Metaphor – a discussion


As I’ve said, I’m fond of the BBC audioarchives… here’s another interesting one (from BBC4, Thursday 25th November 2010, 21:30):

“History of Metaphor

Duration: 45 minutes

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of metaphor.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the melancholy Jaques declares: “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” This is a celebrated use of metaphor, a figure of speech in which one thing is used to describe another.

Metaphor is a technique apparently as old as language itself; it is present in the earliest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Homer developed it into an art form, and his invention of the epic simile was picked up by later writers including Milton. In the Middle Ages the device of allegory underpinned much of French and English writing, while the Metaphysical poets employed increasingly elaborate metaphorical conceits in the sixteenth century.

In the age of the novel the metaphor once again evolved, while the Modernist writers used it to subvert their readers’ expectations. But how does metaphor work, and what does this device tell us about the way our minds function?

With: Steven Connor Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck, University of London; Tom Healy Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Sussex; Julie Sanders Professor of English Literature and Drama at the University of Nottingham; Producer: Thomas Morris.”

Some interesting quotes from the discussion:

“…how metaphor works is not [through] necessarily our intellectual, and considered reasonable, responses, but how we respond in, often, an emotional sense, the way in which we are disposed, therefore, to feel towards a particular action…“ ~ Tom Healy (about 25-26 mins in to the programme)

“If you think of Marvell’s wonderful dialogue between the soul and the body…in some sense, the soul and the body, that central conundrum, is behind every metaphor, really; perhaps every metaphor gives a kind of body to something abstract or otherwise unthinkable” ~ Steven Connor (about 28 minutes in)

“…metaphor… works on the principle of analogy. It brings things, often dissimilar things, together and it creates this type of energy that opens things up. The world of science increasingly found such analogous, metaphoric language very unstable; they wanted to order, to describe, to characterise the world… and when we think of the… 18th century, the great era of classification, …and metaphor doesn’t help when you’re trying to classify things, so there was a movement towards a greater emphasis on… reasonable literalness…

Doctor Johnson has a wonderful… definition of metaphor…: the application of a word to a use which in its original import, it cannot be put. So there is a sense almost of… that this is actually slightly indecorous… it’s …creating sensation that doesn’t actually ground us in reasonable, lasting, permanent thought… [Bragg intervenes here: and the search for a kind of knowledge came about, …that this was a different way to arrive at truths, and …we didn’t need those, so we could go through a different way; we could go through experimental observation…]… Shelley characterises , I think, this very well. He says, ‘reason is about the language of distinctiveness’, so reason attempts to create a very determined, precise way that language can be used…metaphor or imagination, as he says, is about similitude; it creates these links across things… and creates instability which reason doesn’t like” ~ Tom Healy (about 31-33 minutes in to the programme)

In response to Bragg’s question, ‘Did Dickens change the way metaphors were used? Or re-energize it?’ Steve Connolly states “…I think that what Dickens, along with other 19th century novelists, attempts to do… is to generate metaphors, as it were, for the work of the novel itself.  And the work of a novel like Bleak House,… is, in a sense, to provide a kind of imaging of England. This is the great… vocation of the novel. And how do you do that, and at the same time pay attention to the sheer complexity and, in Dickens’s views, the chaos of things? Well you find a metaphor that will actually connect people through their disconnectedness from each other. And that wonderful metaphor at the beginning of Bleak House, and it runs through the novel, renewed and transformed, is fog. Fog everywhere – and fog is everywhere and it touches everybody and it connects everyone… and especially it’s in the heart of England in the courts of Justice… and fog touches everything, connects everybody, and also disconnects them because they can’t see… and… the metaphor itself …starts to generate the thinking.” ~ Steve Connolly (about 33minutes in)

Then Julie Sanders adds an interesting comment on Virginia Woolf: “…The Dickens that Steve has been presenting, in a novel like Bleak House, is someone I think trying to use metaphor to come to terms with this fast changing, fast emerging, urban landscape… and Woolf… is dealing in the 1920s with her own response to the city, to London in particular, and thinking about it in that post-Great War moment and what it might be and what it might become …and what you get in Mrs. Dalloway, for example, … are a series of individual responses to the city through metaphor… Clarissa, in particular, uses the metaphors of water and ocean: seas of people… but you have other characters who use different kinds of metaphorical caches and I think what she starts to unpack there is that we all use metaphor and metaphor is pervasive, but we all have individual storehouses of metaphor which become a key to our own identity, our own way of thinking, our own ways of perception” (about 36 minutes in)


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