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...

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About the Author

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