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).

Passionate intensity : ranting and advocacy


(this painting, which brilliantly captures the theme of this piece, is The Orator by the German expressionist Magnus Zeller – click to enlarge: it’s worth a closer look)

We live in querulous times: there is a lot of anger about; a lot to be angry about. The lines Yeats wrote in 1919 (about the same time Zeller made his painting) spring to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Most of us enjoy a rant from time to time; it lets off steam, discharges pent-up passion. It has its place in the range of human activity, though over-indulgence can become tedious.

As a form of entertainment, directing a torrent of abuse at a person, practice or thing has a long history; here in Scotland (and in Ireland – the tradition is a Gaelic one) it was called ‘flyting’ and the great masters of such invective were (of course) the poets – the most famous of these exchanges is the contest between Dunbar and Kennedy, which you can find in full here . If you want a flavour, here is a morsel, in the original old Scots:

Fantastik fule, trest weill thow salbe fleyit.       

Ignorant elf, aip, owll irregular,

Skaldit skaitbird and commoun skamelar, 

Wanfuckėd foundling that Nature made an yrle,  

Both John the Ross and thou shall squeal and skirle 

An’ ever I hear aught of your making more. 

(Fantastic fool, trust well you will be flayed.

Ignorant elf, ape, irregular owl,

mangy rascal and common scrounger,

misbegotten foundling that nature made a midget,

John Ross and you will squeal and scream

if ever I hear any more of your versifying)

In more recent times, about twenty-odd years ago in Britain, the rant became a feature of the alternative comedy scene (about the time when comedy and I began to part company). No stand-up routine was complete without the performer having at least one sustained blast of invective on some subject close to his heart. Of course the sight (and sound) of someone letting rip without restraint can be invigorating, though I was never a great one for shouting myself. The key to success in such performances was choosing the subject of the rant: it had to be something that the audience felt equally strongly about, but were hesitant or unable to express their feelings on; so the performer on the stage spoke for all of them, becoming a conduit for their stored-up anger.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: it is stimulating and encouraging to hear the views you harbour (perhaps secretly) expressed forcefully; liberating, too – ‘it’s all right to say these things out loud’. It kindles the fire in the belly – but is it advocacy?

At first glance, it might seem so – an advocate is one who speaks on behalf of another, or others; one who gives them a voice. Surely the ranter does just that, raising his (or her) voice in anger on behalf of the silent, the inarticulate, the hesitant, the timid?

Well, yes and no. For me, the key question is whom you are speaking to, and to what purpose. The rant is, essentially, preaching to the converted: it is intended for home consumption; its audience are those who already agree with what you are saying, and feel delighted and empowered to hear it forcefully expressed – it makes them feel good about themselves, rallies them to the cause, strengthens the waverer.

But advocacy is about more than speaking to the like-minded: it is about giving people a voice in two distinct courts – the court of the powerful and the court of public opinion. You want to gain the ear of the powerful because they can change things, and you want public opinion on your side because that will influence the powerful; but the aim in both cases is the same – to persuade.

There are two objections to substituting ranting for advocacy: the first is that, as a general rule, it will fail; the second, more worrying, is that it may succeed.

You will rarely gain the ear of the powerful by shouting at them and saying how angry you are, any more than a child will bend its parents to its will by throwing a tantrum: all you are doing is demonstrating your own powerlessness. But in the court of public opinion, passion can persuade, and therein the danger lies.

It is one thing to say ‘I feel angry about this, and you should too, because –’ quite another to say ‘Because I feel angry about this, you should, too.’ In the first case, the anger springs from reasons, which have to be furnished if anyone is to be persuaded to share your viewpoint; in the second case, the mere fact of your anger is being offered as a substitute for reason – ‘the fact that I feel passionately about this should be enough to persuade you’.

That is the critical point: the fact that I feel something – no matter how strongly, how passionately, how sincerely – should never be enough to persuade you to go along with me: I might, after all, be sincerely and passionately wrong. But zeal is infectious: it is exciting to feel the fire in your belly, and if you feel angry, frustrated and powerless – as many people do – then zeal for a cause – any cause – is a great way of expressing all that pent-up passion. But zeal is impatient, which makes it dangerous – it doesn’t want to spend all day listening to arguments, weighing pro and con; it wants to do something: ‘you’re angry? I’m angry too – let’s go and smash stuff up!’

So, by all means, rant; but be mindful of the effect on your hearers. As Yeats continues:

 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

(My thanks are due to Hart Noecker, who stimulated this line of thought: you can find his blog here. Hart and I, fundamentally, share the same view, though – being from different generations and different sides of the Atlantic – we might diverge on how we express it)

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.”