Afterthoughts: Week 3

I’ll begin with Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics”…and with a confession, since I believe I wrong-footed us on one important point, by suggesting that if metaphor (substitution) is the principle of the axis of selection, metonymy (contiguity, association) is the principle of the axis of combination. Jessica asked if the chain of metonymy was supposed to be an adequate model of the contiguity of syntax, and the answer is no, though I argued, alas, the contrary. The beauty of these afterthoughts is that I need not stew about it all week—let me see if I can give a brief, revised account of the Jakobson, incorporating that correction, as well as a distinction between metaphor and metonymy that is not encumbered by my error.

So, one more time! Let’s say a given sentence presents us with a sequence of choices for every semantic unit; for simplicity’s sake, let’s say for every word.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

There is Yan’s dropdown menu. (Imagine it available for any other element of the sentence, too.) It’s not that we run consciously through all the options before we move on to the next word; rather, that the meaning of “music” depends on the constellation of similar words available in the language, to a capable speaker, as represented in that menu. (This is the fundamental Saussurian claim: that meaning is constituted by a system of difference among words, rather than by reference to a world outside words; that to understand “ditty” we have to look not to the discrete set of ditties to which it refers, but to its relation to other words that are candidates for naming music: so it is less formal than “anthem,” likely shorter than “song,” and so on.)

Now, a quick and very conventional distinction between metaphor and metonym: a metaphor, as transport, Puttenham’s far-fetcher, is a trope of substitution, one thing for another; I. A. Richards, source of the tenor-vehicle distinction, would say that the vehicle comes from another realm, from far away. There is a similarity between the two, tenor and vehicle, but the differences are what make the metaphor illuminating. Cf. the emphasis both in Puttenham and Peacham on novelty. Whereas a metonym is a substitution, but a substitution by something already adjacent—adjacent in ordinary usage, in culture—as when one says “the office” for the collection of people who work there. Similarity is not the principle of metonymy and difference is not the source of its interest. An office is not like the people who work there. But it is conceptually and practically nearby and so to use one for the other is convenient, whether as shorthand, or elegant variation.

You could say: a metaphor is a leap in a new direction; a metonymy, a short step in familiar terrain.

Back to Jakobson. Perhaps you’ll begin to see that metaphor and metonymy are both possible principles of selection; so rather than treating metonymy as defining the axis of combination, it is one of the ways in which semantic selection could be defined.* I might, for “music,” use a rough synonym (“tune”), a metonymy (“strings”), a metaphor (“Les sanglot longs / Des violons / De l’automne”). Now we can finally come back to the claim that “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination” (71). Note that J’s word is “equivalence,” not “similarity.” A metonymy need not be similar, but it will be equivalent. Anyhow, the point is that strung out along the horizontal axis of the sentence are a series of equivalent units, in this case metrical feet, mostly iambs. That equivalence is a system of difference—i.e., the equivalence of the iambs makes their differences perceptible and significant—and that system works the same way as the system of differences that defines the axis of selection. “Music” means what it means in relation to those other possibilities, “tune,” “air,” etc. Each iamb asks interpretation in relation to the other iambs or, notably, the trochaic substitution in the first foot. How are they like, how are they different? By extension, other repetitions—other equivalences, such as the those defined by the rhetorical scheme of chiasmus, “music to hear / hear’s thou music”—likewise ask to be thought together, collated, interpreted in view of the similarity that juxtaposes them and the specific differences that arise from the comparison.

One more way of putting it: in an ordinary sentence, you are not looking for formal equivalences across the syntax, across the axis of combination; that would be a distraction. But a text in which the poetic function is prominent, even dominant, is organized to provoke such recognitions of equivalence, rhythmically, rhetorically, imagistically, conceptually. With that recognition, interpretation begins. (Though we might also want to say that such equivalences hav a sound.)

I hope that helps! The basic point I think we did get: that it is in the nature of poetic language to refer its parts to one another, as opposed to elsewhere (the speaker, the addressee, the code, the channel, the world). And I hope that is helpful in regards to many phenomena of repetition that we have observed, and the sometimes almost threatening density of figuration that arises in Richard II, the poem piling on top of itself, defeating its constituent sentences and the grammar of temporality (or one could say, the grammar of temporality—that basic expectation that a well-formed sentence is a model of an action-oriented temporality, in which and antecedent subject is the beginning, the verb is the middle, and the object is the end.)

Now…one more thought about metaphor and metonymy, before I say try to recollect something of what we said about the play (!). As Mani mentioned, and as those of you who read all the way through the aphasia article learned, Jakobson makes some grand claims for metaphor and metonymy, taking metaphor to be the basic trope of Romanticism (in its transcendental yearnings, its sense of loss, aporia, etc.), metonymy of realism (insofar as realism seeks to assemble things in something like the order in which they are found in the world). Harry Berger, Jr.’s book Figures of a Changing World (2015), describes metaphor as a modernizing force, metonymy as traditional; he contrasts “the creative force of metaphorizing and the mimetic force of metonymizing” (17). We might think in that regard of the crown and the bucket. The crown is a metonymy for kingship, barely figurative. A bucket…not so much. It may be a surprisingly plain-style, workmanlike image, but its modernity, or modernizing impulse, would lie in its unsettling of the traditional language, its metaphoricity. I think a sense of the play between those modes of figuration, metaphor and metonymy, has something to offer us as we try do understand what is happening to Richard, or what he is doing. (Maybe in that order.)

So, right! Richard II. I’m just going to pull out what seem to me to be a few portable ideas, so night doesn’t fall upon my afterthinking. John gave us a great passage to start with, Bushy and the Queen. Is Bushy master of the confusions of his rhetoric, or their victim? Whichever it is, figures of fragmentation and of inversion are not only plentiful, but operate on one another; the metaphors are metaphorized. Pronoun referents are elusive, and plural verbs often seem mismatched with singular subjects and vice versa. There is a good deal of logical operation (negation, analogy) but the effort to resolve inconsistencies feels doomed. The speech is a good specimen to keep in mind of figuration out of control, a parody of argument that strews its terms almost arbitrarily across the divisions of the verse. It is worth mentioning—we didn’t remark on it, but it’s important—the philosophical sound of all the “substance” talk, terms that would have sounded scholastic, old-fashioned (more appropriate to debate ca. 1398, when the play is set, than 1594). Many humanists already regarded that language as obscurantist. Also worth recalling: Mary’s point about the counter-figural impulse in the Queen’s language of thing and nothing, her attempt to escape, by abstraction, the proliferation of figure.

Jackie gave us such a different passage, Gaunt’s famous sceptered isle speech, and prompted us to think about the relation to place; Scott pointed out the deictic insistence of the this…this…this. All of it begs to be thought in terms of the play’s crisis of referential meaning, associated with Richard’s downfall. All the talk about blood and land, all the gages; is there nothing to which the terms of monarchy can be durably anchored? (Jakobson might aver that the more poetic language is, the more it is anchored to itself.) We thought about Gaunt’s anaphora and the incantatory quality of his language in relation to the categories of prophecy and of ritual. Is his speech a series of metonymies, familiar contiguous figures for England? He does speak for tradition. Does any of them attain the distance of metaphor?

Too bad we did not get to Scott’s meditations on the “terrestrial ball,” but one of his points from the blog, about metaphors made from metaphors, did find a place earlier on. (What is the difference between such recursive metaphor, if I can put it that way, and mixed metaphor? That will be an interesting question going forward: sometimes Shakespeare’s conceits, or extended metaphors, are miraculously unified; but sometimes they are extravagant, overcrowded, and how are we to judge or appreciate or analyze that?)

The imitations were wonderful. Apologies to Jessica and Andrew, who got such short shrift; and also to Sarah, who put a nice one in the pile, too. We’ll come back to you all. Eli and Mary were judged to have written imitations to rival the original. Not bad! Mary’s put pressure on the question of whether her shadowed sun was a radical trope or a preposterous confusion. For the record, I take it to be the first—but Shakespeare’s figuration will bring us ever closer to the abuse of figures or even the figure of abuse, catechresis, and to questions of whether he (or his characters?) has gone too far. We’ve already found that from our vantage as imitators we can venture some evaluative judgments about these plays. We will, I hope, continue, not least because they ask for it.

Finally…a few minutes, thanks to Yan, with “Ay, no; no, ay”; or “I know no I,” or “I know no ay,” or “Ay, no; no I”; or etc. Let’s just say that this little koan felt like the epicenter of the play’s figural excess. And yet, is it even figurative? Or just ambiguous? What’s the difference/relation between those two terms?

Two codas. Then I’ll stop I promise. First is just a recommendation to keep Burke in mind as we go. His signature, as a theorist, is to conceive of language dramatistically, and that is the general orientation that gives us 1) his sense of metaphor as seeing something from the perspective of something else, and 2) his suggestion that those somethings might be thought of as characters. He’s actually quite useful for thinking about the relationship between local linguistic phenomena and larger dramatic structures. The account of irony as the condition of a good drama, in which multiple characters provide multiple perspectives that interact dialectically, ought to be on our minds. The terms are quite abstract (and his idiom wonderfully peculiar—“coached”? As in acting school?), but he is also author, elsewhere, of the best essay on Othello.

Second, if we’d had even more time, I might have tried to get us talking about another trope, one that’s not in the handbooks—a model. It’s a word used several times in the play, and I think it captures an impulse in Richard especially to conceive of a conceit or extended metaphor as a place to which the imagination can escape. The French modelle and Italian modello refer to an architectural mock-up, and the late sixteenth century saw the entry of that sense into English. So, a representation of the world that is not an allegory—rather, mimetic, scaled down, but somehow also a place where the mind can hide. “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world.” For another time!

*Jakobson does use the contiguity of metonymy to talk about the contiguity of the axis of combination, and readers like Berger take him up on this: “Metaphor is fundamentally paradigmatic and expresses internal relations of similarity, contrast, selection, and substitution. Metonymy is fundamentally syntagmatic and expresses external relations of combination and continuity” (15). But metonymy is not adequate to account for the variety of connections between sentence elements, their hierarchies, etc.; nor does Jakobson want to represent it as such.

**As I post this, I read Jessica’s very helpful comments, now below; some of what she raises may be addressed in the above, but I’d be interested in other responses. Let’s add to that conversation, as she did, by making new posts (rather than comments, which are easy to lose track of).

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