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The Janus Face of Metaphor.

By Alan Wall.

We as yet do not know enough about our thinking through, by, and with metaphor.
– Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence.

WHEN THOMAS SPRAT, in his History of the Royal Society, said he wished to rid all scientific writing of ‘this vicious abundance of phrase’ – meaning all figurative language, but metaphor primarily – he was misunderstanding the nature of language. Rid language of metaphor and it falls apart. In fact, it is impossible to speak without metaphor. Even if we trained ourselves to avoid figures of speech altogether, catachresis inhabits the lexicon: our etymologies constitute a riot of metaphoric transfer. We cannot escape metaphor, and so we have no alternative but to try to find the most appropriate metaphors in which to situate ourselves. Consciousness of metaphor means that we understand the structuring of meaning to which language is conditioning us.

Metaphor in the strict sense, in Aristotle’s sense, is the creation of a figurative image which combines two different entities or concepts into one word or phrase. Ideally, the two different entities should each inhabit a different genus, as in ‘Achilles is a lion’. If I say, as Glenn Gould once did, ‘Bill Evans is the Scriabin of jazz’, that is not a metaphor, since both halves of the statement belong to the same species, making it a comparison, and the etymology of that word contains the notion of equality; of comparing like with like. It is the unlikeness between the two terms in the figure that shapes a metaphor.

Such figured images frequently pass quickly into common usage and become clichés. A cliché is all too frequently a metaphor that has lost all force, friction and tension. The generative power of a metaphor comes from the dissonance between the two hemispheres that go to make up the whole figure, combined with the consonance achieved. Metaphor is created out of pattern recognition, the perception of shared identity in apparent dissimilitude.

We can distinguish here between two types of pattern recognition: routine and radical. Routine pattern recognition lets us function in daily life. We know that the traffic lights change through red to amber to green; responding to such stimuli does not require thought, merely reflex. Radical pattern recognition on the other hand is audacious. It permits discovery, whether in the writing of poetry or the exploration of science. Radical pattern recognition is an overcoming of generic dissonance, so as to acknowledge identities where none were perceived before. As William Carlos Williams put it:

A dissonance
in the valence of Uranium
led to the discovery

(if you’re interested)
leads to discovery

But the dissonance here must be framed by a larger consonance; otherwise what is encountered would not be discovery, but a mere scattering of data. However apparently miscellaneous the details, we perceive an overarching set of resemblances in the family structure.

A distinction between two types of metaphor.

IN FICTION AND poetry, metaphor is used to defamiliarize the familiar; in science it is used to familiarize us with the unfamiliar. In both cases a dissonance is encountered, but this fundamental and crucial difference means that literary metaphor is the reverse manoeuvre of scientific metaphor: it is trying to estrange our perception of the familiar so that it becomes momentarily alien and surprising. In Ezra Pound’s formulation, the original figure makes it new; in William Blake’s words, we see (if only momentarily) through the eyes instead of with them. We  escape our entrapment in perceptual conventions. Scientific metaphor, on the other hand, invariably seeks to find comprehensible parallels in the known world for what appear to be exotic concepts and events. It is seeking, not to enhance the frisson of dissonance while finding similarity, but rather to neutralize it through homology.

When Marianne Moore says that the swan ‘turns and reconnoitres like a battleship’ (technically, it’s a simile) the image is meant to halt us, make us re-think the swan. We had never thought of the swan in the light of a battleship’s stately movement through the water before. It is meant to slow down our perception of a sight well known to us in order to enhance and render vivid our daily perceptions. This is defamiliarization or estrangement in Victor Shklovsky’s sense of ostranenie.

In science we take the unfamiliar – for example the behaviour of atoms in Brownian motion – and translate it into a realm we find more familiar and predictable,  more domestic even, like the behaviour of billiard balls on a billiard table. We are making an attempt to visualize what often defeats visualization in its own terms; so we carry over the one situation into the far more familiar one, where we can make images (the etymology of metaphor is after all a carrying-over). We think largely through images. There are exceptions to this – the musician and the mathematician, for example – but mostly we need to create an image so as to facilitate understanding. And the image we create is often generated by a metaphor.

Metaphor in science is so closely related to modelling and analogy as to be frequently inseparable from them. When Richard Feynman gave his testimony at the enquiry into the Challenger disaster, his most effective moment was an exemplary instance of modelling and miniaturisation. Into a glass of chilled water he dropped a small O-ring. After a moment it snapped. And that, in larger form, was exactly what had happened on that very cold morning when the Challenger had been launched. Larger O-rings had been chilled beyond their tolerance, and had ceased to insulate the craft from the meteorological conditions outside. The glass and the rubber band here functioned the way all metaphor is meant to do in science. They clarified a set of structural relations through a moment of condensed exposition. The modelled moment mimics the panorama of data to be expounded, but compresses it, and lets it emblematize the larger situation to which it alludes. It operates as a figurative form in which to concertina a large amount of information and so make it instantly lucid and intelligible. This is what an effective scientific metaphor does too.

Literary metaphor.

SINCE THE TERM ‘metaphor’ was first used in regard to poetry, let us consider for a moment why it is so crucial to writing; why, according to Aristotle, it is the defining quality of poetry – its creation the mark of true genius. Only by understanding how metaphor works in literature will we be able to see how its use in science tends to be so radically different. Scientific metaphor is in effect the obverse of the literary trope.

Metaphor tends to find two different situations and discovers a parallel or parallels between them which can usually be expressed in images. It finds, as Aristotle puts it, similitude in dissimilitude. We are thus observing pattern recognition in action as a transcendent power of discovery. Since he created some of the most potent metaphors in the language, let us consider Shakespeare. In Macbeth the King is informed of the death of his wife. By this stage he cannot sleep at all. We are told, in a vivid metaphor, that ‘Macbeth does murder sleep’. His wife can sleep but is haunted by the murder of Duncan so relentlessly that in her sleepwalking she re-enacts her desperate attempt to wash the blood off her hands after the crime. And now, with a mighty battle looming, she dies. What Macbeth says in response to this is one of the most famous passages in literature:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time:
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

What are the different hemispheres, the seeming dissimilarities, brought together here in metaphoric images? First we have time as some sort of exhausted beast crawling along the highway of existence until the chronicle should at last be ended. All wisdom, all tradition (all our yesterdays) amount to no more than a road of folly leading to extinction. The candle of existence might as well gutter, since life itself is nothing but a shadow, and then the poor player who is actually strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, here at the Globe, tells us that life itself is no more than such a player as himself. And what does he have to say? That life is meaningless, a tale told by an idiot, that signifies nothing whatsoever. Here the theatre, the Globe – ‘this wooden O’, as it is called in Henry V – is the microcosm, and the world outside it the macrocosm.  Each image reverberates back and forth, from the larger world of London and Europe to the smaller world of the theatre which is modelling the macrocosm. The model enacts the structure of the larger world in which it is contained, as Feynman’s glass of chilled water represented the weather on that fateful morning when the Challenger blasted off. Macbeth is a man speaking lucidly about derangement, and finding reverberating metaphors in which to do so.

Another of Shakespeare’s audacious acts of metaphor-making can be found in Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

The poem goes on to compare the ageing man to the evening of the day, and a dying fire, whose embers, which once provided vigour, now smother the remaining flames. So we have a series of metaphoric manoeuvres: from man’s life to the rhythm of the seasons, the diurnal transit from light to darkness, and the flaming and quenching of a fire. In 1930, in his book Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson introduced a previously unknown register in the reading of this poem. He ponders on the bare ruined choirs and the sweet birds. Shakespeare was born a mere twenty years after the dissolution of the monasteries, and the weathering remains of such mighty religious buildings in Warwickshire must have struck him forcibly. The evidence seems to point to the Catholic sympathies of his father, John, and it is at least possible that the religious atmosphere of his youth was, let us say, elegiac. So Empson claims that Shakespeare’s lines, while bearing the superficial meaning of trees in a forest losing their leaves in the autumn, while the birds leave to migrate to somewhere warmer, also carry a deeper and more socially ruinous burden. The choirs of the old despoiled monasteries and priories: here is where choristers once sang. All we see now are the ruins of those buildings, the Gothic tracery of whose windows mimicked the branching of trees. The birds that have fled are the choristers who once sang inside these ruins during religious services, and no longer do so. They sat on lengths of wood too, as do the birds, and their song has now flown, along with the avian migrants.

So if ‘bare ruined choirs’ describes a forest in autumn and finds a metaphor through a resemblance between birds sitting in a row along their branches and the rows of choristers dressed in their chaste finery, we have a subtle lament for what has recently been lost in England. Only the bare stonework of the tracery now remains. Empson reverses the journey of the metaphor to find its origin in the destruction of ecclesiastical property that took place under the stewardship of Thomas Cromwell, with Henry VIII’s compliance. Empson claims that the ambiguity in the word choir prompts Shakespeare to the elaboration of its metaphoric outgrowth.

Ambiguity was for Empson a register of the variousness to be found in the world, rather than a confusion of meanings which needed to be riddled out, and ideally reduced to one. Unusually among literary critics, he had started from a scientific background. He was keenly interested in the discoveries going on in modern physics, and he had read Eddington’s mighty book The Nature of the Physical World. Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare points out that what Empson took from all this was a simple premise that then operated in his work throughout his life: ambiguity is not an indeterminacy in finding ‘the one correct reading’. Ambiguity has now been found in nature in the form of wave/particle duality or complementarity, and it is there in language too. Ambiguity is a deepening richness of meaning. In trying to find a single ‘correct’ meaning and consigning all others to quibbling footnotes, we are merely robbing the text of its metaphoric multifariousness. As in light’s dual wave and particle properties, we are obliged to see not either/or but both/and.

So let us remind ourselves what Shakespeare is doing here in Sonnet 73. The time of a man’s allotted life is figured as a year. The metaphoric transfer is then explored for further parallels: the leaves in the autumn lighten in colour then fall from the boughs of trees, just as hairs whiten and then fall from the head of an ageing man. The boughs shake against the cold, as an old person’s limbs shake with the onset of physical frailty. Then the metaphor generates an image which properly belongs to neither actual dimension of the original metaphoric pair – the bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. This elegiac image might well conjure the ruined choirs of medieval monasteries. The metaphor has generated a third term, unimplied by anything in the nature of the original perceived similarity. This meaning might be gratuitous, but it is appropriate. It has grown upon the site of the original metaphor itself. We might call this a metaphoric outgrowth.

This highlights a quality of metaphor to which Aristotle in Poetics and Rhetoric was oblivious: the original metaphoric pair does not remain untouched by the metaphoric process. By entering into the linguistic metamorphosis, the terms of comparison are placed in a novel constellation, in which all the significant nodes subtly alter, gaining new connotations, making unexpected connections, forming new networks of connotation. The metaphor, in other words, is not merely a passive tracing of an existent perceived parallel, as Aristotle argued, but is actively generative of meaning. It is seminal.

This last point was part of the burden of Max Black’s essay ‘Metaphor’, published in 1954. Metaphor is not simply a detection of patterns of meaning, nor is it a mere figurative distortion of meaning: it is productive of meaning in its own right. When we employ metaphoric language, we are engaging in metaphoric thought, whether consciously or not. And this is highly significant in terms of metaphor in scientific discourse. So what work is metaphor then doing in scientific discourse?

Metaphoric parallels.

WE MIGHT NOTE here that if what Macbeth says were to be true, then science would be impossible. If it really were a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, then there would be no point in pursuing any form of intellectual enquiry.

When we describe the vastness of what is around us by using the words cosmos and cosmology then we are already speaking in the metaphoric register, and we are flatly contradicting Macbeth. ‘Cosmos’ comes from the Greek word for order; cosmetics, interestingly enough, is the art or science of restoring order to a face or body. Cosmos is a useful word because it draws our attention to the grand act of faith on which science is based: the conviction that order prevails, and that our enquiries will therefore not be fruitless when we start out on our quests for pattern recognition. The same recurrent structures that provide us with metaphors also provide us with physical laws.

However deranged the world he is describing, Macbeth at least retains faith in one notion of the science of his time: the correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm. His own life has been an extinction of meaning; the larger world he propounds in his images must therefore reflect the same extinction. In the seventeenth century the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm was a tenet of the age’s science. As above, so below. As in the large, so in the little. Galileo had pursued the matter of falling bodies. They all fall, he reckoned, unless a contrary force should be exerted upon them. Newton formulates this falling in his laws of motion, having first observed a metaphoric correspondence: the apple that fell in a garden in Lincolnshire, and the moon. The celestial body was falling too, but the universal force of gravitation stopped it leaving us and disappearing into the darkness out there, just as it had stopped the apple floating upwards. As above, so below.

The doctrine of signatures is a vast and complex metaphor in which everything in the world exhibits and articulates the universal interrelations of character and meaning. It survives in various poetic doctrines, such as Baudelaire’s notion of correspondences, where it announces a synaesthesia which will be further echoed in Rimbaud’s deregulation of the senses.

An aside on the two functions of metaphor in science.

They are hermeneutic and heuristic.

Function 1. To explain the matter in hand to non-specialists.

Difficult scientific concepts are explained by reference to something better known. To show how light finds the most economic route through the space-time continuum we use domestic objects: a rubber blanket is envisaged, with a metal ball rolling across it. It will make its way down the fold in the rubber, taking the most economical route. This is a transposition from an exotic thought, and one that is hard to visualise, to a more available set of images, images that we find predictable and explicable. Let us call this metaphoric manoeuvre imagistic domestication; it’s a kind of homely modelling. The same thing happens if the teacher picks up a series of tennis balls and contrives a makeshift orrery on the table to demonstrate the movement of the planets or the force of gravitation. This thing here, which you know, represents that other more remote thing there, which you don’t know anything like as well (the essential manoeuvre of scientific metaphor in explanatory writing). Now there is a crossover area here between modelling and metaphor, which we might try to elucidate.

When Einstein conducts one of his thought experiments, he is modelling in his mind the universe as he conceives it. He imagines that he is travelling on a beam of light. He is holding up a mirror twelve inches from his face. What happens? he asks himself. There is nothing to be seen in the mirror. At 186,000 miles per second, nothing can overtake me; nothing travels faster. So, if my image cannot travel faster than the speed of light, then it can never arrive at the surface of the mirror. That’s the thought experiment, based upon the Einsteinian model. And if I now create a phrase to encapsulate it and say ‘travelling at the speed of light is an endless stare into an empty mirror’ I have created my metaphor. One thing – the speed of light – is another – a stare into an empty mirror; each belongs to a different intellectual genus.

Function 2. To test hypotheses, examine models and their functioning, and to reveal means of describing new phenomena.

The scientific process of exploration often says about a newly observed phenomenon: ‘This looks remarkably like that, so let’s assume for a moment that the same laws apply, and see what happens.’ The old model becomes the metaphoric framework for the testing of the new concept. If this is really like this, says the scientist, then we should expect the following to happen; we should observe a parallel form of behaviour. In literature and the arts a metaphor holds good until it loses its surprise, which is a function of its dissonance – the frisson generated by the remaining dissimilarity in which the similarities are embedded – but in scientific thought a metaphor is tested to destruction. Then another metaphor or model will have to be found, more adequate to the recent data.

A famous example of this is the development of the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. Since the nucleus had now been discovered and since electrons appeared to orbit this massive but tiny atomic centre, the model that put itself forward was the planetary one of the solar system. So let’s view the nucleus as the sun, and electrons as orbiting planets. This was, in Mary Hesse’s formulation, a positive analogy. But in fact what was being metaphorized were two dissimilar phenomena, since the planetary system’s motions work in terms of gravity, whereas inside the atom it is electrical forces that obtain. And so the metaphor started growing ragged and incoherent very quickly; it went from positive analogy to negative analogy. If the model was a planetary one, then how come the electrons were not continually losing energy in their orbits, as one would expect? If the inside of an atom were really functioning according to its metaphoric other half then the electron would soon lose its necessary energy and spin counter-clockwise into the nucleus. And in any case, since the force of the nucleus is positive and that of the electron negative, why don’t the two simply get together as soon as possible? Either way, there would be no atom. The metaphor only works if (however remotely) this can still be said to be that. Here this and that have started to become radically at odds with one another; they are now pushing apart, further and further into the field of negative analogy. The solution to this dilemma was the development of what we now call quantum mechanics – a different model of understanding. But the route to that understanding went through an exploded metaphor. In science a metaphor can be of maximum use while it is being demolished. And sometimes it is not the positive analogy which yields the richest results, but its negative sister. Dissonance, as Williams reminded us, leads to discovery.

Why is language inherently metaphoric?    

WE HAVE ASSERTED that language is inherently metaphoric. Let us try to substantiate the statement. We have just been speaking of the nucleus. The term was first used in our modern sense by Ernest Rutherford in 1912. It is usually said to be the word for kernel, and in fact goes back to the Latin nucula, the diminutive of nux, a nut. At the beginning of the eighteenth century a nucleus was normally used to mean one part of the head of a comet. And if we trace the word kernel back to Old English we will find it originated in the word corn. So, these inorganic items making up the universe have been introduced to us through organic transfers inside metaphors. There is no way out of this. You can switch to German, but there you will find that the term is der Kern, so we are back where we started, and where we started is a constant metaphoric burden: we translate inorganic matter into dynamic organic entities by means of metaphors which are frequently unconscious. We speak of the life and death of a star, when such an inorganic entity has no life and no death either; it might have a beginning and an end, but the narrative impulse presses us to enliven the proceedings by metaphoric injection. We do this so much that we seldom notice we are doing it at all.

The essence of metaphor is interactive and projective imagery. Single words themselves frequently contain their own metaphors and just as frequently hide them. The dandelion comes to us courtesy of the French phrase dents-de-lyon – teeth of the lion. The yellow spears that surround the corolla resembled (or were thought to resemble) the teeth of the great cat. We borrowed it and Englished it; meanwhile, French itself has moved on. The French refer to the same plant now as pissenlit, which is not so much a metaphor as a dire prediction of diuretic effects to come. Similarly with daisy: we can trace it back to the year 1000 and the day’s eye is there inside it. The little yellow disc only opens when the big one in the sky is shining. The plant opens its eye on the day. And a window is the wind’s eye, a loophole for the eye to peer out and the wind to blow in. And if we talk about the cosmos, then as we said, we are speaking of order, whether we explicate it thus or not. The iridescence in Newton’s Optics is only there because of the Roman goddess Iris, whose physical attribute was the rainbow.

Modern linguistics.

MODERN LINGUISTICS STARTING with Ferdinand de Saussure tells us that we do not need these histories buried inside words, these strict etymologies, in order to use language efficiently. The history of language is found in its diachronic dimension; the way it actually works at any moment represents its synchronic identity. Language works as an engine of differences; it generates meaning by distinction, not by reference to origin. As long as I know that this is a dandelion, and not a lupin or a thistle, then I am using language correctly when I use the designation. And it is usage that dictates meaning, not etymology. Even Samuel Johnson had to acknowledge this in his great dictionary of 1755.

However, metaphoric potency is a ghost hovering behind the schema of Saussurean linguistics, and we see it particularly in regard to science and its metaphoric usages. The history of science lurks inside any word that science uses or has used. We still speak of the ‘atom’. The word takes us back to Lucretius, Democritus and Leucippus and that early Greek notion that the universe was made up of tiny bits of matter. It was a tradition that continued, setting itself against the idea that the ultimate Elementals were earth, water, fire and air. By the time John Dalton was busily identifying elements in the early nineteenth century this was the chosen word to describe our ultimate particularities. When you reached this barrier you couldn’t get any further. Hence the adaptation of the Latin elementum, meaning rudiment. The notion of substance without further structure seems to have been spelt out fully for the first time in Sir Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry in 1813.

But the history contained in this word ‘atom’ is now a metaphor transcended: ‘a-tomos’ in the (transliterated) Greek meant unsplittable, something that could not be cut. But in the 1890s Thompson discovered the electron; in other words, he discovered that in fact there was a structure inside the atom, that it was not indivisible and homogeneous matter. Then in 1911 Rutherford discovered the nucleus. Since then the construction of the Standard Model in physics has found particle after particle. We still say ‘atom’ as we still say sunrise and sunset, though hiding in all those words are antiquated conceptions of the world about us. We still say planet – though the word indicates, if we are to trust its etymology, a celestial body that wanders among the fixed stars.

Perhaps the most notable metaphors we use are the names of constellations. Perseus, we say, that notable hero, and Cygnus the swan, Orion the hunter, and Monoceros the unicorn. Creatures that never actually existed continue their lives in the night skies of our observation. And how did we name them? Through pattern recognition and imaginative union. Metaphor works through a pendulum motion of the mind; it functions, as we said, through projective and interactive imagery. We join this to that and thereby form a single image. We perceive a pattern in the night skies and we find a similarity between that and a creature, real or imagined, here on earth, and so we create the metaphor of a constellation. It is only there in our perception of it; it only has its name because we have brought together two radically different realms. Once we have navigated our way through the Neolithic, we can even put a plough up there, but we couldn’t have done so before. The identification and naming of the constellations indicates that there is an instinct for unified perception in us that goes very deep. It is what led to Spinoza’s speculations about a substance underlying the whole universe. It is what led finally to the construction of the Standard Model. Coleridge tried to describe this imaginative force that we radiate: he called it the ‘esemplastic’ power – that intellectual drive which shapes disparities into unities. This is the ability of our minds in their most vivid moments to perceive nature as ultimately unified, and to help it towards that unity by our own metaphoric skills. Metaphor is a way of asserting the existence of the infinite correspondences that constitute our universe. Every time we invent a new metaphor we assert that we still use the word ‘cosmos’ precisely, because it means order, and we are finding order in our latest metaphoric discoveries.

Metaphor: limitation and opportunity.

TO USE METAPHOR creatively we must be constantly aware of the dangers of using it blindly.

An unexamined metaphor controlling our thought is a limit placed upon our imagination, because it directs and shapes perceptions and analyses, without our being aware of the structuring that is occurring. Wittgenstein in the Brown Book points out how Saint Augustine in The Confessions broods about the meaning of time and time passing. All his problems in this regard, Wittgenstein says, come from the operative metaphor he is employing: the river. Thus does time bring all things to us and take them all away again. Thus does it flow both behind us and before. Because Augustine never foregrounds the metaphor of the river in his own thoughts, they remain in thrall to the entailed imagery of the river flowing. Identify the metaphor you are inside (to use another spatial metaphor) and you can at least start getting your bearings. But delude yourself that it is not a metaphor, merely a transparent filament between yourself and reality, and you are trapped, like a metaphoric fly in metaphoric amber.

When Heisenberg first began to formulate what came to be known as the Principle of Uncertainty he was prompted by his profound unhappiness with the phrase ‘the path of the electron’. Others thought this was a straightforward description of the truth; he reckoned it was a pernicious and misleading metaphor. The problem here was like the problem Wittgenstein identified in Augustine’s thinking about time. A metaphor is so pervasive that it is not seen as a metaphor at all; it is assumed to be merely a transparent filament connecting us with the observable world. But ‘path’ here, as Heisenberg realised, is a Newtonian notion, with an attendant repertoire of expectations: a specified object makes its way across a designated region which can be mapped. Given sufficient information, then at any moment we should be able to give the coordinates for its sequence of positions, and so ascertain its velocity. But this is not the situation regarding observations in the subatomic world. Here there is an inherent limitation placed upon the amount and nature of the information we might acquire, and this affects our understanding of the phenomenon. And the phenomenon, as Niels Bohr made plain, must include the apparatus of observation: the manner of our observation cannot be separated from the character and behaviour of what it is we actually observe. Neither can our thoughts be separated from the figures of speech in which they find their shape and meaning. This is why Bohr always insisted ‘We are suspended in language.’

We end up, on the far side of all these considerations, with a different way of thinking about the electron and all other particles too. An astute awareness of the functioning of metaphors was the beginning of this process. Here the break-out from a limiting metaphor, which like most limiting metaphors went largely unobserved by its users, finally permits discovery. The old metaphor is carrying the baggage of an antiquated world of conceptualisation. Old metaphors will inevitably constrict new intellectual energies. They turn our thoughts into clichés – that’s why Wallace Stevens in Adagia recommended the creation of new metaphors as the only escape from cliché.

Metaphors in movement.

WE MIGHT REMIND ourselves for a moment about some words in science – specifically, words which carry a portion of the history of science inside themselves. They have often become metaphoric; they can’t help that. But what is interesting is how the specific metaphoric resonance changes from one point in history, one moment in science, to another. The nature of the metaphor, its current usage, models the larger world of scientific conceptions in which it is situated. And here I would like to quote two different people. The first is the French painter Georges Braque:

There are no things; only relations between things.

That was what a lifetime in painting had taught him; that is effectively what Cubism means. And the second quotation is from A. N. Whitehead:

The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of independent existence. There is no such mode of existence. Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.

He is saying the same thing as Braque, though under a different rubric.

Meaning is not isolable; it always functions as one aspect of a world of meaning. Metaphor is the most vivid way in which we demonstrate this to ourselves, since metaphor only works relationally. All meaning is relational, and so is endlessly in dialogue with its manifold determinants, as the following brief examples show.

Electricity. Take the word ‘electricity’. The word could well take us back all the way to the Sanskrit ulka, a meteor: shining things. Anyway, it certainly takes us back to the Greek electron, related to elector, the bright sun. More shining things. Through the Latin electrum meaning amber we get to electricus, and its sense of a power which amber generates. This takes us to electricam, which William Gilbert employed when in 1600 he wrote his thesis on the magnet. Then throughout the eighteenth century (much preoccupied as it was with matters electrical) we have electrify and electrification. ‘Electricity’ itself was a word devised by that notable neologist, Thomas Browne. So when a negatively charged particle is discovered in England in the 1890s, it receives the word electron. If we go back to Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, we find under Electricity: ‘The name of an unknown natural power, which produces a great variety of peculiar and surprising phenomena. See AMBER.’ One hundred years later there will be no more talk of unknown powers. The word ‘electricity’ shows us how the meanings of our words alter with the state of our knowledge. Our metaphors and their usage are indicators of changes in the epistemological rules.

Particle and Wave. Whatever uncertainties were starting to beset the mind at the start of the twentieth century, most intelligent people at least knew one thing: energy and matter can either arrive as a wave or a particle, but neither can be both at once. That was not possible. What the double-slit experiment shows is that light behaves both as wave and as particle. And it was science that brought us to this epistemological  impossibility. Science here rewrote the possibilities of being and manifestation. It demonstrated that two contradictory states could be simultaneously inhabited by the same fragment of matter. It all depended on what questions you asked; the apparatus is part of the phenomenon, as Niels Bohr had insisted. Wave/particle duality or complementarity is a vindication of the essential metaphoric perception: nature is not singular but aspectual. It responds to the intellectual criteria in which our questions situate it.

We seldom mean only one thing when we speak or write. Ambiguity is inherent in our patterns of meaning; it is not the result of a failure of interpretation on the part of the auditor or reader. We only learned this in relation to Shakespeare after physics had learnt it in relation to nature. Ambiguity is a sister to metaphor. Both assume that meaning is manifold rather than singular.


Bishop Sprat wanted to get down to the singleness of meaning he believed underlay the disfigurements of figurative language. Like Adolf Loos, he believed that decoration was crime, and he thought metaphor was merely decorative. We could achieve a language of ultimate plainness, with no ambiguity whatsoever. Language, however, isn’t like that; it seeds itself and sprouts unpredictably. There is no single meaning; no isolable facts, as Whitehead pointed out. Ambiguity, manifold polysemous possibility, is inherent in language, but we have now discovered that it is inherent in nature too. Complementarity shows us that doubleness is neither disguise nor subterfuge, but the actual face (or faces) that nature shows us under observation. Light must be either a wave or a particle, cried Bishop Sprat’s descendants, but they were wrong – light turned out to be both. Metaphor tends to work by acknowledging the fact that language seldom inheres in a single, discrete meaning. It achieves meaning by polyvalency and accrual.

Meaning in metaphor presents itself as if it were the obverse and reverse of a coin. Whichever side you flip, you’ll still end up with the other side too, even if it is momentarily hidden from observation. Living as we do in the age of complementarity, we should regard the creation of metaphor not as a decorative diversion, but an exploration of the way in which meaning is most creatively constructed. Heads only means heads in opposition to tails. It is a particle, most certainly, until you start asking it wave questions – at which point it will become a wave. But even as a wave, heads can mean nothing without tails, and vice versa. We are to double-business bound.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He lives in North Wales.



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