There are those who regard the availability of metaphor as a blessing, an enhancement of the ranges of life. In one of the epigraphs to Denis Donoghue’s subtle and engrossing new book, the poet John Donne, with the faintest of apologies for a possible irreverence, calls his maker not only “a literall God” but also “a figurative, a metaphoricall God”.
Of course we are not to think of God himself as a metaphor, but we find in his words, Donne says, “such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors” that God seems to fly while every human author crawls. Voyages, fetch, remote, precious: the terms, here used positively, suggest the distance from humble, present reality that is deplored by the enemies of metaphor, from John Ruskin to Susan Sontag and beyond. How often do we use “far fetched” as a compliment?
Donoghue suggests that even Aristotle, who said “a command of metaphor” was “the mark of genius”, “felt queasy” about the process. Why is it, as George Eliot asks in The Mill on the Floss , “that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?”
More elaborately, and with ironic caution, he announces, “We are engaging in metaphor when we see, or think we see, or propose to see, one thing in the light of another.” Why is this a blessing or a worry, and do we have to take sides?
Not entirely. Or perhaps we do, but our decisions will depend on the case and the day. One question is whether we can manage without metaphor, whether the idea of dispensing with it is a delusion. We can certainly get along without metaphor some of the time – although “get along” would be an instance of how easily it returns. As Donoghue says, “ ‘The literal’ is rampant with metaphors, new and old.”
Read the full review by Michael Wood of Denis Donoghue’s book at the Irish Times …