Follow that Metaphor

Recently, prompted by the New Republic’s literary critic James Wood, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between poetry-in particular, metaphor-and faith. Wood is unusually attentive to the spiritual workings of metaphor. Reading his collection of literary/theological studies, The Broken Estate (Random House), one notices both how extensive and brilliant is his own use of metaphor, and how haunted he is by the apparent inaccessibility of God. I think these two items-the mystery of God and the compulsions of metaphor-are not unrelated.

If God, by definition, transcends our knowing and yet invites relationship, what human faculty might resolve this dilemma, might bridge the gap between inadequacy and desire? What I have come to understand over four decades of teaching poetry is that the metaphorical “leap” that distinguishes the act of poetry from ordinary discourse has something in common with the volitional “leap” distinguishing the act of faith from mere intellectual assent.

For a writer-critic like Wood, metaphor is something more than an expressive device; it is an evocative vehicle that both gives entry to mystery and admits defeat. In a curious way, a writer’s commitment to metaphor, in its resignation to what metaphor may discover, is akin to the submission of the religious mystic before the mysteries of divinity. The “otherness” of metaphor demands a surrender of autonomy. The writer may appear to be in control, but in fact he is like an explorer plunging into uncharted seas, where the water may become fire and the dolphins, dragons; where the world itself may end beyond the horizon. In an essay titled “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville,” Wood remarks that, for the author of Moby-Dick, “metaphor...becomes the very essence of fiction making, because, when a writer commits himself to the independent life of metaphor, he is acknowledging the fictional reality of an imagined alternative.” This “imagined alternative,” Wood argues, is Melville’s response to “God’s inscrutable silence.”

I once knew a poet who strove mightily (and for reasons I could only guess at) to show that metaphor is mere mind play, that it validates and clarifies nothing ultimate, serves no significant end. Metaphor, for him, might demonstrate mental acuity, but it answered not at all to the hungers and terrors of human experience. His own curious and ingenious poetry was a relentless study of language and its fascinations. But it was a study accompanied by a kind of suppressed rage-an anger that others should find in metaphorical play legitimate confrontations with experience. It was almost as if in studying the too-bright sun, he had restricted himself to its shadows. He limited metaphor, I began to realize, to likenesses-to a rather mechanical linking of parallels that, while apt enough, ultimately verged on cliché.

What he did not accept, I think, is that, for so many devoted to poetry, metaphor is precisely what cannot confidently be reduced to likenesses. The initial leap takes place not in the certitude of intellectual competence, but out of a sense of the inadequacy of thought and language. The bridge of metaphor joins terms not of likeness but of unlikeness. One learns little, for example, by comparing a tiger to a lion; but how many fresh insights may result from comparing the tiger to an angel, or a dripping faucet, or a bottle of aspirin? Attempting to express something of his wonder and admiration for his wife, e.e. cummings exclaimed, “Not even the rain has such small hands.” The metaphor conveys something infinitely feminine, inexpressibly fruitful, and unspeakably erotic. Northrop Frye said that one sign of the truly literary is its capacity to call to mind other literature. Cummings’s lines recall me to Maugham’s short story “Rain,” whose theme of repressed sexuality is musically evoked in the almost incessant drumming of a tropical storm. Its precise meaning may be mercurial, but the validity of the rain metaphor is undeniable.

And what is this “validity”? It is not, as my poet acquaintance thought, the kind of mental satisfaction that comes when we finish the crossword or “win” an argument. The validity of poetry, and of any art, derives from its resonance, at the most elemental and sublime levels of consciousness, with our sense of what is real. It is for this reason that music is considered the first of the arts: wordless and pictureless, it “works” as it reaches us, on a level deeper than the cognitive. It is this resonance that led Emily Dickinson to say famously that she recognized a real poem, not when its argument or even its sympathies pleased her, but when it simply “tore my head off.” It is this quality that leads Seamus Heaney to call the “fully realized poem” a “raid upon the inarticulate.”

We live in a culture notably impatient with what cannot be managed. The culture of the business plan admires quick and tangible results, and does not easily tolerate what cannot produce them. From a pragmatist’s point of view, poetry is almost without utility-an indulgence in fancy, a pretty musical packaging of idea and sentiment. A culture devoted to action and the practical will not value what Jacques Maritain calls an expression of the inexpressible. Nor will it give entry to what Coleridge described as the fundamental and truest shape of things-to experiences accessible primarily through the imagination and conveyed through aesthetic form.

If the pragmatist sets out to solve problems, the poet sets out to enter the mystery of the problematical. Yet the two dispositions need not be diametrically opposed. Ideally, the citizen of practical imagination should likewise be a person of moral imagination; understanding how to get things done shouldn’t preclude understanding what things ought to be done, consonant with our fullest humanity. Economists and other analysts seeking to understand human behavior must reach beyond statistical data, must be responsive to the role of the symbolic in ordinary life, as well as to our need for beauty and for social and political forms that enhance our sense of a shared familial dignity. And, lastly, they must be responsive to the reality of religious mystery in human affairs.

Such insights are conveyed not through sociological manuals or economic analyses, but through the human imagination as expressed in the arts, in philosophical speculation, and in religious practice. In America, our very success at the practical and empirical has left us less sensitive to our own spiritual and imaginative needs. If we are the scientific and organizational leaders of the world family, we are also its cultural adolescents. Plenitude without elegance, glamour without depth, energy without form: adolescence shapes so much of American popular style.

Of course, our writers, philosophers, and artists have been expressing these insights and complaints for a long time-recall Henry James, for instance, playing our American naiveté and idealism against old-world cunning and caution. R. W. B. Lewis observed that, almost alone among nations, America has grown not out of the long, dark gestation of history, but out of an idea: the idea, born of humanistic and scientific revolution, that the liberated individual is the basis for the highest form of human society. And our popular arts follow along, glorifying individualism, self-expression, and immediacy. Think of TV programs like American Idol, where energy of personality trumps all else-where it all but obliterates the reverence for craft that traditionally submits artists to something larger than personal “style,” and locates them in a world larger than private impulse or experience.

At the end of Saul Bellow’s 1956 novel, Seize the Day, fall-guy antihero Tommy Wilhelm-broke and out of work, rejected by his venal father and separated from wife and sons-wanders into a church funeral, where he finds himself bent over the open casket of a total stranger. Bellow presents this concluding scene as a metaphor for the entire novel-a metaphor which, like Job and the whirlwind, arcs out toward a reality beyond our conventional assurances:

He alone of all the people in the chapel, was sobbing. No one knew who he was....The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears. It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.

But what kind of metaphor is this, and how does it work on us as readers looking to address our own hearts’ needs? There is nothing here of that stylized existential resignation that came to mark the Hemingway hero as rather self-consciously “lost.” Nor does the scene offer any of the conventional daily solace that America specializes in-nothing of a Reader’s Digest thumb-nail manual for tragedy. What Bellow proposes, obscure and even surreal as it seems, is some form of submission, of embracing what we must all stumble upon. The action here is strangely resonant with a level of human need beyond reasonable answers and pious clichés. As Shakespeare’s Lear says, observing the fool in tatters and himself bereft of all royal and human prerogatives, “Thou art the thing itself-unaccommodated man.”

Seize the Day’s final scene is a metaphor for what Lear, and all who question their lives, must come to face. Its very elusiveness constitutes a gentle rebuke to American pragmatism-the culminating gesture of a novel whose hero vainly seeks happiness through dubious investment schemes and shady advice gurus. Genially, Bellow satirizes the self-help/self-improvement strand of our culture, directing his protagonist-and us-toward less practical, more mysterious forms of help. If Dear Abby or Norman Vincent Peale seems, in the context of ultimate questions, almost irrelevant, it may be because their commentaries fall short of metaphor; or, to come at it from another angle, because they address problems that fall short of “mystery.” Precisely because metaphor suggests meaning or sensibilities beyond quantification-beyond plain-speaking and common sense-it serves as a tool, however imperfect, with which we can open up the mysterious in human life and destiny.

For a person of Christian faith, the Gospels are a similar tool, teaching more through experience and story than through argument or explanation. The Gospels work by juxtaposition, indirection, comparison, and suggestion: they are, in other words, poetic and metaphoric. When two future apostles, for example, ask Christ whether he or John the Baptist is the promised one, Christ does not allude to prophecies, or to his works and miracles, in order to provide evidence; instead he says, simply, “Come and see.” Implicit in this strategy is the conviction that our acts of moral assent represent the urgings of our total beings-sentient, emotional, imaginative, intuitive, communal, and aesthetic. My favorite theology teacher, Rev. Ed Wagner, may have had something like this in mind when, many years ago, he explained that the act of faith is not primarily an act of the mind but one of the will. Louis Armstrong was on the same track when he said that “jazz is what, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

I know from experience that Satchmo was right, a musician friend having compelled me to sit and listen to his group at a local club until I “got” it. As for Fr. Wagner’s observation, my years of reading and teaching poetry provide an aesthetic confirmation. Poetry, like any of the arts, achieves its effects through form-through the skillful exploitation of the elements of its medium (rhythm, sound play, image, diction, figure, etc.), and thence its appeal to all our sensibilities. In that these elements carry meaning or feeling apart from and beyond explicit predication, they are in a very fundamental sense, metaphorical.

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass observes that the poetic “image,” though less precise than the idea, goes deeper and lasts longer. Where the image goes deeper is not into syllogism or paraphrase, but into those formal structures that some have called “the music of the spheres”-what Plato might have called the living “forms” of things, and Dante, perhaps, “the mind of God.” Having spent my life teaching the forms of poetry and marveling at the mind of God, I am convinced that the approach to ultimate verities through the arts is a metaphorical act analogous to the volitional commitment entailed in the act of faith.

Perhaps it comes down to this: we dance our little human dance, act out our little rebellions (Augustine’s jailed prisoner pretending there are no walls), and in the very agon of our ultimate inadequacy, turn-desperately, angrily, passionately-to that whirlwind which is the voice of God. What we shall have learned we may not be able to say. What we shall have experienced will be enough. What we shall have become is for each of us to find out. The mystery of poetry, and of faith, begins where criticism ends, not in an argument, but an invitation: “Come and see.”

Published in the 2005-11-18 issue: 

John Savant, professor emeritus at Dominican University of California, lives in San Rafael, California.

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