Rilke’s angels and metaphor

Are we seeing a theme emerge? A lot of thinking about figurative language lately. William Empson writes, in The Structure of Complex Words, of metaphor as the sudden perception of an objective relation:

It is clear that we may do this before we can explain it […] Original pieces of thinking have, I suppose, nearly always been started on metaphor, and so far from being peculiarly “emotive” and indulgent of folly, a metaphor is often a loophole for common sense.

We have all read of engineers and scientists, as well as poets and artists having this sudden perception of an objective relation, of a connection that appears to have always been so. If we ask this type of language and thought a question, if we ask “what is metaphor… for?” where does this lead us? This may require expansion, so when do we employ metaphor, and to what end? True, all language contains metaphorical elements, or shows itself to be a sedimented cross-section of previous ages’ figurative language, petrified into varying degrees of literalism. Continue reading

A formal approach to poetry

How close does the “history of ideas” approach come to data-mining as the study and criticism of literature? I was rereading Christopher Tilmouth’s Passion’s Triumph Over Reason, and I began thinking about this. I met the author a few years back, in his Cambridge room in a turret of Peterhouse, when I was planning on undertaking a PhD (on the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) there. We discussed the various approaches that are common now, and while he is not necessarily a party to the more theory-laden schools of thought, he certainly was familiar with their content and understood their attraction to many. I was there to talk to him about the possibility of taking a more formal approach to literature (which is in keeping with my techno-functionalist interests in philosophy!), one which did not make the text merely a conduit to discuss a particular theory of discourse, one which, incidentally might be anachronistic. At the same time, however, I felt that there was something about the historical scholarship approach to poetry that didn’t resonate for me. Continue reading

Literary and unliterary reading

For myself, I split the reading of literature into two broad groups, namely the literary and the unliterary. The unliterary reader approaches a piece of fiction, or a poem, the way they would if it were any other text. They are epistemic and systematic, and so we can perceive the impact a book (etc.) has on them almost immediately, since their experience of it is not mediated by other concerns beyond “what does this tell me”. The literary reader’s experience is reflected, however, and so a text can fruitfully be read and reread. It is in this sense, like Montaigne in his tower, reading his 5,000 book library over and over, a little at a time, that such literary readers may be considered gnostic. It is the continued experience of the text that defines them, because they are an element of a community of interpreters. This goes for all readers of texts, including films, comics, magazine articles, etc. If you have at any stage debated the merits of a particular text, or suggested “what if they had casted X rather than Y”, or played some variation of “name your top 5 villains of all time, and say why”, then you are a member of this interpretive community. You are a literary reader.  Continue reading