What Can Metaphor Do for Us?

What Can Metaphor Do for Us?

Part One

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

“I believe that metaphor alone can give a sort of eternity to style.”
—Marcel Proust, Chroniques

Headshot of writer Richard Wertime
Richard Wertime

What can metaphor do for us?

We should ask, in the same breath, what metaphor can do to us—what its peculiar impact is. How does it work “on” us, as well as on occasions “for” us?

Let’s begin by embracing metaphor in its more general sense as figurative language of every sort. More broadly, too, we might find ourselves considering “felicitous expression”—in Pope’s famous phrase, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” a phrase we’re likely to return to later.

There’s a scene in Il Postino, that wonderful film, which beautifully, and hilariously, illustrates the dual nature of metaphorical expression. The aunt of the mailman, the film’s central character—the postino of the title—finds herself infuriated that her nephew is being “corrupted” by a local poet (none other than the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda), who is prompting her nephew to put metaphor to use as a courtship tool in pursuing his beloved.  So, she, the aunt, conducts an energetic rant inveighing against metaphor—the word, in Italian, is meh-TAFF-ora, which has a delicious “bite” to it when it’s used to disparage—oblivious to the fact that her very rant is replete with metaphors, all spontaneous, native-hewn, anything but “calculated” . . . but for all that, vivid and robust in their effect!

Beyond the humor of the scene, the filmmakers, surely (it’s hard not to surmise), intend it as comment on that curious “two-facedness” of figurative speech—metaphor being, at one and the same time, among our chief forms of artifice for influencing others as well as a “natural inhabitant” of our uncensored daily speech— rhetoric being, from ancient times forward, a staple of oratory, the much-studied art of public persuasion, manipulative in its aims, a codified system for exercising guile.

… And then, again, as in the zia’s (aunt’s) rant, a presence so pervasive in our unconscious daily speech that we don’t even know, the vast majority of the time, that our language is every which way “metaphorical”!

But how could this be? Scholars of language like the critic Robert Rogers, and the etymologists who study the origins of speech, remind us that virtually all of our words—that’s right, virtually all—are traceable back to our experience of the body and the physical world around us, including even the most “abstract” of our words, our words for concepts, emotions, and ideas. Thus, for instance, the familiar word comprehend means, at root, “to encompass with the whole hand, grasping an object with all four digits and the opposable thumb.”

Or, even more remarkably, the word explore, which sounds so adventuresome and so invigorating! It derives from the Latin ex + plorāre,“to weep or wail, going forth.” So Adam and Eve, departing from the Garden, newly fallen into knowledge, go forth tearfully to “explore” the world around them. Masaccio’s great fresco of their sorrowing exit (in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) depicts them both naked, the overwhelming “gravity” of their new situation pressing their bare feet flat to the earth.

Examples proliferate, many intriguing: delight is from the Latin de + licio, “to lick.” Perturb from per + turbāre, “to twist or whirl about.” Fascinate from fascināre, “to bind, as into a bundle (fascia).” They remind us, collectively, of Nietzsche’s claim that “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms . . . illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions.” –An aphorism pertinent here, since our familiar word, truth, like the related word trust, derives from the Anglo-Saxon trēowian, meaning—guess what?—“tree”! Truth and trust: both rooted like a tree, solidly “grounded,” stable in their foundation. For all that Nietzsche might say.

How hard it is for our language to get away from the physical world!


Two essential functions of imagery: the “value-determining” image vs. the “perception-sharpening” image 

My key intent, here, is to help writers find a language for sorting through the options that lie open to them for exploiting metaphor in the writing they do—and, for readers, in turn, to appreciate the figurative “effects” that they encounter. –All this, once again, with the aim of exploring what metaphor can do, both for us and to us.

Let’s begin, then, with some very practical and useful distinctions.

The perception-sharpening image. This is the image—metaphor, figure of speech, what have you—that informs and intensifies our sensuous [physical, not “sensual”] appreciation of the object being “imaged.” We’ll explore more, later, how all fresh images initially surprise us when we first come upon them—“arrest” us, as it were, while we process their freshness, and in so doing, secure our assent—even without us fully knowing, in the first blush of newness, what it is, exactly, that we’re assenting to.

But they truly have the power to “take us aback,” these perception-sharpening images, moving us to murmur, Gosh! Who would have thought—?! as we experience their freshness, something of a variant on Pope’s “what oft was thought.” Thus, John Updike, renowned for his metaphors, in one of his fictions characterizes the Federal buildings in Washington, D.C. as the city’s “marzipan monuments.” In yet another story, he gives one of his characters this striking perception as he leaves a restaurant after lunch:

Outside, the pavement glittered as if cement were semiprecious.
(“Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?”)

… an image that affords us a wonderful quick “take” on how the flecks of mica imbedded in a sidewalk catch the bright sun!

Or we might note how, in a new collection of prose poems, The World To Come, the writer David Keplinger offers us this image about that cosmic body, Betelgeuse:

When it is compared to our sun, the red giant Betelgeuse is a thousand times as large and of an impressive spectral type, but much more fragile, even ephemeral, most of its girth nothing more than cough syrup viscosity [italics mine]…

A massive heavenly body that can boast nothing more than “cough syrup viscosity”! How that shapes our perception!

The value-determining image. Such fresh, arresting images that help us “see” or perceive something better—apprehend more acutely their physical properties—may indeed do very little, or for that matter nothing, for our sense of the thing’s value—for its moral, aesthetic, or other intangible qualities, which depend upon a judgment. In making a judgment, we adopt some sort of “attitude” toward whatever is being considered. Learning that Betelgeuse has “cough syrup viscosity” doesn’t really incline us to think ill or well of that massive cosmic body. The astonishment we feel is quite value-neutral.

In contrast, alternatively, the value-determining image, while it may well encompass certain perception-sharpening powers, has as its central aim persuading us as readers to assign it a certain value. Kenneth Burke, in his Language as Symbolic Action, refers to this function as a forensic one—“forensic” in the sense of “argumentative,” as when lawyers debate a case. It’s a most useful term, because it so squarely places the “value-determining image” in the rhetorical tradition I spoke of before, oratory, again, being the art of public persuasion—calculated, focused, purpose-driven in intent . . . the intent, of course, being to change someone’s mind.

No writer, arguably, was more adept at fashioning value-determining images than (how not?) Shakespeare. Cleopatra, eulogizing the just-deceased Marc Antony (she’s being sincere, but cunning; she’s seeking to sway a sympathetic Roman to divulge something to her!), says this of Antony:

                                        For his bounty,
There was no winter in ‘t, an autumn ‘twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above
The element they lived in. In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets, realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket…
                         (A&C, V, ii, 86-92)

—A truly bravura performance, both on Cleopatra’s part and on Shakespeare’s too, all the stops pulled out for maximum effect—the seasons; aquatic animals; the ocean; clothing; money; royalty, geography, even dinnerware! . . . a mesmerizing gush of images, all aimed not at helping us “see” Antony better as a physical person but to cherish and admire his great attributes—his grandness of spirit, his liberality and generosity. These images all being, despite their evoking very “concrete” things, value-determining in their function.

So numerous, indeed, are value-determining images, not merely in Shakespeare, but in literary works in general, that we can proclaim this, as a rule:

Value-determining imagery prevails in literature over perception-sharpening imagery by a very substantial margin.

This “rule” is little more than a claim of mine, in fact, based on my own broad exposure to literature. I’ll leave to each writer, and, in turn, to each reader, to determine through experience if this is not so.

The determining of value and the sharpening of perception as they function together

Now, as neatly and as usefully as we might segregate the “perception-sharpening” function from the “value-determining” one, it’s by no means always the case that an image is exclusively just this one or that one.

Let’s return, for a moment, to Updike’s pair of images, each of which, in its own way, offers a “conflation” of the value-determining function with the perception-sharpening one. What does Updike imply by likening those massive Federal buildings, very playfully and improbably, to a kind of confection, a variety of “candy,” that is often modeled into imitative shapes? That there’s something “artificial” about the Federal buildings—something not quite “for real.” (Those of us who grew up in or near D.C. can attest to the image’s aptness!) Constructed as it was on a filled-in swamp, the nation’s capital was “put” down there, deliberately so, programmatically so, in no way evolving as normal cities do. Hence, the “marzipan” image both gives us a fresh visual “take” on the buildings, those big hulking lumps of civic architecture, and makes a judgment about them, one that we’re encouraged to adopt—that is, to assent to. That’s the “determination of value.” That’s the forensic function at work.

… And then, that character departing from the restaurant, who perceives the noonday pavement as looking “semiprecious”? He’d met a college chum for lunch, hoping to secure his help in landing a job. But the “friend,” Clayton Clayton, a bit of a klutz, while successful himself, had let him down entirely—insultingly neglected even to perceive that his friend had met him in the hope of securing his help! The “semiprecious” quality of the sidewalk in the sunshine becomes a telling objective correlative for the “thing not gained.”


In Part Two of this craft note, we’ll return to Proust’s claim. On what basis does he argue that “metaphor alone can give a sort of eternity to style”?


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