Saturday, January 27, 2007

Metaphor is Mystery.

This story is for that dame ...

It was a rainy Saturday night when the whole thing started. I made it home on the A-train just before midnight, pulled up the collar of my trenchcoat, tossed my cigarette away, then tucked the newspaper under my arm as I headed up to my apartment on the ancient elevator, complete with peeling wallpaper, in my pre-war building. When I got to my door, I noticed a bald little guy standing there, looking kind of nervous.

My name is Marlowe, Felipe Marlowe. I am a gumshoe, a private eye, an investigator of philosophies, theories, ideas and systems of ideas. When you run into a little problem with your "Critical Theory," I'm the guy you call. When somebody takes off with your "Postmodernist Discourse," you give me a buzz. I take care of things and keep everything quiet for you.

"You looking for me?"

"Are you Mr. Marlowe?"


I turned the key in the ancient lock, opened the door and invited the guy in. He was a little shaky, but he had a hundred bucks written on him. And I needed new shoes. He wore thick glasses, a cheap suit from Sears, an anxious, worried expression and a twittering jitteriness that told me he was in trouble.

I've seen a lot of guys like him. It's always the same story. He was doing fine in "bookeeping and accounts receivable," going to mass every Sunday, paying his taxes -- until some dame walked into his life and gave him a book by Judith Butler or Michel Foucault, maybe something by Richard Dawkins or Dan Dennett.

Some poor guys have to accept that Niezsche, Marx and Freud have made religious belief more difficult, not impossible. For some reason, they just can't do it. They crumble. They can't take the "Masters of Suspicion." I can. I can dish it out, too.

I live uptown because I like the blue collar feel of the neighborhood. It's mostly old Irish and Italian families, ex-cops, firemen, retired schoolteachers, Latinos and African-Americans are moving in, kids looking for cheap apartments in the city. My father was a serviceman; my mother worked as a nurse near the base where he was stationed. I've always lived between cultures, meanings, settings. I may look Anglo on the outside, but I've got Latino on the inside. I'm a mongrel, like my city.

I sound like the places I've visited -- Los Angeles, Florida, Jersey and Manhattan, even Paris and Rome, Havana on misty hot mornings. It's all in my voice and mood. I'm the perfect guy for this business of searching for the gaps and ambiguities in theoretical schemes. Finally, he began to tell his story.

"My name is I.A. Richards." He coughed.

"I'm looking for someone. ... Um, her name is Marilyn. She's an English teacher. They call her 'Marilyn Metaphor' because she specializes in linguistic and cultural theory. She lectures on 'tropes' and 'catachresis.' She does this incredible number in a black evening gown with long gloves, singing in a husky voice two nights a week at Barnard, moonlighting at Princeton sometimes."

"Yeah, I bet her class is filled with eager students." I'd heard it all before.

"It sure is Mr. Marlowe. I have to warn you, Marilyn is very elusive. Philosophers and literary critics -- even scientists -- have tried to find her and no one has succeeded in capturing her mystery."

"I'm not surprised. They're all like you. I'm not so easily impressed, Richards. I've seen a few linguistic devices in my time."

"That's why I came to see you, Mr. Marlowe. I am not satisfied with all the recent scientific efforts to find Marilyn. They seem to missing something important about who she is. Scientists can't seem to get any closer, not making much progress in unravelling her mystery." His hands were shaking. The man could not sit still. I gave him a strong drink -- a tall glass of Dr. Pepper with a twist of lemon.

"Relax, Richards. I'll find her." My guess is that this is dangerous work. She's probably in some kind of trouble. Most contemporary theory and theorists are in trouble. That's why they need me. I sat on my old arm chair, next to my most massive bookshelf, which always impresses customers. I have a large portrait of Paul Ricoeur over the fireplace. I explain that he was my captain when I was on the force.

"It's going to cost you five hundred, plus expenses."

"O.K.," He said. Great. Macy's, here I come.

Richards explained that he's already tried a scientific outfit, but they made a mess of things -- as usual in such matters. I figure that's a good place to start. I'll talk to the boys and girls in lab coats in the morning. I showed the guy out and counted the dough. It's all there. I turned on my radio to some cool jazz, jumped into bed in my undershirt and boxer shorts, still wearing my hat. Some things a guy in my line of work is careful about. I kept my gun strap on and pulled down Ricoeur's 1977 book, The Rule of Metaphor.

"What does science say?"

Next morning I had a nutritious breakfast of cereal and cigarettes, then headed downtown for a chat with a scientist. The egg head's name is Jaron Lanier and he writes for a rag called, Discovery. There was something fishy about him from the start:

"Fortunately, there are ways to get closer and closer to this impossible topic, even if we cannot ask about the experience of meaning."

I don't buy it, Lanier. "Meaning" is not an empirical object. You admit it's an "experience." So how will you measure or weigh it? "Where" is it for you to grab hold of? Metaphor is close to this idea of meaning that we all want. Metaphor is "the stuff that dreams are made of." Metaphor is a seductress. You can't really find her without entering her world, succumbing to her charms and falling for her in a way. Like it or not, you end up playing the sap for her. That goes for Lakoff and Johnson too. Lanier spoke of another scientist named Rama who ...

"... has been interested in how the cross-modal areas of the brain may give rise to a core element of language and meaning: the metaphor."

"Give rise"? Isn't this resorting to metaphor to describe metaphor? See what I mean? Once she's entered a room in one of those slinky dresses, off the shoulders, clinging to those amazing curves, with her hair falling over her eyes -- like Veronica Lake in "The Glass Key" -- you're in trouble. I think she's got me already.

"His canonical example is encapsulated in an experiment known as bouba/kiki. Rama presents test subjects with two words, which are pronounceable but meaningless in most languages: bouba and kiki. Then he shows the subjects two images, one a spiky, hystricine shape and the other a rounded cloud form. Match the words and the images! Of course the spiky shape goes with kiki and the cloud matches bouba. This correlation is cross-cultural and appears to be a general truth for all humankind."

"... Such abstractions seem to be linked to the mental phenomenon of metaphor. For instance, Rama finds that patients who have lesions in the interior parietal lobule have difficulty both with the bouba/kiki task and with interpreting proverbs or stories that have nonliteral meanings."

Lanier, never told me how he defined "meaning" or "metaphor." He never distinguished between the biological preconditions for language use (a working brain, heart, lungs and kidneys for that matter) and the nature and logic of language itself. This "link" -- where is it?

How can a linguistic device -- which is not empirically locatable, even if sections of the brain that have something to do with language use can be identified -- be scrutinized under a microscope or measured? How is something nonmaterial, "metaphor" or "meaning," connected to sections of the brain? Whose brain? Languages are constantly evolving over centuries and are multidimensional, so what part of the test subjects' brains "produce" languages? Isn't it better to speak of languages and metaphors "producing" people? I think so.

Universality of language and its figurative faculty is something humanists have noted for some time. This research only confirms some of Chomsky's theoretical claims concerning the universal and a priori linguistic capacity of humans and language's true social nature.

Also, Lanier focuses on sections of the brains of individual language-users, failing to appreciate the most important aspect of this research by Rama. The social nature of metaphorical devices and their collective or world-altering power. The essence of metaphor is not individual or instrumental, but has something to do with revealing and creating shared realities, that is, collective linguistic meanings. The associations are unlikely ever to be explicable -- as the boys and girls in white coats would like -- in strictly instrumental terms:

"Rama suggests that cross-modal abstraction -- the ability to make consistent connections across senses -- may have initially evolved in lower primates as a better way to grasp branches."

Wrong. The crucial association in metaphor is not between things that exist empirically that we seek to manipulate, practically, but between something that is not -- a falsehood -- so as to illuminate something that is, an object or person, an entity or experience. In other words, metaphors are lies that show us the truth about someone or something. The comparison is always between things that are not alike, in any literal sense, which somehow illuminate one another. This sounds like a definition of art. Movies? Religion?

Many writers have noticed similarities between artists, intellectuals and criminals who are all "outsiders" in most contemporary societies. We need such people to know ourselves as normal. If we can't find them, then we'll create them -- abnormals, outsiders, weirdos, "detainees" -- like detectives who create criminals. The same criminals make us detectives. Maybe America needs "terrorists" to rationalize its national security state.

To use Lanier's example, "Juliet is like the sun" is spoken by Romeo at night, during the balcony scene, to contrast Juliet with the moon. Better yet, Shakespeare writes in the Sonnets that the eyes of his "mistress" are "nothing like the sun" -- in reaction to a literary tradition or set of extravagant descriptions of lovers within well-established and understood poetic conventions, conventions which cannot be removed from this inherited "discourse" by isolating an atomic proposition and placing it under a microscope. In the same way, you may comment on a genre by exploding it for philosophical purposes -- like the detective story for example.

Shakespeare is saying the woman he loves is nothing like what is traditionally deemed beautiful or good and desirable in this literary jargon that he inherits, and yet she is all of those things for him. He'll demonstrate her worth by draping this language on her -- like a silk dress and pearl earrings -- to be worn by her forever in Shakespeare's flower-fragant prose.

Metaphors? Similes? Maybe this whole adventure is an allegory. Lanier suggests that metaphor is about having a small number of words perform multiple tasks. The idea is that by the use of metaphors language grows and new words and meanings are brought to life through performing in unexpected relationships that are imagined and invented simultaneously. Kant and Hegel were way ahead of us, as usual, according to my friend and fellow detective, John McGowan:

" ... 'We are aware that everything finite [the word] instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that Dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than what it is, is forced beyond its immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite.' ... Such sudden turns occur when the existing confrontation of the subject with its negation is aufgehoben (often translated as 'overcome') by the positing of a new subject that better expresses the unity of the previously confrontational pair."

This failure of imagination -- and of explanatory power -- among scientists investigating imaginative uses of language comes from an excessive focus on the literal or pointing aspects of metaphor, its "objectivity," combined with the inability to "see" metaphor's "subjective" figurative or conjuring ability. Metaphor is witchcraft and magic that is designed to help us see some "thing" or person "as" or "become" something new, something totally different. Perhaps there was a time when "science was a woman" (as Nietzsche might say) and close to magic -- that is, to metaphor:

"For science was founded originally on metaphor," Norman Mailer says, "and the twentieth century has shipped metaphor to the ghetto of poets. Consider: science began with the poetic impulse to treat metaphor as equal to equation; the search began at that point where a poet looked for a means (which only later became an experiment) to measure the accuracy of his metaphor. The natural assumption was that his discovery had been contained in the metaphor, since good metaphor could only originate in the deepest experience of man; so science still remained attached to poetic vision, and scientific insight derived from culture -- it was not the original desire of science to convert nature, rather to reveal it. Faust was still unborn when Aristotle undertook his pioneer observations."

"Paradigm" shifts? God particles? Superstrings? "Evolution?" All are metaphors.

Marilyn had a string of broken hearts to her credit: From Aristotle to Donald Davidson, Ricoeur to Mailer -- now Richards and me. She is beyond all of us, of course. Nevertheless, we all will continue to pursue her enigmatic essence.

"There is a danger in metaphor, however; the danger which is present in poetry: contradictory meanings collect too easily about the core of meaning; unconnected meanings connect themselves. So science sought a methodology through experiment which would be severe, precise, and able to measure the verity of the insight in the metaphor. Experiment was conceived to protect the scientific artist from ambiguity."

You cannot love wisdom -- or knowledge -- without accepting danger, just as you cannot love a woman without accepting a risk of pain or even destruction. To love her you must learn to live with her unique mystery, accepting the perils that accompany her into your life. Ambiguity cannot be eliminated from human knowledge which remains knowledge of truth.

Metaphor always involves a danger of miscommunication and misreading. Metaphor's power depends on the receptive and imaginative capacity of those involved in creating and communicating metaphors. Genius in art or science, philosophy or poetry requires a willingness to risk danger, even self-destruction. Aristotle said that "mastery of the metaphor is the sign of genius."

Marilyn won't let you off the hook easily once she knows you love her -- and she always lives between subjectivity and objectivity, as both. Science's many attempts to ignore the subjective side of her, in order to be clear about the objective phenomenon, won't work.

Marilyn's spraying on a little more of that expensive French perfume, right now, kicking off her shoes, slipping into something more comfortable and curling up on the couch waiting for her devoted poets, her knights errant, artists, humanists, philosophers, even a few scientists ... and one beat up philosophical detective. A woman is a "yes" that turns into "no," then "yes," and suddenly "no" again -- only to become "yes" once more. Woman is the source of metaphor. Naturally, this foregoing statement is metaphorical.

"Ambiguity demands double communication to achieve a single purpose. It demands we be ready for a particular course of action and yet for its exact opposite. So it demands double readiness or double function for a single use."

I was stumped. So I called Paul Ricoeur at the preccint and asked for some help.

Paul Ricoeur on Metaphor, Freedom, Interpretation and Hermeneutics.

We met a couple of nights later at a joint downtown. Paul is gray-haired, bespectacled, wise and learned, kind and generous with his counsel. He wore a rumpled gray suit, a white shirt with button-down collar and a good French tie. We chat over dinner and coffee.

Paul did some leg work for me, called Aristotle and Kant, Hegel and Bergson, also Monroe Beardsley and Max Black. "Forget about the so-called 'semantic clash,' " he said, "the juxtaposition of two meanings (the literal and figurative) and concentrate on the 'solution to the enigma that metaphor both creates and is.' " He whispered: "Metaphor is valuable because 'she' forces the listener or reader to interpret freely."

I began to understand that this work of interpretation -- call it "hermeneutics" -- is part of the human metaphoric process. Paul spelled it out for me:

"As a process, [hermeneutics] involves the linking of the word to the context of the whole sentence in which it is located, but also in the cultural context of the discourse in which the sentence is located. This is what it means to be alive -- to be an interpreting being -- and so it is the metaphorical dimension of language that is most alive in language. Metaphor is the part of language that invites -- even requires -- us to do hermeneutics."

I was reminded of Roger Scruton's clue about metaphor ... that metaphor always reveals a "double intentionality," a literal meaning which is false and a deeper, figurative or subtle and subjective meaning that is true. Metaphor is the truth seen "in" a statement comparing unsimilar things that allows us to see something or someone "as," that is, in a surprising or new way.

Metaphors only perform this trick when they are fresh, not when they become stale or lifeless. This lifelessness is not the result of age alone, since Shakespeare's great metaphors still work. It has to do with the thinness of the metaphor as opposed to its original full-roundedness and richness. Marilyn's mystery is inexhaustible. Walker Percy met Marilyn. Paul and I spoke to him, briefly, and Percy said:

"There must be a space between name and thing, for otherwise the private apprehension is straightened and oppressed. What is required is that the thing is 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 [and philosopher] 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."

"Juliet is like the sun." Maybe. "Marilyn is like the stars." Definitely.

Finally, we had an address and telephone number. We tracked Marilyn to a Park Avenue apartment she shared with her sister, a stunning brunnette named "Isabel Allegory." Paul went for the brunnette. He called her "Bouba." I went for the blonde. I called her "Kiki."

"Arriving at metaphorical truth," Paul explained, as he sat down with Isabel. Marilyn smiled and sat on my lap -- "is not a question of judgment on the reader's part. If it were, we would either have to choose between Achilles being a lion or his not being a lion."

The boys in the County Prosecutor's office are always screaming that "it's got to be one thing or the other!" Not really. Not when it comes to blondes and brunettes -- or life's other great enigmas.

"We also cannot accept a contradiction (Achilles both is and is not a lion), which would be silly. Rather, arriving at metaphorical truth is a question of ... readers suspending or bracketing off, their judgment concerning the literal truth of the proposition. Understanding metaphor is a phenomenology of reading."

This phenomenology of reading or "hermeneutics of freedom" applies when reading people, works of art, philosophies, legal systems, religious symbols, in all encounters with human mysteries -- mysteries that are as dual and variable, paradoxical and elusive -- as a woman's subtlest smile or any artistic masterpiece.

What does it mean when a woman runs her fingers through her hair? Everything. Nothing. What do you (or she) want it to mean?

"Metaphor is more than a special effect within language," Professor Karl Sims says in explaining Ricoeur's view, "it is the very essence of language. Even a philosophy of metaphor is itself inescapably metaphorical, so that metaphor cannot be adequately defined outside its own system. Metaphor thus runs out of control through language and through philosophy, the whole of philosophical discourse being an edifice built entirely upon itself without grounding in reality [What kind of reality?] and sustaining itself by an active forgetting of this fact."

Isn't this "forgetting" what we all do anyway? In the legal world, especially, if people stop to consider the fictional and metaphorical nature of so much statutory language and case law, they'd be paralyzed. William Kennedy said that people he encountered suffering from alcoholism and homelessness had one thing in common: "they could not forgive themselves." They chose not to remember, opting for escape, numbness, the oblivion of forgetfulness through a surrender of the metaphorical power to a dull literalness. But to remember is a present act of construction. It is art. It is narration -- narration is not possible without metaphor. To be realistic ... we must dream. Hence, it may be that religious and aesthetic narratives, like movies, are our most realistic accounts of the meanings of human life.

I have only one answer to the question "Who are you?" -- "Let me tell you a story."

Biographical truth or personal meaning is always the achievement of art in the human realm, since it is inseparable from meaning. Truth is a hermeneutic exercise. We need Marilyn to know ourselves -- that's why she's got us.

"I never wanted to say goodbye."

I knew then that I could not live without Marilyn. None of us can. I called Richards and explained the situation, sent back his five hundred bucks and packed a bag. Paul and Isabel skipped town on the midnight flight to Paris. I ran all the way back to the apartment on Park Avenue only to find a note, written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror -- "You'll be seeing me very soon. I promise. Soon. Always."

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