Tag Archives: Vita Sackville-West

‘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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‘These great concurrences of things’

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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.

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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 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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More on Metaphor: St Patrick and the Queen of Tropes

If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.

For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage.  Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.

Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.

Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.

When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.

I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.

It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’

There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.

And prepositions were everywhere.

I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.

It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?

Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the  doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)

The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.

*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.

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Metaphor, Queen of Tropes or Dishonest Harridan?

I’m not saying it’s all metaphor, but it is, just about  – and vélophile though I am, if you were to press me on what our most important invention is, I would have to put metaphor first, even ahead of the bicycle.

It was something we were taught very badly at school: the focus was entirely on what distinguished metaphor from simile and how to tell them apart, as if the crucial thing was not what they did (which is essentially the same thing), but how they did it. To make matters worse, this approach presents metaphor as something distinctly suspect, not to say shady and dishonest: ‘You see, children, while a simile only says that something is like or as another thing, a metaphor says it actually is that thing’ (almost invariably followed up by the drear examples ‘he fought like a lion/the soldier was a lion in the fight.’) Regrettably, I find that Chambers – in all other respects the nonpareil of single-volume dictionaries – perpetuates this folly: ‘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.’

This approach must have left many convinced, like Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, something no honest, plain-dealing person will have anything to do with.

Yet, as I say, metaphor is of central importance – not just as a ‘figure of speech’ (as they called it when I was young) but as a tool for thinking about the world, indeed for thinking about everything.

There are two definitions of metaphor that I have always kept by me since first I started to think seriously about the matter, which as accurately as I can reckon was about thirty-six years ago (on the upper floors of David Hume Tower, in a tutorial on Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, a book I have still not succeeded in reading).

The first is from Aristotle, from the Poetics:

‘ but the greatest thing is to be a master of metaphor, for that shows the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The second is from Vita Sackville-West, from a book she wrote on Marvell. I do not have it to hand, but the gist of it is this – speaking of the metaphysical poets, she says that they saw in metaphor the means to express ‘the unknown and dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete.’

I think these definitions make a good complementary pair – Aristotle is, as ever, ‘so very nice and dry’ – he gets right to the heart of the matter, ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars.’

There is a paradox here, certainly – how can dissimilar things be similar? – but it is one that is easily explained in terms of another invention of Aristotle, his system of classification, where things are grouped according to general similarity but distinguished by specific difference: there is superficial difference – as between people, say, or mammals generally – but underlying similarity (in their skeletons, or the arrangement of their organs). To be a master of metaphor, by Aristotle’s definition, is to have a penetrating eye, one that sees through the beguiling surface appearance to the likeness that lies beneath.

But it is Sackville-West who brings out the real power of metaphor, which is creative, and renews the paradox in terms that are less easily resolved – this is not about seeing the similarity in dissimilar things, it is about expressing ‘the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Here, a metaphor is like a bridge firmly rooted on one bank that half-way across vanishes into a mysterious fog. (The etymology of the word is from meta– beyond, after and pherein, to carry – hence something ‘carried beyond’ or ‘carried across’ – a metaphor is, literally, a ferry (a word that is surely from the same root, ultimately, via the German, fahren) – so perhaps my image should be Charon on the Styx)

It’s a fair assumption that Sackville-West’s definition owes something to Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

here is the same paradox restated: for what else is ‘expressing the unknown in terms of the known concrete’ than ‘giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’?

If I am attempting to rescue metaphor from charges of dishonesty, then it seems I am not doing a very good job – and nowhere is the whiff of disrepute that hangs about poets and poetry because of metaphor better expressed (with unintentional hilarity) than in the ‘translation’ of the Shakespeare speech above into ‘modern text’ that is found in *Sparknotes ‘no fear Shakespeare’ :

‘Poets are always looking around like they’re having a fit, confusing the mundane with the otherworldly, and describing things in their writing that simply don’t exist.’

Surely not people that honest folk want anything to do with!

That seems like a good point to stop for coffee….

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