Posts Tagged ‘Metaphor’

Ontological Metaphor

June 20, 2014

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)

Getting Down

January 1, 2014

Unable to sleep in an unfamiliar guest room, I pulled a book down from the library shelf, Why New Orleans Matters by Tom PiazzaI opened it and serendipitously read the following passage where the author cites the noted musicologist Dr. John to restate Proust’s central aesthetic concern. Metaphor is not limited to a rhetorical device; it can be a very physical, time erasing bridge from the present moment to our most intensively lived past, to essence. 

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstep of time itself, where one might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed. (Why New Orleans Matters, page 25).

Metaphors and Images

December 23, 2010

Chernowitz recognizes Proust’s frequent use of paintings in his metaphors.

We must remember that Proust is opposed to merely “describing” objects: it is his “impressions” he wished to convey, since for him an abstract thought is less valuable, less profound than a truth or an image derived from one’s impressions. Is there a better syntactical formula than the simile to express the component parts of an impression, that is, the relation of sensations and memories, or, as Proust defines reality, “un certain rapport entre ces sensations et ces souvenirs qui nous entourent simultanément”? Proust’s search for his impressions and their recapture in literary imagery will therefore proceed by juxtaposing in an analogical relation the sensations of the present with the memories of the past. Thanks to comparison, these elements from different periods of time are harmonized in the sentence almost simultaneously, just like notes in a broken chord.

“…and the life of Odette at all other times, since he knew nothing of it, appeared to him upon a neutral and colorless background, like those sheets of sketches by Watteau upon which one sees, here and there, in every corner and in all directions, traced in three colors and upon the buff paper, innumerable smiles.” (130)

Watteau Sketch of Women’s Faces

Natural Metaphor

June 8, 2010

An academic writer, Lois Marie Jaeck, has given me a new insight into the Proustian metaphor. Here is part of Proust’s famous declaration on metaphor:

An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connexion between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them–a connexion that is suppressed in a simple cinematographic vision, which just because it professes to confine itself to the truth in fact departs widely from it–a unique connexion which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together. (VI,289)

Jaeck comments:

In this key passage, Proust describes metaphor as a duplication or re-presentation of reality. He does not refer to an external reality or one readily perceived by our sense, but to an internal, essential reality that constitutes the inexpressible connection between apparently dissimilar phenomena, which allows us to apprehend intuitively their innate similarity, even though this common factor eludes expression through logic, intelligence, or ordinary language. (17)

 Proust does not declare in a preface that one discovers oneself through metaphor, but he does write a seven-volume book about a man who did just that: he discovers his true self–his vocation to be a writer–at the moment that his three experiences of involuntary memory (classifiable as natural metaphors) led him to an awareness of the metaphorical process. (16)

Metaphor gives rise to a field of signification that originates neither from one word nor the other but from an element common to both, which is beyond discourse and reason, in the realm of the inexpressible. (20)

This capacity of metaphor to provide unmediated understanding is what provokes the intense pleasure the narrator feels when experiencing a “natural metaphor.”

Having discerned precisely why the three ‘intimation’ experiences gave him the same inexplicable happiness (they fed the being in him that could nourish itself only on the essence of things), the narrator  proceeds to investigate other phenomena which produced an effect similar to that engendered by his experiences of involuntary memory. (21)

 And the writer emerges.

Bergotte’s Organ

January 17, 2010

When the narrator gives an aesthetic judgement, its total lack of irony signals that this view is also that of the author. Here Bergotte is redeemed and in a way that may be read as Proust’s apologia for his writing style. At first Bergotte’s speech seems annoyingly mannered.

 I understood then the impression that M. de Norpois had formed of him. He had indeed a peculiar “organ”; there is nothing that so alters the material qualities of the voice as the presence of thought behind what is being said: the resonance of the diphthongs, the energy of the labials are profoundly affected, as is the diction. (II,169)

More than intelligence, Marcel hears in his speech something of the brilliance of his writing.

So it is with all real writers: the beauty of their sentences is as unforeseeable as is that of a woman whom we have never seen; it is creative, because it is applied to an external object which they have thought of–as opposed to thinking about themselves–and to which they have not yet given expression….Moreover the quality, always rare and new, of what he wrote was expressed in his conversation by so subtle a manner of approaching a question, ignoring every aspect of it that was already familiar, that he appeared to be seizing hold of an unimportant detail, to be off the point, to be indulging in paradox, so that his ideas seemed as often as not to be confused, for each of us sees clarity only in those ideas which have the same degree of confusion as his own. Besides, as all novelty depends upon the prior elimination of the stereotyped attitude to which we had grown accustomed, and which seemed to us to be reality itself, any new form of conversation, like all original painting and music, must always appear complicated and exhausting. It is based on figures of speech with which we are not familiar, the speaker appears to us to be talking entirely in metaphors; and this wearies us, and gives us the impression of a want of truth. (II,171)

Another fine characterization of reading Proust.