stillness has its attractions, but what delights is movement, flow, improvisation, invention, creation –

Πάντα ῥεῖ – ‘all things flow’ or ‘the world is in a state of flux’ as Simplicius summed up the philosophy of Heraclitus. Perhaps we need to come at our dissatisfaction from a different angle and find new images to express our ideal.

* I had a notion that this referred to a personal experience of Drummond’s in falling from his horse, but I find the words proved eerily prophetic – it was in fact his grandson, who “having improved himself by travelling abroad… became a well-bred, polite, and accomplished gentleman [but] unhappily received a stroke upon the head by a fall from his horse, soon after his return to his own country, which, though it did not destroy his understanding, yet affected him so much that he contracted a dislike to business, and in a great measure retired from the world during the remainder of his life.”

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‘With shabby equipment, always deteriorating…’

We live in an age of infrastructure: we take for granted an underpinning layer of nigh-magical technology, much of it electronic, on which our day-to-day lives rely; occasionally we are visited by anxiety lest it should fail – as the result of a solar storm, perhaps, such as a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event was noted mainly for its marvellous effects (it produced aurorae so bright that one could read by them, and some people thought it was morning) though it did cause a widespread failure of the telegraph system, which must have resulted in considerable disruption in Europe and North America; but considered against the effect of a similar storm today, its impact was minimal.

The reason is simple, yet striking: though the world of 1859 was (in parts) recognisably modern in a way that the world of a century before was not, it was a world lit by gas, fuelled by coal and powered by steam – electricity had yet to be harnessed, and the main supply of oil was obtained, not by drilling through rock, but by harpooning whales.


This brings home to us the astonishing fact that, however transformative our present-day technology may be, the greatest transformation of human society by far – the Industrial Revolution – was wrought with implements of almost primitive simplicity: hand tools, pick and shovel, human muscle and (actual) horsepower.

This thought occurred to me when I was meditating on that most transformative of all things, the human imagination, and its principal instrument, language.

You could probably say that language and humanity are coeval: it is language that makes us human, that has enabled us to do all the marvellous things we have achieved in the brief blip of geological time we have existed for – language underpins it all; it is our ultimate infrastructure, if you like.

Yet it is still pick-and-shovel technology: though capable (in the right hands) of expressing great complexity of thought, the mechanisms it relies on to do so are few and simple, and the chief of them, as I have said elsewhere, is metaphor.

Metaphor works by using a structure or set of relations that is already familiar to give us a way of thinking about something new that we are trying to understand. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is something puzzling in this: if the only way we can come at the unknown is by expressing it in terms of the known, how do we progress? if we describe  what we do not understand in terms of what we do, how is our understanding increased? It can seem like an increasingly elaborate structure built on a narrow foundation that never widens – which is what troubled me when I was young and thought (wrongly, I believe) that all our metaphors relied ultimately on spatial relations, and that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, which must necessarily have a limiting effect on what we could think.

These days I see it from a different perspective: I find it reassuring that language is always being strained to breaking point whenever we try to think of difficult things or big ideas – as Eliot has it in Burnt Norton :

Words strain,

crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

will not stay still.

and, later, in East Coker :

each venture

is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

with shabby equipment always deteriorating

so that we arrive where we do by a kind of sleight-of-mind trickery, such as Wittgenstein describes in proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

As I say, where once I found this worrying, I now find it reassuring and indeed exciting – it means that our knowledge – particularly of the large and important things – is much less certain, much more provisional than we pretend.

Consider, for instance – as I mean to do in another post – a distinction we probably think clear-cut, between what is real and what is imaginary – is that something we can be sure about?

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