What’s a Meta For?

The Reynolds Lecture for 2012, presented at Emory & Henry College, reflects on Frye’s view of metaphor only toward the end,  I’ve often felt that theories of metaphor–at least those I’m familiar with–turn out to be founded on principles of similarity, comparison, analogy, or likeness.  Frye’s theory is unique in that it’s founded on sameness or identity.  I try to consider some of the implications of that view in the conclusion of the lecture.

What’s a Meta For?

Reynolds Lecture, Emory & Henry College, 28 March 2012

Robert D. Denham

It goes without saying, a phrase we use to mean that we should say at once, how honored I am to be the Reynolds Lecturer for 2012 and on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the founding of Emory & Henry College, where I worked and played for some twenty‑three years.  Early on in my tenure here the dean of the college, Dan Leidig, assigned me to chair the Reynolds Lecture Committee, and so I had the good fortune of helping bring to campus such eminent humanists as Helen Vendler, James Redfield, John Simon, Wayne Booth, and Northrop Frye, among others.  I never dreamed, of course, that I would be joining their ranks as a Reynolds Lecturer, and I naturally feel that this is an instance of the ridiculous linking up with the sublime.  At the same time, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, which is both humbling and elevating.   The first Reynolds lecturer at Emory & Henry––in 1963––was Norman Cousins, peace activist and long‑time editor of the Saturday Review.  Two years later the president of the college, William Finch, whose son Tyree has joined us tonight, introduced the second Reynolds lecturers (there were two that year, on successive nights), both distinguished poets and critics, John Crowe Ransom and Reed Whittemore.  The shoulders of giants, indeed.

I’ve called my lecture tonight “What’s a Meta For?”––a title stolen from a quip by Marshall McLuhan: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?”  McLuhan, too, was a thief: he was twisting the end of a line from Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  That is, the notion of an ideal world, which we may never attain, nevertheless motivates us to seek something better than what we’ve now got: it may elude our grasp but in our Utopianism we still reach for it.  I think metaphor in its most radical forms may have something to do with our linguistic reach exceeding our grasp, which is a notion I’ll come back to.  Rather than trying to define tonight what metaphor is, I’ll be reflecting on some of the contexts in which we encounter metaphor.

Metaphor is, of course, along with myth, one of the basic building blocks of literature.  John Keats’s masterful Ode on a Grecian Urn begins with three metaphors.  Keats is speaking to the urn: he addresses it by saying, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian.”  In these nouns of direct address Keats, who was in his early twenties when he wrote the poem, is identifying the urn with a bride, a child, and a historian.  The suggestions that issue from the three metaphors are fairly complex.  Of course everyone knows that an urn is not a bride, and yet Keats is saying that it is a bride and not just that: she’s a bride who’s still chaste.  Furthermore, she’s married to quietness.  And she is also a child, or rather a foster‑child, who has been nourished by her adoptive parents, silence and slow time.  We could spend the rest of the evening investigating the magical language of Keats’s poem––its metaphors, paradoxes, and puns.  The point I want to make is that the extraordinary uses to which Keats puts figurative language is commonplace among poets.  Here’s another, the opening lines of one of Jeff Daniel Marion’s old Chinese poet poems: “Over the river this quarter moon / tilts in its dark well, / a gleaming dipper / spilling October.”  Here the moon is a gleaming dipper, and the heavens are a dark well.  This is the way poets talk.

Metaphor, however, is an aspect of language that belongs not just to poets and novelists and playwrights.  In a story in a recent issue of a college student newspaper I read about the soccer team’s “dream season, the “noise” that it took to wake the team up from its dream, about a “sudden death” period, about the opposing team’s drawing “first blood.”  And I read in a college catalogue, a most unpoetic document, about “cultivating students’ sensitivity,” students being, in this metaphor, something you run a plow through, like dirt.  In one of her “Messages from the President” in the alumni journal Emory & Henry’s Rosalind Reichard quotes George Peery, class of 1894, who forty years later became the governor of Virginia, as saying that the ideals “cultivated” at Emory & Henry deeply influenced his life.  That’s the plowing metaphor again.  The Indo‑European root for “cultivate” means to revolve or move around, which is what the plow does to the field.  In the most recent alumni journal President Reichard moves from the garden to the sea, speaking about the “tides of influence” that have rippled forth from Emory & Henry.  Perhaps this metaphor comes from her inaugural address, where she quoted an alumnus as saying that Emory & Henry continues to send “out tides of influence that touch the whole hungry soul of man.”  Because the alumnus begins with a watery metaphor, he would doubtless have been better served, at least to those not given to mixed metaphors, to have said “the whole thirsty soul of man.”  A final example from President Reichard comes in her message in the recent annual report.  “Emory & Henry,” she says, “is a beacon of hope envisioned by her founders.”  And then she extends the metaphor saying that the college is a glowing light in the heart of many of us that will shine brightly for many decades.  So here we have an administrator and a mathematician, Rosalind Reichard, using one of the key elements of the language of poetry.

But back to more mundane texts, like college catalogues.  I pick one up and read about the holder of a degree, about the fortifying of students’ minds, about launching on a voyage of discovery, about the important voice the students have in shaping programs (two metaphors there), about higher education being a marketplace of ideas, about instructional tools, about a semester spanning the summer months, about the library as an electronic gateway, about instructional software and flexible seating, about developing a strategy for accomplishing goals, and so on.  So even in the most unpoetic and leaden prose, we find metaphor.  (“Leaden” in that sentence is of course also a metaphor, one that derives from metallurgy.)

Or one can turn to the daily press, which wouldn’t on the face of it seem to be a particularly fertile field for metaphor.  (Note “fertile field.”)  In the headlines of the Roanoke Times I read that the GOP leader will step down, that a mountain is hiding a quiet threat, that the media are too soft on the president, that three-year college degrees are a fast track, that a basketball player has come to the end of the road, that loyalists slam Cuban defectors.  Here are two from a David Brooks editorial:  (1) Mitt Romney is a corporate vulture and (2) when people read Ron Paul the scales fall from their eyes.  This last one comes from the account of the conversion of Ron Paul’s namesake, St. Paul, a.k.a Saul, on the road to Damascus.  In Acts we’re told that “something like scales fell from his eyes” and he could see again.  That’s simile, not metaphor.  But the simile has become a metaphor in common parlance, referring to a person who has come to a sudden realization.  “Road to Damascus experience” is a metaphor growing out of the same story.  Here are a few more from the headlines in the New York Times of 17 January 2012: “Romney Opponents’ Main Target in G.O.P. Debate,” “For Romney’s Rivals Time Is Running Out,” “Romney Keeps Eye on Obama,” “The Invisible Hand behind Wall Street Bonuses,” “Iran Face‑Off” (that one’s from hockey), “Wikipedia To Go Dark,” “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” and “Bang for the Buck.”

The point is all too obvious: metaphors are in fact with us all the time, and we can’t seem to use language at any level or for any purpose without calling on metaphor (notice the verb “calling on”).  Metaphor, then, is not simply a figure of speech that poets use because they think we need to get a little ornamental bulk into our reading diets.

Metaphor, in the Greek, means carrying from one place to another.  And a great deal of this carrying goes on, not only in the extraordinary language of a Wallace Stevens or an Elizabeth Bishop or a Charles Wright, but in ordinary speech.  The best treatment of this is in a little book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson called Metaphors We Live By.  They argue that “most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.”  To give a few of their examples.  First, the metaphor that argument is war is reflected in our ordinary speech in a number of expressions.  “Your claims are indefensible.”  “He attacked every weak point in my argument.”  “His criticisms were right on target.”  “I demolished his argument.”  “I’ve never won an argument with her.”  “If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.”  “She shot down all my arguments.”  Here we understand and experience one thing in terms of another.  The concept of argument is metaphorically structured and so the language we often use to talk about it is metaphorically structured as well.  Arguments are also containers: they have holes in them, they’re empty, they don’t hold water, etc.

Or take the concept that time is money.  We speak about wasting and spending and saving time.  And we say such things as, “I don’t have time to give you.”  “My time is valuable.”  “I’ve invested a lot of time in writing that paper.”  “You need to budget your time.”  “She’s living on borrowed time.”  “Learn to use your time profitably.”  “Is that worth your while?”  In other words, we conceive of time as a valuable commodity: it has worth; and so we understand it as something that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested, saved, squandered, and so on.

Love is a third example of how metaphors structure our ordinary ideas and how this structure is reflected in our language.  I’m still drawing on Lakoff and Johnson.  Here we have several metaphors at work.  Love is a physical force (“they lost their momentum,” “they gravitated toward each other, “they could feel the electricity between them”).  Or, love is a patient (“their marriage is on the mend,” “their marriage is dead––it can’t be revived,” “theirs is a sick relationship”).  Or, love is war (“he fought for her,” “she retreated from his advances,” “she was besieged by suitors,” “he overpowered her and won her hand.  Or––one final example, love is a journey (“we’ll have to go our separate ways,” “this relationship is a dead‑end street,” “they took the high road”).  The point is that metaphor is pervasive in everyday language and it reflects the underlying ideas we share.  A cognitive or conceptual metaphor is a figurative or non‑literal statement that describes some basic abstract concept, such as love, using the language of physiology or psychology, such as madness or insanity.  We’ll come back to the love is insanity metaphor.  Lakoff and Johnson’s book was published more than thirty years ago.  Since that time, scores of books have been written to confirm and expand their theory.  The cognitive linguists’ study of metaphor is a fairly large academic industry.

That metaphor is not just the province of poets could be illustrated by the scientists too.  If John Keats is highly dependent on metaphor, so are scientists.  The chief metaphor in physics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was the machine.  Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton all imagined the universe as a vast machine.  The Cartesian philosophy implied that the hand of God had set the machine in motion at the creation.

We’re beyond the Industrial Revolution, and machine metaphors have been replaced by those of the computer.  The physicist Edward Fredkin describes the universe as a cosmological computer.  Or the universe is said to be a network of interrelated parts.  The atom is no longer considered to be the basic building block (notice that metaphor).  The universe is rather a web of relations.  Some scientists speak of the universe as being the surface of a balloon.  For Newton, rays of light were bodies––the so-called corpuscular theory of light.  We’re all familiar with the Enlightenment metaphor of God as the clockmaker.  For Maxwell, magnetic fields were little whirlpools, which he called vortices.  For Lemaitre, the father of the Big Bang theory, in the beginning a giant atom exploded and the evolution of the world is a display of fireworks that has just ended.  In quantum mechanics we have wave theory.  And I understand that in the forefront of theoretical physics today there’s something called string theory––the notion that matter is not a point-like object but a one-dimensional, vibrating structure called a “string.”  Brian Greene, a kind of rock star among physicists, says these strings are “akin to a string symphony vibrating matter into existence.”  That phrase is from his book entitled Fabric of the Cosmos, the metaphor here coming from the domain of knitting or weaving with its warp and woof.  Scientists, apparently, need something more than their equations, and they rely on metaphor to supply this something more.  In his book on “deep time” Stephen Jay Gould says that “the interplay of internal and external sources––of theory informed by metaphor and observation constrained by theory––marks any major movement in science.”  That’s from a book called Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, arrow and cycle being metaphors we use to try to grasp the idea of time.

We’re all familiar with the metaphorical vocabulary that computers have spawned: world‑wide web and associated terms like weblog or just blog, menu, files and folders (and various subcategories of these, such as corrupt file), cut and paste, drag and drop, wrap the text, clipboard, software and hardware, open a new window, desktop, search engine, tools, libraries, download and upload, clip art, mail merge, virus, mailbox, mouse––terms so familiar that they’re practically dead metaphors, like “under the weather” or “spill the beans.”  Note that the phrase “dead metaphor” is itself a metaphor: metaphors don’t literally live and die.

And in other fields: for Hobbes, the state was a leviathan; for Plato, perception itself is seeing shadows on the wall; for theologians––at least some of them––God is a father; for Hume, the mind is a theater; for Descartes, the mind in its body is a pilot in a ship.

Sports is a fertile field for metaphor (note fertile field).  I played basketball for a good portion of my life, and even in my dotage have not been able to wean myself from the sport, though now that means watching it on TV or on Bob Johnson court.  I’m always struck by how the announcers cannot open their mouths without metaphors spilling out.  Watching the NCAA tournament this month, I collected more than fifty with very little effort: charity stripe, down town, kiss it off the glass, string music, in the paint, on the boards, called for steps, set a screen, run and gun, free throw, hit the deck, slam dunk, kick it out, garbage time, pick and roll, hand check, jump hook, jump ball, circus shot, coast to coast, sky hook, forced up a prayer (which is another version of the “Hail Mary” in football), take a charge, March madness (and related to that, going to the dance), airmailed the pass, called for walking (and called for traveling), in a zone, he’s been unconscious, hanging around the hoop, yo‑yoing the two bigs, took it to the cup, air ball, knock it down, post player, dish it off, telegraph the pass, back‑door cut, point guard, skywalker, threw up a brick, smooth stroke, pump fake, wrap around pass, pull that pumpkin out of traffic, he hot potatoed it, a nickel and dime call, a runner, a floater, and a tear drop (those are particular kinds of shots), shoot the rock, squeeze the orange, drop step, turn up another notch, spin‑cycle move––the list could go on and on.  We should not forget “trifecta,” a metaphor that Dick Vitale, a most irritating announcer, has imported from horse‑racing to refer to a three‑point shot.  Dr. James Naismith invented basketball by suspending a peach basket in a YMCA gym.  The basket was literally a basket.  Now the metal rim with a suspended, cylindrical nylon net is only metaphorically so.

A while back I gave a little talk in which I observed that our hymnals are rich metaphorical sourcebooks.  If you ever get bored with the sermon, you can flip through your hymnal and get examples like these: God is a mighty fortress, Christ is a master workman, Christ is a star of the East, Christ is a dying lamb, the earth is a story teller, the Holy Spirit is a dove or a divine fire or a wind, Christ is a solid rock and similar figures from the mineral world (such as Rock of Ages), God’s mercy is a bright beam, Christians are soldiers (and also from that famous hymn, we are the body of Christ), the hour of prayer is sweet, the heart is a dwelling place, Christ is the light of light, Jesus is a shepherd; and of course all the royal metaphors imported from the Old Testament of the “Christ is king” or “Christ is ruler” variety and the associated metaphors of crowns, diadems, and thrones.  Some hymns give us rather difficult instructions, such as “fold to thy heart thy brother” or “lift up your hearts,” the folding of a brother and the lifting of a heart seeming to be rather difficult things to do literally.  Sometimes we get dual metaphors, as in the hymn “O Holy City,” where we’re told that “Christ the Lamb doth reign,” a figure that combines a pastoral and sacrificial image with a royal or regal one: Christ is a lamb: the lamb is a king.  In “O Master of the Waking World,” we’re told that Christ has all the nations in his heart, an extraordinary metaphor that rather strains our powers of comprehension.  In another hymn we’re called on to deliver our land from “error’s chain.”  Why “chain”?  Well, the hymnist needs a word to rhyme with “plain” and “slain,” but we nevertheless sense the direction in which the figure takes us: the heathen nations (the hymnist mentions India and Africa, along with––get this––Greenland) are imprisoned (that is, chained) by error.  Even in “My Country, ’tis of Thee” freedom is said to be a holy light, and as one of the imperatives is for it to ring from the mountain side, freedom also seems to be a bell.  In “It Singeth Low in Every Heart” we’re told that the dead “throng the silence of our breasts,” which means metaphorically that in our breasts, where everything is silent, we have a host of dead souls or maybe just dead people hanging out, an image that is something of a problem for the literal minded.  In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” we were told in the first stanza that “God is health” and in the second stanza that God is a bird.  As we’re sheltered under the wings of God, this appears to be a mother bird, a hen perhaps.  The hymnist doesn’t say that God is like a mother hen, but that he is one.  One benediction couplet is this: “God be with you till we meet again; neath his wings securely hide you.”  Now there are lots of things that have wings, including pterodactyls, insects, bats, angels, buildings, and airplanes, but surely what we have here is another God‑is‑bird metaphor, or perhaps more accurately “God is a protective bird.”

The literature on metaphor is immense.  In 1971 Warren Shibles published a book called Metaphor:  An Annotated Bibliography and History, a 414‑page compilation of sources on metaphor from different fields (philosophy, literary criticism, linguistics, psychology, etc.).  This is a very useful source: its limitation is that it goes only through the late 1960s, which was just before the tremendous explosion of writing about metaphor in a wide range of fields.  If you search for the word “metaphor” at Amazon.com, you’ll be directed to more than 5,600 books.  “Metaphor” as a keyword in World Cat yields more than 55,000 hits.  Emory & Henry psychology professor Paul Blaney sent me a New York Times article this week that observed that even the neuroscientists are getting involved.  “Last month,” the article says, “a team of researchers from Emory University reported . . . that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active.  Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.”  In short, metaphor is a hot topic:  it would take several dozen lifetimes just to read through what’s been written about it.  But that does not keep us from raising the question, What then is metaphor?

I’ll begin with Aristotle since, as with most things, he has something important to say.  In the Poetics he remarks, “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being . . . on grounds of analogy.”  We might call this the transference theory of metaphor, a view that held sway for a long time––all the way to the twentieth century.  Aristotle understands metaphor as something that deviates from literal usage:  it involves the transfer of a name to some thing to which that name doesn’t properly belong.  If Keats calls his Grecian urn a “still unravished bride of quietness,” we have, in Aristotle’s view, the transfer of a name, bride, to an object, the urn, to which the name doesn’t belong (urns are not brides).  Metaphor, Aristotle says in the Poetics, is one of those modes of speech that “deviates from ordinary modes of speech.”  Here, then, we have the separation between the literal or ordinary modes of language and the figurative, which is a deviation from the ordinary.  Aristotle says that metaphor is based on similarities between two things: a metaphor involves comparisons.  In a famous passage in the Poetics, he remarks that being a master of metaphor is something that can’t be learned; it’s “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”   Since we can’t avoid metaphor, it’s good to learn that we’re all geniuses.  But the thing to be noticed in Aristotle’s remark is its emphasis on similarity or analogy (X is like Y) rather than identity (X is Y).

In a recent book called Linguistics for Everyone we’re told that “A metaphor, as Aristotle conceived it and as we still understand it, is a figure of speech that sets up an analogy between two words or phrases: something is something else.”  In this book, which was written by my daughter Kristin, we have a conflation of the view that metaphor involves likeness or similarity or analogy with the view that it involves identity: something is something else, as well as something is like something else.  We’ll come back to this distinction between analogy and identity.

It says something about Aristotle’s genius that almost every major treatment of metaphor up to the twentieth century is anticipated in his account.  No radically new view of metaphor emerged until the mid-twentieth century.  Consider two important figures from the last century, I.A. Richards and Max Black, one a literary critic and one a philosopher.  A great deal of the discussion of metaphor in recent years takes off from Richards and Black.  Their ideas are similar.  Their view of metaphor has been called the interaction theory.  One of the things they’re both interested in is how metaphors work.  What is the interaction view?

Metaphor, says Black, is not a matter of indirectly substituting some intended literal meaning.  This would be the substitution theory of metaphor.  If we were to say “John Doe is an ogre,” we would be saying, according to the substitution view, that “John Doe is cruel or brutish or maybe even hideous.”  Secondly, Black says that metaphor is not a matter of picking out a relevant set of similarities in the two terms of the utterance.  This would be the comparison view, which says in effect, that metaphor is really simile: “John Doe is like an ogre” or “My love is like a red, red rose.”  What Black proposes instead is the interaction view.  His idea is that metaphor is composed of two subjects, a principal one and a subsidiary one, and that the principal subject acquires new meaning through its involvement or interaction with the subsidiary one.  The subsidiary subject organizes our thought about the principal subject in a new way, and we can’t reduce metaphor to any kind of literal formulation.  What happens, Black says, is that in a metaphor like “John Doe is an angel” we have a system of associated commonplaces or properties for both “John Doe” and “angel” and that they interact with each other in a way that produces an emergent meaning that can’t be reduced to any kind of literal statement of pre-existing similarities.

I’ll skip over Richards’ view, which also challenged the dominant Aristotelian paradigm, because it’s quite similar to Black’s.  In fact, Black’s position was really developed from Richards’.  But I do want to glance at Northrop Frye, who has influenced some of my own thinking about metaphor, as indeed he has influenced my thinking about a number things.  Frye notes that the principle involved in metaphor is not one of similarity or analogy (that’s the simile) but one of identity.  When we say “X is Y,” we’re identifying two things.  Such a statement takes us out of the realm of ordinary relations.  If we say “students are angels” or “students are ogres,” everybody with any sense knows that they are obviously neither.  Metaphor, therefore, involves paradox and so upsets our conventional way of thinking about things.  It’s certainly not reasonable.  In fact, metaphor paralyzes the reason.  Nor is it logical.  It’s not so much illogical as it is counterlogical.  Frye sees metaphor as the most primary and primitive mode of expression, one that arises in human history before the separation of subjects and objects intrudes onto our consciousness.  If instead of using hyphenated expression like “sun-god” or “river-god” we substitute an equal mark for the hyphen, we can perhaps understand what our earliest forebears were getting at.  That is, in an expression like “sun-god” early humanity was saying, not that the god is like the sun but that the god was the sun––literally.  That is, there’s a direct equation between “sun” and “god”:  they’re the same thing.  And in this situation, subject and object distinctions, which separate the two terms, don’t apply.  Heidegger called this “ecstatic metaphor;” Frye calls it “existential metaphor”––the idea of an identity between individual consciousness and something in the natural world.  Very mysterious, this idea of identity.  But isn’t that the way we’re forced to talk when we want to squeeze from language the sense of the mystery and power and ineffability that language seems otherwise incapable of expressing.  In Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats, who would be dead at age twenty‑five, two years after he wrote his great odes, goes on to say that the urn “dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity.”  Eternity is one of those concepts, like infinity, that sometimes teases us into thinking that we can get our minds around it, but we’re not capable of thinking in dimensions beyond ordinary, measurable space and time.  Eternity really does “tease us out of thought.”  So does metaphor in its effort to get beyond ordinary perception.

Two examples: the language of love and the language of religion.  How does one express the experience of love?  Well, there are many answers to the question, but one of the ways is surely to call on metaphor when all else fails.  We have very abstract metaphors for the experience, as when we say that two become one.  Two become one?  How silly, when we all know that two can’t become one.  But we say it anyway, in the marriage ceremony and in other ways.  In Religio Medici Sir Thomas Browne remarks that “United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other.”   Sometimes the two‑are‑one equation is downright carnal, as in Iago’s “the beast with two backs.”  The same idea is expressed a bit more decorously in Genesis 2:24, where we’re told that a man cleaves to his wife and that they become one flesh.  Two fleshes become one flesh––they’re identified, they’re the same thing.  Any fool knows they’re not the same thing, even when they’re tightly intertwined.  Yet the Yahwist writer says they’re identical.  He also says it by using the word “cleave,” which is a kind of dead metaphor, meaning to stick to or adhere.  The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that the Hebrew for “cleave” (dabaq) is used quite often in the Old Testament to refer to physical things sticking to each other, especially parts of the body.  In 1 Kings, Solomon is said to cleave to many of the strange women he loved (11:2).  In English “cleave” derives from an Indo-European root meaning to form into a ball, another archetypal metaphor for unity or oneness, or the equation between two and one.

For the Yahwist writer the metaphorical is the literal, as it is in almost every other Biblical writer and as it is in the New Yorker cartoon which shows a man in his doctor’s office with what looks like a hunting knife sticking out of his back.  He’s sitting in front of and facing the doctor.  The doctor says, “Good news.  Test results show it’s a metaphor.”  We all know that metaphorically to stab someone in the back is to betray him or her.  This poor bloke has been literally stabbed in the back and has apparently relayed this information to the doctor and is now waiting for a diagnosis or a cure.  For the patient the metaphorical has become the literal.  For the doctor the literal is the metaphorical.  A classic case of the literal–metaphorical dialectic is in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.  In this play we have a prophet, Tiresias, who is literally blind but who can metaphorically see, and a king, Oedipus, who can literally see but who is metaphorically blind.  Then, in the great recognition scene at the end, when Oedipus discovers the truth about his having committed parricide and incest, he can metaphorically see at the moment he literally blinds himself with his dead wife’s brooches.  Physical blindness and metaphorical seeing or understanding are coincident.  The conceptual metaphor underlying this is a familiar one: understanding is light or sight: “Oh I see what you’re saying,” “Did she throw any light on the subject,” “He was a real visionary,” “Did he provide any insight?” and even the light bulb that flashes above someone’s head in the comics, signaling a eureka moment.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Theseus is somewhat mystified about what’s been played out before him, and he says that the “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” by which he means, essentially, that these three groups of people are really crazies because they talk about things that don’t really happen.  He goes on to say that lunatics can see more devils than hell can hold and that poets move their eyes from heaven to earth and earth to heaven, like an insane person who’s tripping out.  And of course lovers are crazy, as all of us know, and in fact as we frequently say.  “Love is madness” is another one of those conceptual or cognitive metaphors that is reflected in our ordinary talk about love: “I’m crazy about her,” “She drives me out of my mind,” “He constantly raves about her,” “They were madly in love,” “I’m just wild about Harry, “He went nuts over her,” “They were both moonstruck” (“lunatic” comes from the Latin for moon),” “He drove her cuckoo,” “She went berserk over him,” and so on).  Theseus doesn’t put much stock in all this lunacy, because he really doesn’t believe in metaphor.

Theseus might have included the prophet or other religious writers among his group of crazies, because they too can’t seem to open their mouths without using metaphors.  How to express the ineffable?  The central metaphor in the Christian tradition is the Incarnation, the most counterlogical of all concepts.  What the Incarnation says, in an abstract way, is that God is a human being.  Well, we all know that God isn’t a human being, and yet the gospel accounts keep saying that this particular human being, Jesus, is divine.  It’s the principle of identity that’s at work.  X = Y.  In William Blake’s formulation it’s “the human form divine.”

The Bible is one massive tissue of interconnected metaphors.  We’re told, for example, that Christ is not simply God (that’s the abstract identity) but that he’s a lamb and a tree of life and a vine and a way and a light and a living stone and a bridegroom and all kinds of other things.  Not that he’s like these things but that he is these things.  And we even have Christ himself as the ultimate metaphor-maker: he tells his disciples that the bread and wine are his body and blood.  The doctrine of transubstantiation is really an argument for metaphor, because it insists on the radical identity of X and Y.  At least that’s the case in the Catholic tradition.  Protestants tend to say that the bread and wine are not really the body and blood but are symbolic of those things.  That’s pretty close to saying they are like those things.  In other words, the Protestant view is closer to simile than metaphor, based as it is on likeness rather than identity.  Actually, Luther’s view of the Eucharist is called “consubstantiation,” which means that Christ is present along with the unchanged reality of the bread and wine.

A theological variation of the analogy versus identity opposition was played out in the Arian controversy of the fourth century.  The issue debated by the theologians was whether Christ was of the same essence or substance (homoousios) as the Father––that is, the principle of identity––or of similar essence (homoiousios)––the principle of analogy.  Athanasius took the former position and Arius the latter.  Some wag, referring to the extra vowel in homoiousios, said there’s not an iota of difference between them.  Anyway, the Church eventually decided in favor of Athanasius, which we might say was a victory for the metaphoric principle of identity.

As you can see, this discussion of metaphor is leading into things that are becoming more and more mysterious, but I think that’s where radical metaphor, in Frye’s sense, ultimately leads us.  As I say, it’s counterlogical and thus paradoxical.  Those who have difficulty with paradox will make little headway with metaphor, which is a linguistic function that stretches the mind and resists our habitual ways of thinking.  But then there’s a great deal in life that’s counterlogical or paradoxical, and I’ve often thought about, or tried to think about, the relation between identity as a principle of metaphoric structure and identity as a principle of self-definition.  After all, it’s a commonplace to talk about personal identity.  It’s a term we associate with the realization of character in literature, as when we ask, well, what’s the real identity of Achilles or Hamlet or Stephen Dedalus?  In his recent study of the Gospel of Mark, Peter’s Last Sermon, Emory & Henry professor James Dawsey devotes part of his book to the question of Jesus’ identity: who was he to the people of Judea and Galilee, and who was he to the Christians of Mark’s day?  Dawsey, incidentally, seems to take special pleasure in metaphor‑making.  In the first several pages of his book we get such figures as “hermeneutical tsunami,” “conceptual Grand Canyon,” and Bultmann’s “rickety bridge.”

But if we turn from characters in stories, like those in Mark’s Gospel, to characters in life, we often ask, well, Who is she, really?––meaning what’s her identity––or, if we’re brave enough, Who am I?  And perhaps the answer is that we are, in large part, what we identify with.  When we possess this or that book, it becomes a part of our identity.  “Identity” and “identify” both come from the Latin root “idem,” which means “the same.”  When we connect with this or that person, he or she becomes part of our identity.  When we attach ourselves to this or that group––a sorority, a religious body, a political affiliation, a family unit, yes, even a college––then isn’t it possible to say that our identity is what we identify with?  You can see that I’m using metaphors to ask these questions: possess, connect, attach.  Or are we not also identified with what we create?  In his Essays Montaigne says, “I have no more made my book than my book has made me,” and not being quite satisfied with this he adds, “a book consubstantial with its author.”  In other words, he is his book, “consubstantial” being the same word Luther uses for the relation between the body of Christ and the bread and the wine.

Well, I’ve moved from the language of newspapers and college catalogues to Christian doctrine, which is a mystery if anything is.  That’s why I think Browning and McLuhan were right in suggesting that we are forever reaching for things that are beyond our grasp.   A moment ago I mentioned the metaphor of possession.  We engage with the creative use of language in order to possess its powers, in order to internalize it and make it our own.  I’ve been suggesting that we are defined by what we possess.  What we identify with possesses us and operates as an informing principle in our minds and our imaginations.  In his little book The Educated Imagination Frye says that our identity is defined by what the imagination “swallows” and takes into itself.   This is an ingestion metaphor.  It is combined with the possession metaphor in the remarkable example of Ezekiel’s eating the scroll:

 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it.  He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.  He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.  He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:9–3:3)

Ezekiel is possessed by the Word and so he takes it into himself, just as an angel advises the author of the Book of Revelation to do:

 And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.  (Revelation 10:9).

Milton speaks of the Word of God in the heart.  Here we have the Word of God in the belly.  The literal (actual ingestion of the Word) and the metaphorical (the possession of the Word) in these cases are the same thing.  Digestion is a related metaphor: what we ingest must be digested.  Here’s an example from a book called Visions of War:  “The combatant author . . . often takes decades to digest the experiences”––that is, takes decades to assimilate the experiences into the body, here less into the belly, it seems, than into the head and heart.  In the interest of equal time for my children, I should note that Visions of War was written by my son Scott.

A secular example of the ingestion of the word is a poem I first read 47 years ago––when I was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas.  The poem is Eating Poetry by Mark Strand.  It begins like this:

 Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.

In the last stanza we learn that the poet is a “new man.”  “I romp with joy,” he says, “in the bookish dark.”  The poet is transformed, and so his identity is defined, by taking into himself, by possessing the object of his affection. The word is no longer something out there.  His identity is determined by what he has taken into himself, and so the distinction between the literal (swallowing the printed pages) and metaphorical (the possession of poetry which gives the poet an identity) tends to collapse.  So where does this leave us?

I began these reflections not with an attempt to answer the question, What is metaphor? but with some observations on how widespread metaphor is in the ordinary uses of language.  I then glanced at several theories of metaphor, from Aristotle through Max Black to the conceptual metaphors of the cognitive linguists.  Next I turned to Northrop Frye’s more radical view of metaphor founded on the principle of identity, meaning that X and Y are not similar but the same.  I suggested that there may be a connection between identity as a form of metaphorical structure and identity as representing what one is as a person.

It seems to me that metaphor in its most radical sense––and radical doesn’t mean the revolutionary avant-garde but rather going back to roots––that metaphor in its most radical sense intensifies and expands our consciousness.  It is, in short, mind‑blowing.

We’ll let William Blake have the final word.  At the end of A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake writes: “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea.  O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”  Blake is really talking about imaginative power here.  He is calling attention to the difference between those who see the sun only in terms of the simile, likening its fiery disk to a guinea (a gold coin), and those who see it metaphorically as a hallelujah chorus of the heavenly host.  Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?  Our grasp can certainly take in the simile: we recognize the similarity between the bright, shiny sun and the shiny gold coin: it takes very little imaginative effort to see the guinea‑sun.  Seeing the hallelujah chorus, however, requires a greater imaginative reach, a reach beyond what we can grasp.  Would that we will continue to challenge those who might want to limit our imagination’s stopping at what we can grasp.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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8 thoughts on “What’s a Meta For?

  1. Jim Racobs

    Words seem to be almost inherently metaphorical. Two things, word & referent, are taken as identical. Maybe not in the physical world, where most people can readily distinguish between word & thing, grasping that the word “chair” is not the thing we sit on, which could easily be called something else. But when it comes to matters like morality, values, political ideologies, religious dogma, I think many people take the word as identical to the thing. It’s too uncomfortable to start distinguishing word & referent. That suggests the possibility of treating the referent as less than an absolute, objective given. Rather, the reified abstraction could not be called anything else, & the word could not mean anything else. God is God (as I’ve come to understand “him”), & any other idea of God or use of the word God is unacceptable. Honor is honor, & what must be done to maintain it is unquestionable. In fact, the potentially liberating sense of metaphor—that two things are being identified—is lost. There is one thing, the word/referent. So there is no room for any alternative vision—any other belief or point of view is immoral, barbaric, heretical, unpatriotic, insane, etc. I guess I’m depicting the ideological mode that Frye identifies, while the imaginative mode is free to examine & create beyond such mind-forged manacles.

    If there is some sense to what I’m saying, I’m sure Frye & you have said it much more cogently. Anyway, thank you for sharing your stimulating lecture.

  2. Nicholas W. Graham

    Frye often ends his thoughts (in his Notebooks) wishing he could find a psychological analogy. There is quite a difference between a WHAT question and a IS question. At the Zoo our questions are mostly WHAT questions. In a legal court what is primary are IS questions: guilty or not guilty? It is the little word “is” that is at the core of all metaphors and metaphysics.

  3. Robert Denham

    Thanks for you comments, Jim. I think it’s true that something metaphorical seems to inhere in many, if not most, words. The idea of “carrying” lurks in the etymology of the word “metaphor” itself. “Metaphor” doesn’t involve us in literal carrying, but it does have the figurative sense of meanings being carried back and forth between the two terms.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      To follow up Jim’s and Nicholas’s comments, the implied question in your observation that Frye is one of the only people to talk about metaphor in terms of identity is worth some considering. The simplest answer for me is that Frye is talking about the outcome of metaphor rather than the associative means, or “conceptual blending” (as the cognitivists would say), that make it possible for us to invent new metaphors. A metaphor is possible because of conceptual analogies and verbal and archetypal associations, but the effect of it is identificatory or interpenetrative. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, there is a central organizing metaphor that structures the imagery of the novel around Pearl and the rose-bush, in which the sense of identity is counter-logical, as Frye puts it (that is, it cannot be logically or descriptively true), but also literal (in Frye’s sense) and radical: Pearl is the rose-bush is the garden-forest is prelapsarian Nature. The metaphor is inescapable but very few, if any critics bring this to the fore or even mention it, because, I think, they are critics of the realist or descriptive mode, as most, even very sophisticated critics are.

  4. Nicholas William Graham

    There are 3 references to that other Canadian Classic 1957,
    INSIGHT, in Frye’s work. Most Frye scholars refuse to acknowledge
    the book, because they are operating at a higher level, & I think
    they are right. Philosophy and Cognitional theory are not within
    the horizon of Frye scholars; this is the domain of that lonely
    Canadian, author of INSIGHT. Frye recognized its importance and
    called it “that damn book.” Lonergan and Frye, in terms of of
    displacement, are two sides of the same coin. One without the other
    is unbalanced.

  5. Neil Lanham

    For most of my 74 years, although I did not know what it was, metaphor has haunted me. I have written articles about it and read all I can but no one has yet described for me the mind that is completely metaphorical and I believe that that is because everything that is written is from the external perspective ie not one of them have the gift of complete metaphor. If we talk of it as poetic this indicates that we are seeing it as just a tool for occasional use in the literal seeing world.
    Frye, the thinker, saw it in Blake when he refered to the double vision. This for me is the mind that sees everything in two or more aspects at the same time and as he and Jousse also says allows one to see the past,the present and the future at the same time. We must however consider Fryes mind and where he was coming from. He was highly literate and makes the mistake of thinking that it is the educated mind that develops it. Not so if he had been coming from anthropology or folklife he would realise that it was developed by primitive man and fostered in NATURAL man – it is aparent in his language. It is our modern minds in our now artificial world that have lost it and now only see things materially and literally. Benjamin and G E Evans said that. Of course it is similar for it is this similarity that triggers the mind in its instant recall of metaphoric measurement from personal experience and that is also part of our identity. If this rings any bells I would be pleased to hear from you. I believe that there is still a great challenge to be completed. Enjoyed your paper. Neil L

  6. Neil Lanham

    Frye is right. The parallel recall that is triggered off the back brain is not similar – it is THE SAME. This is because the totally metaphoric mind of the Double Vision ONLY SEES IN TERMS OF PRINCIPLES OF UNDERSTANDING and it is these principles that are stored deep within us that are brought forward in terms of a different literal happenings but the same principle. In fact principle is the way that the story is stored and what triggers it to be brought forward. If the beholder of the metaphor sees it as similar then they have lost the metaphoric vision and are only seeing in literal terms. They are seeing content and not principle.
    We are told that we are now in the information age. Information is valueless if it cannot be correlated into reason – understanding – wisdom.
    We all should make polarised lists of what is literal and what is principle to be able to understand what the modern mind has lost from the natural. Neil Lanham

  7. Bob Denham


    I’m not aware of anyone who has so radical a view of metaphor as Frye. To him, to say that X is Y is to say that the literal meaning and metaphorical meaning are the same thing. In The Double Vision he speaks of this as imaginative literalism.


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