Poetry News

Mastering metaphor a sign of genius?

By Harriet Staff

"To be a master of metaphor," Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, "is the greatest thing by far. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others, and it is also a sign of genius." Well we'll be! However, writes Carlin Romano in The Chronicle Review, "Mastery of the subject of metaphor...is an entirely different matter. Nobody back in ancient Greece, except Aristotle himself, talked much about the concept."

Romano goes on to question metaphor, looking at James Geary's I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. The phrase at the beginning of Geary's title, he writes, "is a literal translation of one of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's most famous lines, better translated by Lydia Davis as 'I am someone else.' No matter. Ignore the title. Think of Geary, even at his glibbest, as the bridge between the burgeoning field of metaphor studies and the man and woman in the street."

He looks at the history of metaphor:

In fact, many modern thinkers and scholars have agreed that all language is at root metaphorical. Rousseau argued that man's “first expressions were tropes''; modern analysts such as Nelson Goodman recognized that metaphor still “permeates all discourse''; and continental theorists like Derrida concurred (“Abstract notions always hide a sensory figure''). Fontanier, the great French theorist of tropes, pointed out that even so abstract an idea as “idea'' grew from the Greek eido, “to see.''

Further undermining those who seek an Archimedean spot from which to analyze metaphor is that even the words “metaphor'' and “figure'' are metaphors. Derrida, in White Mythology, mocks Aristotle's famous full definition: “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.'' Derrida writes that, in the original, every word of the definition is a metaphor. Paul Ricoeur describes the situation in his study, The Rule of Metaphor: “There is no nonmetaphorical standpoint from which one could look upon metaphor.''

More understanding can be found here.

Originally Published: July 12th, 2011