Metaphorically Literal

Quadriga Ages ago — the last time I blogged a two-paragraph hermeneutics post — I opened the case that the familiar distinction between literal and figurative (and its relatives “metaphorical” and especially “symbolic”) should be abandoned. Of course, the terms do very well for casual and heuristic purposes. I’m not in the least suggesting that we can’t say “No, I meant a literal brick wall” or “Donne’s use of metaphor sets him apart from his contemporaries.” The heuristic usefulness of the terms, however, does not warrant reifying the distinction nor extending it from a useful tool to a pair of ontological categories.

Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works. Where “literal” expressions rely on utterly familiar, unambiguously conventional usage, “metaphorical” language slides the usage from “quite predictable” further toward “unusual” (that could be as slight a difference as using a less common “literal” word or phrase) to “rather unconventional” (a word or phrase for which established patterns of usage haven’t worn a clear enough path to warrant calling the usage “literal” at all) to perplexing (“Is that a metaphor, or is she just talking nonsense?”). [I have two digressions to mark here, before I resume my second paragraph. First, yes, this is straight out of Nietzsche and Derrida, among others. As I said the other day, I’m not claiming to have invented this. Second, the relation between “metaphorical” and “nonsensical” warrants my exploring, too. Just not here.] In other words, metaphor isn’t an abuse of language, or a woo-woo special use of language: it’s a gamble on the part of the offerer (composer, artist, writer, speaker, whatever) that some portion of those who receive the expression will twig to the oblique association that the offerer envisions between the metaphorical phrase and what would be its ordinary, everyday, who-he-is-when-he’s-at-home “literal” usage. Sometimes those gambles don’t work out. Sometimes the oblique offering generates a rich field that includes unanticipated. But in the hands of a capable communicator, the choice of a less-than-obvious offering (be it linguistic or musical or a piquant combination of flavours) actually communicates very effectively indeed.


3 thoughts on “Metaphorically Literal

  1. Fair enough. Not sure, but I suspect you will have to at some point step back from something you seem to accept as given here – the possibility of a clear, distinguishable language of everyday parlance that is, if not either literal or figurative, at least serviceable. Nietzsche would undo that in his positing that figurative language precedes any worn out literalisms. One could see much of his later work as playing out the epistemological/philological ramifications of that.

  2. On the contrary, Tom, part of my argument entails there being no [intrinsically] “clear, distinguishable” usages. And my argument with Maestro Nietzsche is not with any blurred lines between the literal and the figurative, but in an investment one might make in priority. I don’t think there’s a prior “figurative” (and that doesn’t really yet apply if there’s no “literal” to serve as its antithetical alternative) usage, but always simply people trying out expressions on people with a view to eliciting responses. Sometimes those gestures fall into predictable, conventional patterns; other times, it’s harder to puzzle out why one would combine words (or images or sounds) in that particular way.

  3. Trying out expressions, finding striking metaphors is all part of figural play. But rhetoricians reserved another term for instances where language appears to be stretched to the breaking point – or to the point where no word existed, a word is “forced” into service – i.e., catachresis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *