Ontological Metaphor

Proust gave great importance to metaphor in his novel. The problem is, as Gerald Genette has pointed out, that most of Proust’s so-called metaphors are actually metonymies. In rhetoric, a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects which somehow expands our understanding of the original target object. Whereas a metonymy is a comparison between two objects that share a common space, so that our understanding is expanded by identifying close kinships. The most prominent type of metonymy in Proust is that involving spatial relations. Just consider how the two great themes of bourgeois and aristocratic life are identified as the ways by the Swann and Guermantes estates. Albertine is Balbec, the beach, the ocean. The contiguity can take other forms than purely spatial. The hundreds of painting references are mostly similarities of appearance.

The problem I mention is not so much of the right rhetorical term to use. It’s that metonymy is based on objective criteria of comparison, in the way that words in a dictionary are defined by synonyms. But Proust wants to reveal essence, something not easily done when comparisons reveal only established similarities. Landy admits as much but he often sees a subjective quality that reveals more.

Marcel says it himself: the reason that women find themselves linked, in his mind, to their geographical site, and that many gain their very “prestige” from the connection, is because he imagines that they can deliver the essence of a place. What he seeks in the peasant girls of Roussainville is, as we just saw, “the intimate savour of the country”; what he seeks in Mme de Stermaria is the ile de Bretagne; what he seeks in Gilberte is, among other things, the Tansonville hawthorns; and what he seeks in Albertine is, in good measure, the sea at Balbec. (74)

Beistegui wants to transcend these rhetorical definitions and find a more purely philosophical definition of Proustian metaphor. We saw earlier that he identifies the source of Marcel’s disillusionment in the unavoidable, necessary absence in the present, the real:  “…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack.” And it is this perception of absence, of incompleteness in perceived reality that creates the need for metaphor. Metaphor completes the merely real thing. In just this sense metaphor arises in the nature of being, is ontological.

Proust and then Beistegui:

Almost all the works I could see about me in the studio were, of course, seascapes done recently here in Balbec. But I could see that their charm lay in a kind of metamorphosis of the things depicted, analogous to the poetical device known as metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name. (II, 566)

The key-term here is obviously metamorphosis. It’s the only one likely to lead us to a real understanding of metaphor. In metamorphosis, which is clearly similar to what’s referred to here as “the poetical device known as metaphor,” it’s the things themselves that are changed. It’s the things themselves that are given in the seascapes. And yet, those things only really become themselves by being changed, by undergoing a metamorphosis. They are more themselves, if you like, closer to what they truly are in Elstir’s painting than in the images that we usually have of them – images that are diverted and perverted by the practical and utilitarian nature of our perception, by habit and by the theoretical understanding that we have of the world. It’s a discovery and a paradox. It’s not enough for God to have created the world. For Proust, God’s act of creation is unfinished until it’s resumed and completed by the artist on another level. Why would there be artists, after all, if the created world were perfect? (80)

…metaphor’s rooted in the being of the world and comes out of it. It’s nature itself that shifts like that, that’s swept away in its own transposition, its own excess or overflow. And this, in fact, is where its beauty lies. So far as Proust’s concerned, if we want, like Elstir, to capture the beauty of the sea, we need to avoid fixating on it since, like everything else, it’s essentially not in its place. It’s really not where we’d expect it to be, even though it’s actually there. It is and reveals itself only through the process that characterizes it, to wit its movement of expansion and encroachment, of displacement and deviation, in short, of transposition. (85)

One element is still missing before metaphor becomes art: style.

And while impression’s the only “criterion of truth” for the writer, it’s still not enough: it needs the assistance of the mind in order to “elucidate its truth.” Metaphorical effort or “style” aren’t the simple expression of a brute impression: they are its continuation, its depth and lining. Beginning with an impression, they lead us beyond it. Sympathizing with matter isn’t the same as representing it. But it’s also not clinging to it in some sort of immediate and pre-linguistic presence. Rather, it means transposing and translating it (“the writer’s task and duty are those of a translator”), not into a radically different language or another reality altogether – thinking along these lines simply reinstates the idea of a world in itself and a world of phenomena, a supersensible world and a sensible world – but into this implicit or tacit language that’s the language of the world itself. Ultimately, the impression is “for the writer what an experiment is for the scientist, except that for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes it, and for the writer it comes afterwards.” (88)

Finally, there is the question of the permanence of metaphor, its persistence in time.

This way of seeing things is the artist’s way, a way of seeing that brings “two different terms together permanently.” Such is, it seems to me, precisely the work of style and of metaphor in particular. And metaphor’s at its peak when it schematizes involuntary memory as the supplement to the lack that the present itself is. When it turns time into the very object of its figure, it becomes the very symbol of literature and art in general: (91)

One can list indefinitely in a description all the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, the analogue in the world of art of the unique relation created in the world of science by the laws of causality, and encloses them within the necessary armature of a beautiful style. Indeed, just as in life, it begins at the moment when, by bringing together a quality shared by two sensations, he draws out their common essence by uniting them with each other, in order to protect them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor. (VI, 289)


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