The philosopher Paul Ricoeur concludes his exhaustive (and exhausting) study of metaphor (translated as The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1977), as follows:
What is described here is the very dialectic between the modes of discourse in their proximity and their difference.
On the one hand, poetry, in itself and by itself, sketches a ‘tensional’ conception of truth for thought. Here are summed up all the forms of ‘tensions’ brought to light by semantics: tension between subject and predicate, between literal interpretation and metaphorical interpretation, between identity and difference. Then these are gathered together in the theory of split reference. They come to completion finally in the paradox of the copula [e.g., “is”], where being-as signifies being and non-being. By this turn of expression, poetry, in combination with other modes of discourse, articulates and preserves the experience of belonging that places man in discourse and discourse in being.
Speculative thought, on the other hand, bases its work upon the dynamism of metaphorical utterance, which it construes according to its own sphere of meaning. Speculative discourse can respond in this way only because the distanciation, which constitutes the critical moment, is contemporaneous with the experience of belonging that is opened or recovered by poetic discourse, and because poetic discourse, as text and as work, prefigures the distanciation that speculative thought carries to its highest point of reflection. . . .
What is given to thought in this way by the ‘tensional’ truth of poetry is the most primordial, most hidden dialectic – the dialectic that reigns between the experience of belonging as a whole and the power of distanciation that opens up the space of speculative thought.
I suppose most readers can intuitively grasp what Ricoeur means by “distanciation”: in less precise language, we can see that speculation and analysis presumes a distance between the thinker and the object of his/her thought.
In my notes on this passage, I expanded upon Heidegger’s metaphor for metaphor as a blossoming (which Ricoeur earlier had cited favorably). “The ‘flowers’ of our words – Worte, wie Blumen – utter existence in its blossoming forth.”
Probably neither philosopher was aware that this metaphor for the poetic word has an ancient pedigree in the New World, especially in Uto-Aztecan languages. However, in these mostly oral traditions, the reigning dialectic was between song and narrative, not poetic and speculative thinking. And the sung world was imagined to exist in tension with the no less “real” or sacred world of the stories. The world of songs is the blossoming landscape, an essentially static utopia, whereas the world of stories is glimpsed as a series of unfolding paths, “the inventory of useful landscape items that lie along the way traveled by beings of the creation time, and landforms on which they left their mark,” as anthropologist Jane H. Hill puts it (“The Flower-world of Old Uto-Aztecan,” Journal of Anthropological Research,” vol. 48, 1992, 117-144). Such beings, however, sing their thoughts in an eternal present of dream and vision. As in many ancient traditions, songs make the long ago blossom forth in the present. The explicit association of flower and song is very strong in Nahuatl, Huichol, Yaqui and Piman languages.
I wonder if we can propose the analogy that poetic thinking is to speculative thinking as flower is to fruit or seed. Poetic thinking, Ricoeur suggests, means “seeing things as actions . . . seeing them as naturally blossoming . . . Signifying things in act would be seeing things as not prevented from becoming, seeing them as blossoming forth. But then would not signifying things in act also be signifying potency, in the inclusive sense that stands for every production of motion or of rest?” Deciding in the affirmative, Ricoeur proclaims that “the task of speculative discourse is to seek after the place where appearing means ‘generating what grows.'” Pollination, fertilization, sex: it seems there is no escape from these primordial metaphors for poetic creation, even if the pre-modern analogy between sperm and seed was inaccurate.
Whatever the validity of Heidegger’s claim to have gone beyond Western metaphysics (which Ricoeur strongly disputes), his use of ancient metaphors (light, ground, home, way/path) does seem to license comparisons with non-Western and pre-modern speculative traditions. Here’s Hill again:
Among groups which exhibit the full development of the Flower World complex, the spiritual aspect of anything that has vital force or spiritual importance can be captured by referring to it as a flower or flowery. The Flower World is the realm of heroes in their creative aspect, and the spirit ways along which they travel are “flowery roads.” . . . In Huichol, the Flower World is the Wirikuta of the peyote hunt, the land of ultimate beauty, where the spirits of deer and corn are imminent and which is entered by human beings through a peyote journey. This pilgrimage involves a language of ‘reversals,’ in which the moon becomes the cold sun, dusk becomes dawn, sleep becomes waking, and the sacred peyote is called ‘flower.’
Here we might glimpse what Borges was getting at with his contention that “Life is a dream” transcended mere metaphor. But this also points toward the realm of the sacred clown and of euphemism in general. My final reaction to Ricoeur’s study is to lament his complete neglect of comic inversion and euphemism as a psycholinguistic basis for metaphor. If the vitalistic conception of reality, which Aristotle evoked with the term phusis, no longer seems tenable, we ought at least to be able to draw upon the insights of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. Language and metaphor are the tools of a gathering-hunting species. In the hunt, in the conversion of other into self, we can see “the tension between identity and difference” at its most radical. The ancient covenant between human being and other being requires both inversion and conversion. In the Uto-Aztecan analysis, the mortal wound is seen as a kind of blossoming. The songs sung by hunters to their prospective quarry and by shamans to their spirit familiars are intended, first and foremost, to enchant, to beguile. Metaphor appears first as a disguise, a sacred mask. A systematic poetics should begin with this insight.
Ricoeur does attempt to link “the properly sensual aspect of the image to a semantic theory of the metaphor” in a very interesting section called “Icon and Image.” “Like the icon of the Byzantine cult, the verbal icon consists in this fusion of sense and the sensible. It is also that hard object, similar to a sculpture, that language becomes once it is stripped of its referential function and reduced to its opaque appearance. Lastly, it presents an experience that is completely immanent to it.” This description fits equally well the functioning of a mask or fetish.
Ricoeur concludes his meditation on icon and image with a consideration of “a phenomenolgy of imagination.” He cites Gaston Bachelard’s theory of image, not as “a residue of impression, but an aura surrounding speech.” Imagination can reach beyond metaphor – behind the mask –
because it follows the path of ‘reverberation’ of the poetic image into the depths of existence. The poetic image becomes ‘a source of psychic activity.’ What was ‘a new being in language’ becomes an ‘increment to consciousness’ or better ‘a growth of being.’ Even in ‘psychological poetics,’ even in ‘reveries on reveries,’ psychism continues to be directed by the poetic verb. And so, one must attest: ‘Yes, words really do dream.’ [Quoting from Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie]
For more on aura, icon and image, see The art of living. For more on sacred clowns, see Houston, we have a problem… This post continues an examination of metaphor begun in Learning language, learning poetry and continued in last Friday’s post, Chasing shadows. See also The world of the riddle.