Walker Percy Wednesday 161


We are aware that the effect is achieved by applying the notions of water and scars to lightning, the most unwaterlike or unscarlike thing imaginable. But are these metaphors merely pleasing or shocking or do they discover?—discover an aspect of the thing which had gone unformulated before?

Clouds are called variously bars, rafters, prisms, mealy, scarves, curds, rocky, a river (of dull white cloud), rags, veils, tatters, bosses. The sea is

paved with wind . . . bushes of foam

Chips of foam blew off and gadded about without weight in the air.

Straps of glassy spray.

In these metaphors both the likeness and unlikeness are striking and easily discernible. One has the impression, moreover, that their discovering power has something to do with their unlikeness, the considerable space between tenor and vehicle. Hard things like rocks, bosses, chips, glass, are notably unlike clouds and water; yet one reads

Chips of foam blew off and gadded about

with a sure sense of validation.

If we deviate in either direction, toward a more univocal or accustomed likeness or toward a more mysterious unlikeness, we feel at once the effect of what Richards calls the tension of the bow, both the slackening and tightening of it. When one reads fleecy cloud$ or woolly clouds, the effect is slack indeed. Vehicle and tenor are totally interarticulated: clouds are ordinarily conceived as being fleecy; fleecy is what clouds are (just as checkered is what a career is). You have told me nothing. Fleecy cloud, leg of a table, are tautologies, a regurgitation of something long since digested. But

A straight river of dull white cloud

is lively. One feels both knowledgeable and pleased. But

A white shire of cloud

is both more interesting and more obscure. The string of the bow is definitely tightened. The mind is off on its favorite project, a casting about for analogies and connections. Trusting in the good faith of the Namer, I begin to wonder if he means thus and so-this particular sort of cloud. The only “shire” I know is a geographical area and what I more or less visualize is a towering cumulus of an irregular shire-shape .

Two levels of analogy-making can be distinguished here. There is the level of metaphor proper, the saying about one thing that it is something else: one casts about to see how a cloud can be a shire, and in hitting on an analogy, one validates an inscape of cloud. But there is the more primitive level of naming, of applying a sound to a thing, and of the certification of some sounds as being analogous to the thing without being like it (as in the mysterious analogy between plu and flowing, sta and standing). Thus shire may be applicable to a certain kind of cloud purely as a sound and without a symbolized meaning of its own. For as it happens, concrete nouns beginning with sh often refer to objects belonging to a class of segmented or sectioned or roughly oblong flattened objects, a “geographical” class: shape, sheath, shard, sheet, shelf, shield, shire, shoal, shovel, shroud, etc. One speculates that the vocable sh-is susceptible of this particular spatial configuration. (I easily imagine that the sound sh has a flatness or parallelness about it. ) This relation is very close to the psychological phenomenon of synesthesia, the transsensory analogy in which certain sounds, for example, are characteristically related to certain sounds-blue to color blue (could blue ever be called yellow?).

To summarize: The examples given of an accidental blundering into authentic poetic experience both in folk mistakes and in mistaken readings of poetry are explored for what light they may shed on the function of metaphor in man’s fundamental symbolic orientation in the world. This “wrongness” of metaphor is seen to be not a vagary of poets but a special case of that mysterious “error” which is the very condition of our knowing anything at all. This “error,” the act of symbolization, is itself the instrument of knowing and is an error only if we do not appreciate its intentional character. If we do not take note of it, or if we try to exorcise it as a primitive residue, we shall find ourselves on the horns of the same dilemma which has plagued philosophers since the eighteenth century. The semanticists, on the one horn, imply that we know as the angels know, directly and without mediation (although saying in the next breath that we have no true knowledge of reality); all that remains is to name what we know and this we do by a semantic “rule”; but they do not and cannot say how we know. The behaviorists, on the other, imply that we do not know at all but only respond and that even art is a mode of sign-response; but they do not say how they know this. But we do know, not as the angels know and not as dogs know but as men, who must know one thing through the mirror of another.

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