Walker Percy Wednesday 158


It might be useful to look into the workings of these accidental stumblings into poetic meaning, because they exhibit in a striking fashion that particular feature of metaphor which has most troubled philosophers: that it is “wrong”-it asserts of one thing that it is something else-and further, that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness. Not that the single linguistic metaphor represents the highest moment of the poetic imagination; it probably does not. Dante, as Allen Tate reminds us, uses very few linguistic metaphors. The “greatest thing by far” which Aristotle had in mind when he spoke of the mastery of the metaphor as a sign of genius may very well have been the sort of prolonged analogy which Dante did use, in which the action takes place among the common things of concrete experience and yet yields an analogy–by nothing so crude as an allegorization wherein one thing is designated as standing for another but by the very density and thingness of the action. As Tate puts it: “Nature offers the symbolic poet clearly denotable objects in depth and in the round, which yield the analogies to the higher syntheses.” Yet the fact remains that the linguistic metaphor is, for better or worse, more peculiarly accessible to the modern mind-it may indeed be a distinctive expression of modern sensibility. And it has the added advantage from my point of view of offering a concentrated field for investigation-here something very big happens in a very small place. Metaphor has scandalized philosophers, including both scholastics and sermioticists, because it seems to be wrong: It asserts an identity between two different things. And it is wrongest when it is most beautiful. It is those very figures of Shakespeare which eighteenth- century critics undertook to “correct” because they had so obviously gotten off the track logically and were sometimes even contradictory-it is just those figures which we now treasure most. This element of outlandishness has resulted in philosophers washing their hands of beauty and literary men being glad that they have, in other words, in a divorce of beauty and ontology, with unhappy consequences to both. The difficulty has been that inquiries into the nature of metaphor have tended to be either literary or philosophical with neither side having much use for the other. The subject is divided into its formal and material aspects, with philosophers trying to arrive at the nature of metaphor by abstracting from all metaphors, beautiful and commonplace, and with critics paying attention to the particular devices by which a poet brings off his effects. Beauty, the importance attached to beauty, marks the parting of the ways. The philosopher attends to the formal structure of metaphor, asking such general questions as, What is the relation between metaphor and myth? Is metaphor an analogy of proper or improper proportionality? and in considering his thesis is notably insensitive to its beauties. In fact, the examples he chooses to dissect are almost invariably models of tastelessness, such as smiling meadow, leg of a table, John is a fox. One can’t help wondering, incidentally, if Aristotle’s famous examples of “a cup as the shield of Ares” and “a cup as the shield of Dionysius” didn’t sound like typical philosophers’ metaphors to contemporary poets. Literary men, on the other hand, once having caught sight of the beauty of metaphor, once having experienced what Barfield called “that old authentic thrill which binds a man to his library for life,” are constrained to deal with beauty alone, with the particular devices which evoke the beautiful, and let the rest go. If the theorist is insensitive to the beauty of metaphor, the critic is insensitive to its ontology. To the question, why is this beautiful? the latter will usually give a material answer, pointing to this or that effect which the poet has made use of. He is unsympathetic-and understandably so-to attempts to get hold of art by some larger schema, such as a philosophy of being-feeling in his bones that when the cold hand of theory reaches for beauty, it will succeed in grabbing everything except the beautiful. Being neither critic nor philosopher, I feel free to venture into the no-man’s-land between the two and to deal with those very metaphors which scandalize the philosopher because they are “wrong” and scandalize the critic because they are accidental. Philosophers don’t think much of metaphor to begin with and critics can hardly have much use for folk metaphors, those cases where one stumbles into beauty without deserving it or working for it. Is it possible to get a line on metaphor, to figure out by a kind of lay empiricism what is going on in those poetic metaphors and folk metaphors where the wrongness most patently coincides with the beauty?

So far so good. But the question on which everything depends and which is too often assumed to be settled without ever having been asked is this: Given this situation and its two characteristics upon which all agree, the peculiar presence or distinctiveness of the object beheld and the peculiar need of the beholder-is this “need” and its satisfaction instrumental or ontological? That is to say, is it the function of metaphor merely to diminish tension, or is it a discoverer of being? Does it fit into the general scheme of need-satisfactions?- and here it doesn’t matter much whether we are talking about the ordinary pragmatic view or Cassirer’s symbolic form: both operate in an instrumental mode, one, that of biological adaption; the other, according to the necessities of the mythic consciousness. Neither provides for a real knowing, a truth-saying about what a being is. Or is it of such a nature that at least two sorts of realities must be allowed: one, the distinctive something beheld; two, the beholder (actually two beholders, one who gives the symbol and one who receives the symbol as meaningful, the Namer and the Hearer), whose special, if imperfect, gift it is to know and affirm this something for what it actually is? The question can’t be bracketed, for the two paths lead in opposite directions, and everything one says henceforth on the subject must be understood &om one or the other perspective. In this primitive encounter which is at the basis of man’s cognitive orientation in the world, either we are trafficking in psychological satisfactions or we are dealing with that unique joy which marks man’s ordainment to being and the knowing of it.

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