Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On the Use and Abuse of Metaphor in Politics and Literature

I just finished reading Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. If you want to know what I think of the book, you can read my Goodreads review, which sums it up briefly. This post will not be about the book, as such, but about some thoughts triggered by it.

Marx wrote what perhaps ought to have become the final word on historical catachresis, but has not largely because his followers have enacted their own imitative tragedies and farces:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

The accelerations inherent to epochs of technological, social and/or political revolutions leave their protagonists like the earliest speakers of an emergent creole, stammering to one another in idiolects marked by their origins and trying, thereby, to construct a mutually intelligible tongue adequate to their new circumstances. In the process, existing words, phrases and stock concepts are stretched to encompass unforeseen phenomena. The process by which this takes place is a special case of metaphor.

A speaker who must resort to metaphor to describe a phenomenon reveals at least one of these two things: Either he does not understand it, or he presumes that those to whom he is speaking cannot understand it. Yet the misunderstanding thus revealed can help us to a better understanding of the phenomenon in question. Thus, for example, in the Cato biography, the authors contrast "Cato's libertas to [George] Washington's liberty," referring to the latter as a noble pun, and a world-changing one." Yet the content of Cato's political life shows similarities where the authors would prefer to imagine differences--libertas as the hereditary right of the land-owning citizen and paterfamilias to despoil and massacre some "barbarian" tribes, enslave others, and maintain his social precedence at the expense of those less able to profit from such rapine. Consider, for example, the moment in which Cato rejects the call to free and arm the slaves of Utica to fight against Caesar, and speaks of the rights of property as an integral part of libertas: Every U.S. president from Washington forward has had at least one such moment, where deference to the rights of property inhibited his ability to accomplish his professed aims, and only Lincoln managed--temporarily--to escape from that bind. (And then only after the slaves had in great measure freed and armed themselves.) The figure of Cato, the reactionary revolutionist and well-heeled republican, remains an important part of the genetic coding of mainstream political ideology in both U.S. political parties. It became so in spite of the fact that, even before the Declaration of Independence, it was already an inadequate metaphor, attempting to map characteristics shaped by one set of social relationships into another, quite different set. The intellectual inadequacy of metaphor is precisely what makes it aesthetically appealing as a means of giving expression to an inadequate understanding.

The implications for literature would seem to include some caution in the use of metaphor in narrative voices. A first-person or otherwise limited narrative ought to include metaphor, but only those necessary to show the limited comprehension or trustworthiness of the narrator. The use of metaphor becomes much trickier in a third-person omniscient narrative, the so-called "voice of God"--which I personally tend to abjure--as in this case the limitation on understanding must not be that of the narrator but that of the intended audience. If an omniscient narrator uses a metaphor which a particular reader either finds hard to comprehend, or that the reader thinks oversimplifies or falsifies the description of one of the points of comparison, then that reader has thereby been separated or distanced from the imagined audience. Such a distancing effect may well be intentional, but then it must be consciously deployed, as in Brechtian epic theater. In other cases, the distancing effect may be unavoidably conditioned by historical development or cultural difference. (How much of the aesthetic pleasure of a nineteenth century novel is blunted when read by a reader who cannot imagine the sound of horse hooves on a cobblestone street? Could someone who had never eaten Vietnamese food imagine the sense of warmth and comfort implied by a steaming bowl of pho in a story by Le Minh Khue?) And in other cases, it may be integral to a certain genre (e.g. far-future science fiction).

Having articulated that makes me nervous about checking my stories for adherence to my own dicta.

The political implications of an abuse of metaphor can be even more significant. For example, if someone says about the current situation in Greece, "It's just like the Weimar Republic!", then they may be making more or less effective use of rhetoric, but they are also making an empirically falsifiable statement. A few salient differences that come readily to mind:

  • Germany was one of the most industrially advanced economies at the time, in spite of the destruction wrought during and after the First World War. Greece, while it has some industry, is a comparative backwater on a European scale, and heavily dependent upon tourism, remittances, and shipping.
  • Weimar Germany was a near neighbor of the Soviet Union. Today there is no Soviet Union.
  • Weimar Germany controlled its own monetary policy, even though it was heavily in hock to U.S. financiers and owed a great deal in France in war reparations. Greece is part of currency union controlled in large part by... Germany.
  • Weimar Germany had two large working-class left parties, the SPD and KPD, with significant parliamentary representation, ties to trade unions and movements of the unemployed, and large, disciplined, more or less militant street-fighting capacities. In Greece the parliamentary left is divided four ways (including two parties in the governing coalition), the largest such party (SYRIZA) has coopted a significant portion of the formerly extraparliamentary left, each party's relations to the existing trade unions is in flux, there is a significant extraparliamentary left with a history of terrorist tactics, and the parliamentary left is hobbled by a tradition several decades old of pacifism.

So when someone compares Greece to Weimar Germany, they had better be able to specify which of these differences have implications for the strategy and tactics that would be needed to resist the rise of the likes of Golden Dawn, and what those implications might be. If they can't, then they don't know what they're talking about and should not be entrusted with political leadership. And if they can but won't, because they prefer the cheap rhetorical metaphor, then they underestimate the intelligence of their audience, are selling wolf tickets, and likewise, are not to be trusted.

No comments:

Post a Comment