Walker Percy Wednesday 159


Without getting over one’s head with the larger question of truth, one might still guess that it is extraordinarily rash of the positivist to limit truth to the logical approximation-to say that we cannot know what things are but only how they hang together. The copy theory gives no account of the what we are saying how about. As to the what: since we are not angels, it is true that we cannot know what it is intuitively and as it is in itself. The modern semioticist is scandalized by the metaphor Flesh is grass; but he is also scandalized by the naming sentence This is flesh. As Professor Veatch has pointed out, he is confusing an instrument of knowing with what is known. The word flesh is not this solid flesh, and this solid flesh is not grass. But unless we name it flesh we shall not know it at all, and unless we call flesh grass, we shall not know how it is with flesh. The semioticist leaves unexplained the act of knowing. He imagines naively that I know what this is and then give it a label, whereas the truth is, as Cassirer has shown so impressively, that I cannot know anything at all unless I symbolize it. We can only conceive being, sidle up to it by laying something else alongside. We approach the thing not directly but by pairing, by apposing symbol and thing. Is it not premature to say with the mythist that when the primitive calls the lightning serpentine he conceives it as a snake and is logically wrong? Both truth and error may be served here, error in so far as the lightning is held to participate magically in snakeness, truth in so far as the conception of snake may allow the privately apprehended inscape of the lightning to be formulated. I would have a horror of finding myself allied with those who in the name of instrumentality or inner warmth or whatnot would so attenuate and corrupt truth that it meant nothing. But an analysis of the symbol relation reveals aspects of truth which go far beyond the notion of structural similarity which the symbolic logicians speak of. Two other traits of the thing are discovered and affirmed: one, that it is; two, that it is something. Everything depends on this distinction between the thing privately apprehended and the thing apprehended and validated for you and me by naming. But is it proper to make such a distinction? Is there any difference, no difference, or the greatest possible difference, between that which I privately apprehend and that which I apprehend and you validate by naming in such a way that I am justified in hoping that you “mean” that very ineffable thing? For at the basis of the beautiful metaphor-which one begins to see as neither logically “right” nor “wrong” but analogous-at the basis of that heightened sensibility of the poetic experience, there is always the hope that this secret apprehension of my own, which I cannot call knowing because I do not even know that I know it, has a chance of being validated by what you have said. There must be a space between name and thing, for otherwise the private apprehension is straitened and oppressed. What is required is that the thing be both sanctioned and yet allowed freedom to be what it is. Heidegger said that the essence of truth is freedom. The essence of metaphorical truth and the almost impossible task of the poet is, it seems to me, to name unmistakably and yet to name by such a gentle analogy that the thing beheld by both of us may be truly formulated for what it is. Blackmur’s and Empson’s examples are better “mistakes” than mine. The street sign in Cambridge, Private Way Dangerous Passing, misunderstood, allowed the exciting possibility that it was one’s own secret forebodings about the little dead-end streets that was meant. But for all of Blackmur’s unsurpassed analysis of this mysterious property of language, I think it unfortunate that he has chosen to call it “gesture,” in view of the semioticist’s use of the word to denote a term in a stimulus-response sequence (i.e., Mead’s “conversation of gesture”–because this is exactly what it is not. It is a figurational and symbolic import in that sense which is farthest removed from gestural intercourse (such as the feint and parry of Mead’s two boxers). It is, in fact, only when the gesture, word, or thing is endowed with symbolic meaning, that is, united with a significance other than itself, that it takes on the properties which Blackmur attributes to it. In Empson’s examples, the beauty of the line depends on an actual misreading of what the poet wrote or on a corruption of the spelling. In the former case the poetic instincts of the reader are better than the poet’s. What is important is that the reader’s “mistake” has rescued the poet’s figure from the logical and univocal similarity which the poet despite his best efforts could not escape and placed it at a mysterious and efficacious distance. The remembering of Brooke’s unpassioned machine as impassioned machine is a good example of this. Another is a line of Nash which may or may not have been a mistake. What matters for our purpose is that it could have been.

Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour.

Brightness falls from the air.

There is a cynical theory, Empson writes, that Nash wrote or meant hair:

Brightness falls from the hair.

which is appropriate to the context, adequate poetically, but less beautiful. Why? I refer to Professor Empson’s analysis and venture only one comment. It may be true, as he says, that the very PreRaphaelite vagueness of the line allows the discovery of something quite definite. In the presence of the lovely but obscure metaphor, I exist in the mode of hope, hope that the poet may mean such and such, and joy at any further evidence that he does. What Nash’s line may have stumbled upon (if it is a mistake) is a perfectly definite but fugitive something-an inscape familiar to one and yet an inscape in bondage because I have never formulated it and it has never been formulated for me. Could the poet be referring to that particular time and that particular phenomenon of clear summer evenings when the upper air holds the last trembling light of day: one final moment of a soft diffused brilliance, then everything falls into dusk? But Empson’s most entertaining mistake is Queenlily June with a rose in her hair Moves to her prime with a languorous air. For what saves the verse from mediocrity is the misreading of queenlily as Queen Lily, where the poet had intended the rather dreary adverb of queenly! Again I defer to Professor Empson’s material analysis of what gives the misread line its peculiar charm. The question I would raise, in regard to this and many other examples in Seven Types of Ambiguity, has to do with Empson’s main thesis. This thesis is, of course, that beauty derives from ambiguity- in this particular case, the felt possibility and interaction of the two readings of queenlily. But I submit that in this and other examples, as I read it and apparently as Empson read it, the intended adverbial reading is completely overlooked! The line is read with Queenlily and is charming; it only belatedly occurs to one, if it occurs at all, that the poet meant the adverb–and I feel certain Empson is not maintaining that I was aware of the adverb all along but “unconsciously. ” What one wonders, in this and in many other of Empson’s quotations, is whether it is the ambiguity which is the operative factor, or whether the beauty does not derive exclusively from the obscure term of the ambiguity, the logically “wrong” but possibly analogous symbol. In all those cases where the poet strains at the limits of the logical and the univocal, and when as a result his figure retains a residue of the logical and so has two readings-the univocal and the analogous-is it not in the latter that he has struck gold? We must be careful not to confuse ambiguity, which means equivocity, with true analogy, simply because both are looked upon as more or less vague. It is always possible, of course, to do what Empson does so well with his obscure metaphors, that is, to cast about for all the different interpretations the line will allow. But does the beauty of the line reside in its susceptibility to two or more possible readings or in the possibility of a single figurational meaning, which is the less analyzable as it is the more beautiful? I can’t help thinking, incidentally, that this hunt for the striking catachrestic metaphor in a poet of another time, such as Chaucer or Shakespeare, is a very treacherous game. For both the old poet and his modern reader are at the mercy of time’s trick of canceling the poet’s own hard-won figures and setting up new ones of its own. A word, by the very fact of its having been lost to common usage or by its having undergone a change in meaning, is apt to acquire thereby an unmerited potency. One is aware of skirting the abyss as soon as one begins to repose virtue in the obscure. Once we eliminate the logical approximation, the univocal figure, as unpoetic and uncreative of meaning-is it not then simply an affair of trotting out words and images more or less at random in the hope of arriving at an obscure, hence efficacious, analogy? and the more haphazard the better, since mindfulness, we seem to be saying, is of its very nature self-defeating? Such in fact is the credo of the surrealists: “To compare two objects, as remote from one another in character as possible, or by any other method put them together in a sudden and striking fashion, this remains the highest task to which poetry can aspire.”* There is something to this. If, as so many modern poets appear to do, one simply shuffles words together, words plucked from as diversified contexts as possible, one will get some splendid effects. Words are potent agents and the sparks are bound to fly. But it is a losing game. For there is missing that essential element of the meaning situation, the authority and intention of the Namer. Where the Namer means nothing or does not know what he means or the Hearer does not think he knows what he means, the Hearer can hardly participate in a cointention. Intersubjectivity fails. Once the good faith of the Namer is so much as called into question, the jig is up. There is no celebration or hope of celebration of a thing beheld in common. One is only trafficking in the stored-up energies of words, hard won by meaningful usage. It is a pastime, this rolling out the pretty marbles of word-things to see one catch and reflect the fire of another, a pleasant enough game but one which must eventually go stale. It is the cognitive dimension of metaphor which is usually overlooked, because cognition is apt to be identified with conceptual and discursive knowing. Likeness and difference are canons of discursive thought, but analogy, the mode of poetic knowing, is also cognitive. Failure to recognize the discovering power of analogy can only eventuate in a noncognitive psychologistic theory of metaphor. There is no knowing, there is no Namer and Hearer, there is no world beheld in common; there is only an interior “transaction of contexts” in which psychological processes interact to the reader’s titillation. The peculiar consequences of judging poetic metaphor by discursive categories are especially evident in Professor Richards’s method. Lord Kames had criticized the metaphor “steep’d” in Othello’s speech

Had it pleas’d heaven

To try me with affliction, had he rain’d

All kinds of sores, and shames, on my bare head,

Steep’d me in poverty to the very lips,

by saying that “the resemblance is too faint to be agreeable–Poverty must here be conceived to be a fluid which it resembles not in any manner.” Richards goes further: “It is not a case of lack of resemblances but too much diversity, too much sheer oppositeness. For Poverty, the Tenor, is a state of deprivation, of desiccation; but the vehicle-the sea or vat in which Othello is to be steep’d-gives an instance of superfluity . . . “True, disparity as well as resemblance works in metaphor, but Richards says of this instance of disparity: “I do not myself find any defence of the word except this, which seems indeed quite sufficient-as dramatic necessities commonly are-that Othello is himself horribly disordered, that the utterance is part of the ‘storm of horror and outrage.'” Thus, Professor Richards gives “steep’d” a passing mark, but only because Othello is crazy. He may be right: The figure is extravagant, in a sense “wrong,” yet to me defensible even without a plea of insanity. The only point I wish to make is that there is another cognitive ground on which it can be judged besides that of logical rightness and wrongness, univocal likeness and unlikeness. Judged accordingly, it must always be found wanting-an eighteenth-century critic would have corrected it. But do the alternatives lie between logical sense and nonsense? Or does such a view overlook a third way, the relation of analogy and its cognitive dimension? In the mode of analogy, “steep’d” is not only acceptable, it is striking; “steep’d” may be wrong univocally but right analogically. True, poverty is, logically speaking, a deprivation; but in its figuration it is a veritable something, very much a milieu with a smell and taste all its own, in which one is all too easily steep’d. Poverty is defined as a lack but is conceived as a something. What is univocally unlike in every detail may exhibit a figurative proportionality which is more generative of meaning than the cleverest simile.

*Andre Breton, quoted by Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric.

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