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

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‘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)

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.

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….