What Metaphor Can Do For Us

What Metaphor Can Do For Us

Part Two

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

Read Part 1, “What Can Metaphor Do For Us?


On what basis does Proust argue that “metaphor alone can give a sort of eternity to style”?  

Let’s turn back, now, to consider Proust’s claim. My epigraph to Part One is something of a teaser, for Proust begins the sentence in which he professes his belief with a somewhat maddening disclaimer—

Pour des raisons qui seraient trop longues à développer ici, . . .
(For reasons that would be too long to develop here, . . . )

—leaving us to ponder what his reasons might have been for making so vast and embracing a claim: that metaphor alone is capable of giving a “sort of eternity” to style. How can that be? No other fountains of the “eternal” available to the stylist? You’d think that telling a story of overwhelming power, even a very simple one, might secure it some measure of everlastingness!

I see two approaches to making sense of Proust’s contention. Let’s take them one at a time.

The Principle of Plenitude: the “fecundity” of metaphor

Proust’s claim occurs in an essay in which he chides Gustave Flaubert for being resolutely un-metaphorical in his writing—Flaubert’s style, Proust says, amounts to a vast “escalator,” churning around and around. The implication is that by omitting metaphor, a writer is relinquishing a source of depth and richness that can prove to be invaluable, if indeed not indispensable—the “layering of effect” that Keats famously alluded to when he counseled Shelley to “load every rift with ore.”

For Keats, it was a matter of mobilizing all the resources available to the writer. What the skillful exploitation of metaphor can accomplish—Proust’s own great masterwork rests, as is well known, on architectonic foundations, the two divergent “ways” securing the novel’s vast structure—is to undergird the events and human doings in a work with a scaffold that becomes the supporting platform for the actors. But it is not an “inert” platform, because metaphorical substructures will in effect “dialogue” with the human actions grounded in them, creating a two-way synergy that has the potential, even, to create interesting tension between what the characters are “doing” and what the imagery says “about” them.

We witness Shakespeare undertaking this in a masterful way in Antony and Cleopatra. The play derives, from a pair of governing images—images that are “literal” and yet metaphorical—a vast and intricate network that unites the play’s themes into a coherent whole. The Tiber in Rome, the River Nile in Egypt—from these two mighty waters spring the divergent “worlds” of the play. Destructive when it floods, the Tiber (Rome writ large) bespeaks restraint and measure, the dangers of “excess,” the emphasis on “business,” the importance of hierarchy, the primacy of War. Clock-time and urgency are important to the Romans, as is, indeed, honor.

 Egypt’s Nile, in contrast, can assure the land’s fertility only when it floods; hence, excess, not “measure,” is central to Egypt’s values, as are leisure and festivity, playfulness and theatricality, “community” over “hierarchy,” Love over War. And these two clashing systems provide the lively shifting nexus (again, much more than just a static “backdrop”) within which the characters, in all of their complexity, negotiate their fates.

What we observe at work in Shakespeare, then, prompts the possibility of yet another useful rule—a subset, we might say, of the rule of plenitude:

Metaphor (as, often, embodied in setting) affords the writer a potent means of conveying THEME in a work.

Why is this so important? Because that overriding question, “What is literature about?” must invite a dual response if we’re to separate “story-telling,” taken by itself as a narration of events, from what we expect from a fully literary experience—which, as I’ve said elsewhere, will serve to test our powers of mature discernment. Thus:

The first answer to what literature is “about”: Here are the dramatic contents of the work.

The vital second answer in response to the same question: Here are the themes, the human issues, pervading the work.

It’s the difference, in other words, between the “What?  and the “So what?” We should always keep in mind that our terse and abrupt “So what?” is the short form, or impacted version, of this abiding question:

What inherent significance does the foregoing bear—invite us, that is to say, to be mindful of, not in order to reach any definite “conclusion” or to draw some easy “moral,” but to consider how experiencing this work of literature resonates against important aspects of human life?

As Oscar Wilde has reminded us (speaking of truth and trees!), “The Pure and Simple Truth is Rarely Pure and Never Simple.”

The Principle of Inexhaustibility: the “unfathomableness” of metaphor

Much more needs to be said about this issue than we have space for here—to be explored, then, in a subsequent craft note!

…But if, before concluding, we circle back for a second to my earlier observation that fresh and startling metaphors “arrest” us, as it were, while we process their freshness, we begin to get a sense of the territory ahead. All metaphors, as Robert Rogers reminds us, are characterized by what he calls “modal ambiguity,” by which he gives us to understand that their power to perplex us is, or can be, well-nigh limitless. We think of Keats’ great lines from his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity.

—the irony, of course, being (as for the observer in the poem) that the complexity of such images equally teases us into thought—but it’s thought that can never get “solved” or “resolved.” And there’s the “teasing” quality of it, its limitless fecundity.

That we assent, for all that, to a fresh metaphor in ways that lie beyond our initial understanding—beyond our immediate ability to grasp how or why we assent to it at all . . . that, too, is part of the mystery to be explored! Gaston Bachelard, in his Poetics of Space, helps us with this (or at least begins to) by observing, “the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface—the “surface,” in this case, being that of the psyche.

How is it, then, that a fresh metaphor so “captivates” us—finds us so agreeable to our own entanglement and entrapment in its grip?! Bachelard, for one, sees a “relation of a new poetic image to an archetype lying dormant in the depths of the unconscious.”

 That, too, is a proposition that will “tease us into thought”!


We’ve focused so far on what metaphor can “do” for us, both in enabling us to sharpen physical perceptions and, also, in turn, to endow images with value. Then we moved to the other side, to see what metaphors can do to us, how they might affect us in complex and very long-lasting ways.

–But how do we know when a metaphor is tactful?  How to “space” metaphors? When do we need to let a metaphor “breathe”?  How does a metaphor offer us “magnified sight”? When do we need to fulfill an incomplete figure of speech? These are among the craft issues we will further address.

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