Thursday, October 6, 2011


"The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars." Aristotle, Poetics.

"Though metaphor is seen in a highly developed form in poetry, and is the characteristic mode of energetic relation in poetry, it may also prove to be the radical mode in which we correlate all our knowledge and experience." From Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Metaphor draws many poets to poetry? What draws you to fiction?"

  I do like today's question because the answer is so danged obvious.

 During my final year in the doctoral program in philosophy at Stony Brook, when I was churning out seminar papers and the prospectus for my dissertation, I found it increasingly difficult to write fiction. This wasn't a "writer's block" per se, because I could write philosophy papers all day long. But Western philosophers since John Locke, and especially those acquainted with the work of Wittgenstein, harbor a deep suspicion of metaphor as being imprecise, sloppy, careless, and misleading. Literary language is to be avoided. Fortunately, during my first two quarters of teaching creative writing at the University of Washington, those reservations fell away and I was able to settle into the wisdom behind the words Albert Camus wrote in his Notebooks of 1935-42: "Feelings and images multiply a philosophy by ten. People can only think in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels."

 Nature gives us no metaphors. These tropes of transference (metaphor, analogy, simile) that give us "two ideas for one" and allow us to "get hold of something fresh" (as Aristotle put it), are products of human consciousness, and as such are probably inseparable from the way the imagination and intellect operate on their highest levels, not simply in poetry, but in every form of intellectual endeavor that I am familiar with, including the sciences. (As a heuristic, the scientists at work on sub-atomic particles in the 1920s advised their students to think of these strange, new entities in terms of what they knew about literature and music; in the early 70s one of my editors at a newspaper called The Southern Illinoisan was Ben Gelman, brother of physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-man, a true genius who coined the term "quark," which is a reference to a line in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.) I tilt somewhat toward sympathizing with anthropologists who suspect that all language is metaphor. In Countries of the Mind (1931), John Middleton Murray wrote that, "The investigation of metaphor is curiously like the investigation of any of the primary data of consciousness...Metaphor is as ultimate as speech, and speech as ultimate as thought. If we try to penetrate them beyond a certain point, we find ourselves questioning the very faculty and instrument with which we are trying to penetrate them."

 Absent the presence of metaphor, certain powerful, thought-provoking stories are unimaginable. For example, the extended metaphor that is Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"; or John Gardner's Grendel (the equating of the Beowulf monster with Sartrean existentialism); or Orwell's Animal Farm; or any of the animal fables from the West (Aesop) and East (Jātaka tales), among them my short story "Menagerie: A Child's Fable"; or films such as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (Depression-era dance contests as a metaphor for capitalism, or at least that's how I read the story.) And each and every day, our nation's inventive editorial cartoonists rely on precisely this fundamental technique as they depict the shenanigans of our elected officials. So, in short, I think one has to say categorically that metaphor is an essential aspect of the imagination during its peak performances across all creative and intellectual disciplines.

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