Friday, May 13, 2016

A thought about metaphors

All fictions, all fictional worlds, are to some degree extended metaphors. Recently, I've had reason to wonder how metaphors work, and that kind of work they do. We all sense that through the process of reading we not only gain an experience but discover, or recover, something. But what kind of meaning or knowledge is this, and how does the metaphor generate this response?

For a long time I was much taken with a remark by Umberto Eco: “What… is known is what a language has already said, and it is possible to recognize a metaphor that demands unprecedented operations, and the identification of semes not yet identified” (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 122), which suggest to me that the telling metaphor can produce a realization or sense of ideas not already known. Eco’s discussion is dense with pseudo-mathematic notation, but the idea that a metaphor that is not closed can prompt the identification of a new meaning is a powerful one.

More recently, I came across this remark by David Gelernter in his essay “Machines that Will Think and Feel” that metaphors and the experiences they encapsulate are indexed, arrayed in memory, by emotion:
The poet Rilke compares the flight of a small bird across the evening sky to a crack in a smooth porcelain cup. How did he come up with that? Possibly by using the fact that these very different things made him feel the same way.
Emotion is a hugely powerful and personal encoding-and-summarizing function. It can comprehend a whole complex scene in one subtle feeling. Using that feeling as an index value, we can search out—among huge collections of candidates—the odd memory with a deep resemblance to the thing we have in mind. 
A striking or difficult metaphor generates an complex emotion that in turn points to another related thought curated by the same subtle emotion. In other words, it is how we feel about a metaphor that brings other metaphors, other possibilities of meaning to mind.

Are these two notions aligned? The best metaphor draws us both beyond ourself and within ourself to find a connection between things we could not previously describe. This connection is an authentic discovery, forged through memory and imagination; it extends beyond what has already been said, the given properties of the language, to see things differently, to say what we can't yet say, to connect and enrich our inner and outer worlds.