Metaphor

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!
(Romeo and Juliet, 2. 2. 2–3)

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
(James Joyce, Ulysses, chap. 2)

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A work is a death mask of its conception.
(Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße)

When we resort to metaphor, we contrive to talk about two things at once; two different and disparate subject matters are mingled to rich and unpredictable effect. One of these subject matters is already under discussion or at least already up for consideration when a speaker resorts to metaphor in the first place. This is the metaphor’s primary subject or tenor: the young girl Juliet in the case of Romeo’s metaphor; history, Ireland’s history or the world’s, in the case of Stephen’s; works, prose writings in general, in the case of Benjamin’s. The second subject matter is newly introduced with an eye to temporarily enriching our resources for thinking and talking about the first. This is the metaphor’s secondary subject or vehicle: the sun; nightmares from which one tries to awake; death masks, i.e., death masks in general. The primary subject of a metaphor may be a particular thing, or it may be a whole kind of thing, and likewise for the secondary subject—with the result that the metaphor itself may take the verbal form of an identity statement (X is Y) as with Romeo; a predication or membership statement (X is a G) as with Stephen Daedalus; or a statement of inclusion (Fs are Gs) as with Benjamin. (The primary/secondary terminology derives from Beardsley (1962), the tenor/vehicle terminology from I.A. Richards (1936).)

If we ask how primary and secondary subjects are brought into relation by being spoken of together in a metaphor, it seems natural to say that metaphor is a form of likening, comparing, oranalogizing. The maker of a metaphor (or the metaphor itself) likens the primary subject to the secondary subject: Romeo (or Romeo’s speech) likens Juliet to the sun, Stephen likens history to nightmares, Benjamin likens works in prose to death masks. But it is unclear what we mean when we say this, to the point where some are reluctant to appeal to likeness or similarity in explaining what metaphor is or how it works. Much of the power and interest of many a good metaphor derives from how massively and conspicuously different its two subject matters are, to the point where metaphor is sometimes defined by those with no pretensions to originality as “a comparison of two unlike things.” The interpretation of a metaphor often turns not on properties the secondary subject actually has or even on ones it is believed to have but instead on ones we habitually pretend it to have: think of what happens when we call someone a gorilla.

Metaphor is but one of many techniques, named and unnamed, for likening one thing to another by means of words. We may employ an explicit comparison of one thing to another, built around like, as, or some other explicit comparative construction, in what’s known as simile:

One walking a fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen-Anne’s lace lying like lilies on water.
(Richard Wilbur, “The Beautiful Changes”)

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
(Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, chap. 1)

We may interweave parallel observations about two different subject matters by means of so and too and thus. We may liken a whole bunch of things to one another by making conspicuously parallel statements about each, inviting our listener to register the parallelism and ponder its significance. Or we may simply juxtapose mention of a first thing with mention of a second in a suitably conspicuous and suggestive manner:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(Ezra Pound, In a Station of The Metro)

Part of what is distinctive about metaphorical likening in particular is that in resorting to it, we speak of one thing or kind (the primary subject) as and in terms of a second thing or kind (the secondary subject). Our deployment of language takes place as if primary subject and secondary subject (Juliet and the sun) were one and the same; or as if the primary subject (history) were an instance of the secondary subject (nightmares); or as if the primary subject (works) were included within the secondary subject (death masks). In this sense, the primary subject is spoken ofas the secondary subject. Words, idioms, and other ways of talking customarily deployed in connection with the secondary subject (the sun, death masks) are appropriated and redeployed for use in thinking and talking about the primary subject (Juliet, prose works). In this sense, the primary subject is spoken of and thought about in terms of the secondary subject. It is easy to feel that in Romeo’s metaphor, familiar fragments of sun-talk come to be about Juliet without ceasing to be about the sun. If so, the double aboutness exhibited by metaphorical language is something philosophers must strive to understand.

A sentence metaphor typically likens many things or kinds to many other things or kinds at a single verbal stroke. Benjamin’s terse little aphorism manages to liken works to death masks, conceptions to living human beings, the changes a conception undergoes before being incorporated into a finished work to life, the stabilization and stultification it allegedly undergoes after such incorporation to death—and so on. In the context provided by the rest of his speech, Romeo’s exclamation manages to liken Juliet to the sun, her room and balcony to the east, Romeo himself to creatures dependent on the sun for warmth and light and nurturance, Romeo’s old love Rosaline to that lesser light the moon, the sight of Juliet to the light of the sun, Juliet’s appearance at her window as the sun’s rising in the east—and so on. Only some of a metaphor’s primary subjects and some of its secondary subjects are explicitly referred to by any verbal expression contained therein. Listeners must work the others out for themselves. In this respect, every metaphor leaves something implicit.

Nevertheless, some metaphors are explicit in the sense that they liken one or more named things or kinds to one or more other named things or kinds by means of locutions regularly found in overt literal statements of identity, membership, or inclusion:

I am a moth and you are a flame.

I, Ahab, am a speeding locomotive.

while other metaphors are implicit in that they eschew such simple alignments, mingling primary subject language and secondary subject language almost at random, yet in such a way as to leave listeners able to work out which is which and what’s being likened to what else:

I shall flutter helplessly closer and closer until you burn me to death at last.

The path of my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush. Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!
—Ahab (Melville, Moby-Dick, chap. 38)

Within the confines of a given metaphor, we distinguish pretty readily between words and phrases that are to be taken metaphorically and others that are to be taken only literally. To take an expression metaphorically is one way to take it figuratively, and to take an expression figuratively is to reinterpret it, to construe it in a manner that departs from but remains informed by some relevant prior literal construal of it. Various other kinds of figurative reinterpretation are exhibited in various other recognized figures of speech: metonymy (This policy covers you from the cradle to the grave), irony (You’re a fine friend), hyperbole (loud enough to wake the dead), and so on.

In terminology introduced by Max Black (1954), the portion of a metaphor that undergoes figurative reinterpretation is its focus and the rest is its frame. The focus of a metaphor may be a single word drawn from almost any part of speech. It may be a multi-word phrase like the sun or death mask. It may consist of scattered parts of an extended sentence, the remainder of which is to be taken only literally:

If, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top. (Cole Porter)

The path of my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.

Or it may be an extended phrase, rich in internal syntactic structure:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick …
(W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”)

Philosophers need to elucidate (a) the nature of the difference between taking language literally and taking it metaphorically, the nature, if you will, of the reinterpretation language undergoes when we take it metaphorically, and (b) the nature of the division of expressive labor between a metaphor’s focus and its frame.

Literary theorists regularly acknowledge the existence of extended metaphors, unitary metaphorical likenings that sprawl over multiple successive sentences. There are also contractedmetaphors, metaphors that run their course within the narrow confines of a single clause or phrase or word. They reveal themselves most readily when distinct metaphors are mixed to powerful, controlled, anything but hilarious effect:

Philosophy is the battle against [the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language]. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §109)

Not all sentence metaphors take the form of declarative sentences by any means: there are metaphorical questions, metaphorical commands, metaphorical optatives, etc.:

Is it all going in one ear and out the other? (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, “Hey There”, from the musical Pajama Game)

Be an angel.

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
(Hamlet 1. 2. 129–30)

Despite these complications, modern metaphor theory tends to treat the freestanding declarative metaphorical sentence as the fundamental unit of metaphorical action.

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