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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

IN MISSISSIPPI, COIN RECORD players, which are manufactured by Seeburg, are commonly known to Negroes as seabirds.

During the Korean War, one way of saying that someone had been killed was to say that he had bought the farm.

I remember hunting as a boy in south Alabama with my father and brother and a Negro guide. At the edge of some woods we saw a wonderful bird. He flew as swift and straight as an arrow, then all of a sudden folded his wings and dropped like a stone into the woods. I asked what the bird was. The guide said it was a blue-dollar hawk. Later my father told me the Negroes had got it wrong: It was really a blue darter hawk. I can still remember my disappointment at the correction. What was so impressive about the bird was its dazzling speed and the effect of alternation of its wings, as if it were flying by a kind of oaring motion.

As a small boy of six or seven walking the streets of Cambridge I used often to pass little dead-end streets, each with its signpost which at its top read, say, Trowbridge Place or Irving Terrace, and underneath in letters of a different color and on a separate board, the following mysterious legend: Private Way Dangerous Passing. The legend meant of course merely that the City of Cambridge, since it neither built nor maintained the roadbed of this place or this terrace, would not be responsible for injury to life or property sustained through its use. But to me it meant something else. It meant that there was in passing across its mouth a clear and present danger which might, and especially at dusk, suddenly leap out and overcome me. Thus, to say the least of it, I had the regular experience of that heightened, that excited sense of being which we find in poetry, whenever I passed one of those signs.

Misreadings of poetry, as every reader must have found, often give examples of this plausibility of the opposite term. I had at one time a great admiration for that line of Rupert Brooke’s about

The keen

Impassioned beauty of a great machine,

a daring but successful image, it seemed to me, for that contrast between the appearance of effort and the appearance of certainty, between forces greater than human and control divine in its foreknowledge, which is what excites one about engines; they have the calm of beauty without its complacence, the strength of passion without its disorder. So it was a shock to me when I looked at one of the quotations of the line one is always seeing about, and found that the beauty was unpassioned, because machines, as all good nature poets know, have no hearts. I still think that a prosaic and intellectually shoddy adjective, but it is no doubt more intelligible than my emendation, and sketches the same group of feelings.

Four of the five examples given above are mistakes: misnamings, misunderstandings, or misrememberings. But they are mistakes which, in each case, have resulted in an authentic poetic experience — what Blackmur calls “that heightened, that excited sense of being”—an experience, moreover, which was notably absent before the mistake was made. I have included the fifth, the Korean War expression “He bought the farm,” not because it is a mistake but because I had made a mistake in including it. The expression had struck me as a most mysterious one, peculiarly potent in its laconic treatment of death as a business transaction. But then a kind Korean veteran told me that it may be laconic all right, but he didn’t see anything mysterious about it: The farm the G.I. was talking about was six feet of ground. This is probably obvious enough, but I have preserved this example of my own density as instructive in what follows.

It might be useful to look into the workings of these accidental stumblings into poetic meaning, because they exhibit in a striking fashion that particular feature of metaphor which has most troubled philosophers: that it is “wrong”—it asserts of one thing that it is something else — and further, that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness. Not that the single linguistic metaphor represents the highest moment of the poetic imagination; it probably does not. Dante, as Allen Tate reminds us, uses very few linguistic metaphors. The “greatest thing by far” which Aristotle had in mind when he spoke of the mastery of the metaphor as a sign of genius may very well have been the sort of prolonged analogy which Dante did use, in which the action takes place among the common things of concrete experience and yet yields an analogy — by nothing so crude as an allegorization wherein one thing is designated as standing for another but by the very density and thingness of the action. As Tate puts it: “Nature offers the symbolic poet clearly denotable objects in depth and in the round, which yield the analogies to the higher syntheses.” Yet the fact remains that the linguistic metaphor is, for better or worse, more peculiarly accessible to the modern mind — it may indeed be a distinctive expression of modern sensibility. And it has the added advantage from my point of view of offering a concentrated field for investigation — here something very big happens in a very small place.

Metaphor has scandalized philosophers, including both scholastics and semioticists, because it seems to be wrong: It asserts an identity between two different things. And it is wrongest when it is most beautiful. It is those very figures of Shakespeare which eighteenth-century critics undertook to “correct” because they had so obviously gotten off the track logically and were sometimes even contradictory — it is just those figures which we now treasure most.

This element of outlandishness has resulted in philosophers washing their hands of beauty and literary men being glad that they have, in other words, in a divorce of beauty and ontology, with unhappy consequences to both. The difficulty has been that inquiries into the nature of metaphor have tended to be either literary or philosophical with neither side having much use for the other. The subject is divided into its formal and material aspects, with philosophers trying to arrive at the nature of metaphor by abstracting from all metaphors, beautiful and commonplace, and with critics paying attention to the particular devices by which a poet brings off his effects. Beauty, the importance attached to beauty, marks the parting of the ways. The philosopher attends to the formal structure of metaphor, asking such general questions as, What is the relation between metaphor and myth? Is metaphor an analogy of proper or improper proportionality? and in considering his thesis is notably insensitive to its beauties. In fact, the examples he chooses to dissect are almost invariably models of tastelessness, such as smiling meadow, leg of a table, John is a fox. One can’t help wondering, incidentally, if Aristotle’s famous examples of “a cup as the shield of Ares” and “a cup as the shield of Dionysius” didn’t sound like typical philosophers’ metaphors to contemporary poets. Literary men, on the other hand, once having caught sight of the beauty of metaphor, once having experienced what Barfield called “that old authentic thrill which binds a man to his library for life,” are constrained to deal with beauty alone, with the particular devices which evoke the beautiful, and let the rest go. If the theorist is insensitive to the beauty of metaphor, the critic is insensitive to its ontology. To the question, why is this beautiful? the latter will usually give a material answer, pointing to this or that effect which the poet has made use of. He is unsympathetic — and understandably so — to attempts to get hold of art by some larger schema, such as a philosophy of being — feeling in his bones that when the cold hand of theory reaches for beauty, it will succeed in grabbing everything except the beautiful.

Being neither critic nor philosopher, I feel free to venture into the no-man’s-land between the two and to deal with those very metaphors which scandalize the philosopher because they are “wrong” and scandalize the critic because they are accidental. Philosophers don’t think much of metaphor to begin with and critics can hardly have much use for folk metaphors, those cases where one stumbles into beauty without deserving it or working for it. Is it possible to get a line on metaphor, to figure out by a kind of lay empiricism what is going on in those poetic metaphors and folk metaphors where the wrongness most patently coincides with the beauty?

When the Mississippi Negro calls the Seeburg record player a seabird, it is not enough to say that he is making a mistake. It is also not enough to say that he is making a colorful and poetic contribution to language. It is less than useless to say that in calling a machine a bird he is regressing into totemism, etc. And it is not even accurate to say that he knows what the thing is and then gives it a picturesque if farfetched name. In some fashion or other, he conceives the machine under the symbol seabird, a fashion, moreover, in regard to which we must be very wary in applying the words right or wrong, poetic or discursive, etc. Certainly the machine is not a seabird and no one imagines that it is, whatever the semanticists may say. Yet we may make a long cast and guess that in conceiving it as a seabird, the namer conceives it with richer overtones of meaning and, in some sense neither literal nor figurative, even as being more truly what it is than under its barbarous title Seeburg automatic coin record player. There is a danger at this point in my being misunderstood as trying to strike a blow for the poetic against the technical, feeling against science, and on the usual aesthetic grounds. But my intention is quite the reverse. I mean to call attention to the rather remarkable fact that in conceiving the machine under the “wrong” symbol seabird, we somehow know it better, conceive it in a more plenary fashion, have more immediate access to it, than under its descriptive title. The sooner we get rid of the old quarrel of artistic versus prosaic as constituting the grounds of our preference, the sooner we shall be able to understand what is going on. Given these old alternatives, I’ll take the prosaic any day — but what is going on here is of far greater moment.

The moments and elements of this meaning-situation are more easily grasped in the example of the boy seeing the strange bird in Alabama. The first notable moment occurred when he saw the bird. What struck him at once was the extremely distinctive character of the bird’s flight — its very great speed, the effect of alternation of the wings, the sudden plummeting into the woods. This so distinctive and incommunicable something — the word which occurs to one is Hopkins’s “inscape”—the boy perceived perfectly. It is this very uniqueness which Hopkins specifies in inscape: “the unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, selving.”

The next moment is, for our purposes, the most remarkable of all, because it can receive no explanation in the conventional sign theory of meaning. The boy, having perfectly perceived the flight of the hawk, now suffers a sort of disability, a tension, even a sense of imminence! He puts the peculiar question, What is that bird? and puts it importunately. He is really anxious to know. But to know what? What sort of answer does he hope to hear? What in fact is the meaning of his extraordinary question? Why does he want an answer at all? He has already apprehended the hawk in the vividest, most plenary way — a sight he will never forget as long as he lives. What more will he know by having the bird named? (No more, say the semioticists, and he deceives himself if he imagines that he does.)

We have come already to the heart of the question, and a very large question it is. For the situation of the boy in Alabama is very much the same sort of thing as what Cassirer calls the “mythico-religious Urphenomenon.” Cassirer, following Usener and Spieth, emphasized the situation in which the primitive comes face to face with something which is both entirely new to him and strikingly distinctive, so distinctive that it might be said to have a presence—an oddly shaped termite mound, a particular body of water, a particular abandoned road. And it is in the two ways in which this tensional encounter is resolved that the Urphenomenon is said to beget metaphor and myth. The Tro or momentary god is born of the sense of unformulated presence of the thing; the metaphor arises from the symbolic act in which the emotional cry of the beholder becomes the vehicle by which the thing is conceived, the name of the thing. “In the vocables of speech and in primitive mythic configurations, the same inner process finds its consummation: they are both resolutions of an inner tension, the representation of subjective impulses and excitations in definite object forms and figures.”

One recognizes the situation in one’s own experience, that is, the metaphorical part of it. Everyone has a blue-dollar hawk in his childhood, especially if he grew up in the South or West, where place names are so prone to poetic corruption. Chaisson Falls, named properly after its discoverer, becomes Chasin’ Falls. Scapegoat Mountain, named after some Indian tale, becomes Scrapegoat Mountain — mythic wheels within wheels. And wonderfully: Purgatoire River becomes Picketwire River. A boy grows up in the shadow of a great purple range called Music Mountain after some forgotten episode — perhaps the pioneers’ first hoedown after they came through the pass. But this is not how the boy conceives it. When the late afternoon sun strikes the great pile in a certain light, the ridges turn gold, the crevasses are cast into a thundering blue shadow, then it is that he imagines that the wind comes soughing down the gorges with a deep organ note. The name, mysterious to him, tends to validate some equally mysterious inscape of the mountain.

So far so good. But the question on which everything depends and which is too often assumed to be settled without ever having been asked is this: Given this situation and its two characteristics upon which all agree, the peculiar presence or distinctiveness of the object beheld and the peculiar need of the beholder — is this “need” and its satisfaction instrumental or ontological? That is to say, is it the function of metaphor merely to diminish tension, or is it a discoverer of being? Does it fit into the general scheme of need-satisfactions? — and here it doesn’t matter much whether we are talking about the ordinary pragmatic view or Cassirer’s symbolic form: both operate in an instrumental mode, one, that of biological adaption; the other, according to the necessities of the mythic consciousness. Neither provides for a real knowing, a truth-saying about what a being is. Or is it of such a nature that at least two sorts of realities must be allowed: one, the distinctive something beheld; two, the beholder (actually two beholders, one who gives the symbol and one who receives the symbol as meaningful, the Namer and the Hearer), whose special, if imperfect, gift it is to know and affirm this something for what it actually is? The question can’t be bracketed, for the two paths lead in opposite directions, and everything one says henceforth on the subject must be understood from one or the other perspective. In this primitive encounter which is at the basis of man’s cognitive orientation in the world, either we are trafficking in psychological satisfactions or we are dealing with that unique joy which marks man’s ordainment to being and the knowing of it.


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