Given during the public examination of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki, October 27, 2007.
Mr. Opponent, Mr. Custos, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is no surprise that a librarian’s index labels my dissertation with “metaphor” as its main theme, in spite of the title’s insistence upon the negative and liminal terms: Counter-figures. An Essay on Antimetaphoric Resistance: Paul Celan’s Poetry and Poetics at the Limits of Figurality. Well, a discourse on “antimetaphoric resistance” will of course also be about metaphor, and I must concede that the librarian is not completely mistaken, even though I insist, in the text, that “the present dissertation will not have been about metaphor.”
What exactly “will it have been” about, then? If it is not, in the last analysis, primarily concerned with “the application of a strange name,” as the concise version of Aristotle’s definition goes, or the “affair between a predicate with a past and an object that yields while protesting,” as metaphor has been defined by a modern author, what does it concern then?
I would say that the main contention about metaphor in my thesis is, very simply and modestly, that before applying the concept of metaphor to poetry, or to language in general, it would perhaps be better to give a moment’s thought to the original ambivalence characterizing Aristotle’s relationship with metaphor, and his scorn for Plato’s use of what he calls “empty words and poetic metaphors,” an objection which may be legitimate in regard of certain turns of phrase in Plato’s dialogues, but not always in regard of poetry. And another moment’s thought could be given, then, to the fact that Aristotle’s definition of metaphor destroys itself as soon as we apply its principles back into itself: one of these principles is the isolation of words and phrases out of their context. But it is also the context of Aristotle’s definition we should pay attention to.
Metaphor has always been lying suspended between philosophy and literature, and sometimes it seems that neither one nor the other is willing to accept it as its own.
Even though I take some liberties with the term “counter-figure” and its partial synonym “antitype,” and I mean liberties with respect to the historical determinations of these terms, the terms “antimetaphor” and “antimetaphoric” are by no means my invention. While according to Paul de Man, for example, metaphor is – or can be – “antipoetic,” according to Paul Celan, poetry is – or can be – “essentially antimetaphoric.” In addition to these paradoxical, unorthodox statements, let us mention that for example Beda Allemann describes Franz Kafka’s stories as “antimetaphoric,” and defines this antimetaphoricity as follows: “the circumstances and possible explanations of what happens are reduced step by step to a core that can no longer be explained.”
Yet, often it seems that even when we reach such a limit of explanation which is at the same time a limit of metaphoricity, metaphor tends to return in one way or another: in his essay on “Metaphor and Antimetaphor,” Allemann actually finds in modern poetry “absolute metaphors” and “a metaphorical language free from metaphors.” Even though I do not totally agree with Jonathan Culler when he says that criticism should just “scrap” the notion of metaphor, I am not totally at ease with Allemann’s notion of “a metaphorical language free from metaphors.”
Paul Celan is perhaps the most relentlessly antimetaphoric of all poets, and without the naïveté of those writers who just try to keep their language as “plain” and “ordinary” or “realistic” as possible, without the “ornaments” of eloquence. Resistance to metaphor is interesting precisely where it is paradoxical, against the odds, as when Martin Heidegger states that Hölderlin’s talk of “words, like fowers” is not metaphorical, that the “words, like flowers” are no metaphors, and not even a metaphor of metaphor.
But even when I insist that my “dissertation will not have been about metaphor,” the term “metaphor” also insists, appearing even at the very end of the book. As the very last words of the whole dissertation, I cite one of Paul Celan’s fragments on poetry, which I would translate as follows:
Poetry makes the reader its momentary complicit. / This complicity is punctual, but – and this is the chance for all that are involved, namely the author and the reader – repeatable [punctual but repeatable, that is what Celan says, and continues]: that is precisely the limit to which metaphor, even metaphor, is carried. [Die Dichtung macht den Leser zu ihrem augenblicklichen Mitwisser. / Diese Mitwisserschaft ist punktuell, aber, das ist die Chance für alle Beteiligten, also Autor und Leser, wiederholbar: das gerade ist die Grenze, an welche die Metapher – auch sie – geführt wird.]
What does this carrying metaphors to the limit or borderline (die Grenze) – the limit called complicity – mean then? First of all, we may notice that this fragment resembles Paul Celan’s most famous statement about tropes and metaphors, in the Meridian speech – I read it now in John Felstiner’s translation:
And then what would the images be? / Something perceived and to be perceived only now and only here, once, again and again once. And so a poem would be the place where all tropes and metaphors will be carried ad absurdum.
Let us say, then, that it is this ad absurdum that I am more interested in, more than in metaphor.
Thousands and thousands of pages have been consecrated to metaphor during the last few decades, and we may find among this proliferation of metaphor studies also those that approach the limits of metaphoricity in intriguing ways. In the realm of the so-called philosophy of language or analytic philosophy, two interesting contributions must be mentioned: Donald Davidson’s contention that there is no “metaphorical meaning” in addition to a metaphor’s “literal sense or meaning,” because “insinuation is not meaning,” and Ted Cohen’s association of metaphors and jokes, by virtue of them both being mostly unparaphrasable and based on a “cultivation of intimacy,” namely a pre-propositional horizon shared by the metaphor maker and the reader or critic.
But when metaphor becomes unparaphrasable or untranslatable, impossible or very difficult to restate in propositional form, is it still metaphor, given the old assumptions about “substitution” or “replacement”? It can always be argued that metaphor never was “substitution,” not even for Aristotle. But what about the association between metaphor and joke? It seems reasonable; but what about metaphors and jokes and poetry? As far as I can see, the association of metaphors and jokes rather reveals the disassociation between metaphors and poetry than their unity: the average joke incites, even when it cannot be paraphrased, one “correct” reaction; you don’t have to “get” a poem in the way you “get” a joke; understanding a poem is, as I would argue, radically different from understanding a joke or metaphor, because one of the crucial elements in understanding poetry is the recognition of its essential equivocality which cannot be exhausted by any single “cultivation of intimacy.” Poetry’s “secret of the encounter,” of which Celan speaks, does not consist of solving riddles or “getting the joke,” and it is not simply a tacit agreement between the poem’s “complicits,” or a “benign competition between the critic and the metaphor maker,” of which Davidson rather complacently speaks.
But what about the complicity, Mitwisserschaft of which Celan speaks? It is punctual, it is instantaneous, ephemeral, and yet indeed, repeatable: always again only for once. Inasmuch as there are tropes and metaphors in a poem (and while Celan has actually also written that poetry is “essentially antimetaphoric”), they are there to be “carried ad absurdum.” How does this reductio ad absurdum happen, then? Let me try to demonstrate.
A great deal of the problematics dealt with in my dissertation could be condensed into an aphorism by René Char that I have quoted as an epigraph to the first part of the treatise, without actually directly discussing it:
La poésie est de toutes les eaux claires celle qui s’attarde le moins aux reflets de ses ponts.
Poésie, la vie future à l’intérieur de l’homme requalifié.
Now, instead of quoting Paul Celan’s German translation of these two sentences, let me read Peter Boyle’s English translation:
Of all clear waters poetry is the one that spends the least time lingering over the reflections of its bridges.
Poetry, future life within a requalified man.
Is this a metaphorical piece of language? No doubt: speaking of poetry as “one of the clear waters” must be metaphorical — what else could it be? And the “reflections of its bridges” — what else could this be but a metaphorical way of speaking about reflection on poetry, about poetry, and perhaps about metaphor itself? A “bridge” imposes itself as a metaphor for metaphor almost naturally: a metaphor is a bridge between the sensible and the intelligible, isn’t it? And is it not a bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar and back — especially back. But what is it that Char’s aphorism says when we understand it this way and translate it into these terms or with the help of these reflections?
First of all, “clear waters” seems to be just a metaphor in anticipation of, or functioning together with, the continous metaphor of “spending the least time lingering over the reflections of its bridges” — the bridges of poetry. The whole sentence is a sort of continuous or extended metaphor, a pure unmixed metaphor with clear waters and reflections and bridges as its vehicles, all in perfect harmony like a counterpoint. Second, when we try associating “reflections” and “bridges” with the interpretative activity, poetry appears as that which flows quickly past all these and does not really stop with these reflections and bridges, or is not stopped by them, does not tarry at the reflections of its bridges, is not dammed up by them and does not give a damn, so to say. Is it not a little like saying that the poem is not concerned with our metaphors, that it remains resistant to our metaphors or even to its own metaphors? Inasmuch as we make these interpretative decisions about the metaphors in this poem, and that is, inasmuch as we identify the visible reflections upon a stream of water with reflection in another sense, an intelligible sense, and inasmuch as we identify the bridges where we can stand and see the reflections in the clear waters of a stream with our activity of contemplating these reflections, or contemplating poetry as one of the clear waters, poetry reflected in the image of clear waters running beneath a bridge, these – as it seems – inevitable identifications and associations, it seems also that this conclusion is inevitable too: poetry itself defies our metaphors. Or let us say at least that it defies the interpretative decisions and determinations that we apply to its “images”: they retain their capability to address us “always again only for once,” as it is said in Celan’s Meridian; they remain to be “perceived only now and only here, once, again and again once.”
But now, let us look at this situation from another angle. Let us imagine ourselves on a bridge, looking at the clear waters running beneath the bridge and across its reflections, or our reflections. Of course, it is probable that each of us already pictured this standpoint to ourselves, at least a brief moment before considering the logical relations between poetry, namely the apparent tenor or focus of this poem, and the images that appear to be the vehicles or the frame of the extended metaphor. This imaginary interior scene appears to be the aesthetic dimension or the dimension of beauty, while the considerations of the linguistic structure as consisting of logical relations between the terms moves beyond the aesthetic in this simple sense; it is a sort of “poetological” dimension that studies or establishes the poem’s rational structure; the notion of metaphor is indeed based on the rational structure of proportional analogy. But when we try to linger in the aesthetic dimension before hurrying onto the poetological level, we may also discover something worth questioning. Looking at the clear waters, picturing them to ourselves, are we certain that poetry does not really belong to them, originally? That poetry is not one of the clear waters? For real.
Do we really know clear waters, do we really know what clear waters are, before poetry enters the scene, without “projecting,” so to say, upon them a certain way of viewing them? Now viewing clear waters running can be a poetical way of looking at them, to be sure; it can be a “poetic” projection. But is there really a way of viewing them without projection, without any sort of “poetic” dimension? I would suggest that even the most “abstract” and “objective” view upon the waters projects something upon them, even the most unaffectionate onlooking is “affectionate” and even “poetic” in a certain unpoetic sense. Even the most common or prosaic dwelling along the clear – or unclear, troubled – waters of a stream is a poetical dwelling. And it is clear that all the clear waters running past the bridges and their reflections tend to be rapid; if poetry lingers the least of them all, namely, if it is the most rapid of them all, it is perhaps the one that bestows them all their rapidity and even grants them their clarity.
Of course, according to Char’s aphorism, poetry is one of the clear waters and not just something that resides in the clear waters like the energy that can be drawn from the stream by a hydroelectric powerhouse. Of the clear waters poetry is the one that is also, at the same time, the future life in the interior of a requalified man. To adapt a Rilkean way of speaking, this water belongs to the earth that wishes to become invisible within us. Therefore poetry is not simply something else than the real clear waters, or just metaphorically one of them: it is one of the clear waters inasmuch as it is the transformation of the stream’s clear waters into something interior, something invisible and something that demands us to change our lives: an address and a demand, Anspruch of the clear waters, not only the way we look at the clear waters but also the way they “look at” us – the way they regard us. Against the grandiose institutional power we have something fleeting, something that we cannot quite grasp but which grasps us, even if perhaps only unconsciously – it is still something that marks our future, it is the future life in our interior. Drinking the waters is not the only way that they may become part of our interior life, and future.
Yet another viewpoint is called for, which actually brings us back to the closest proximity with Char’s aphorism, Char’s poem that is (and when I say “closest proximity” I don’t say this because I pretend to know what the aphorism means, or that I have established an intimate relation of complicity with it, but precisely because I must acknowledge that I don’t know what it means, and also that we return to the closest proximity of the very letter of the poem, as a poem): Whatever we may say about the aphorism, we must at least acknowledge that it is a poem about poems, poetry about poetry, and therefore it is one of those clear waters it talks about. It is one of those that linger the least. The poem about poetry as one of the clear waters does what it says and says what it does: it lingers the least. Even while we have reflected upon it, it has already moved ahead. “La poésie, elle aussi, brûle nos étapes,” as Celan says in the Meridian. Poetry is our future life, in spite of our fixed ideas.
Mr. Opponent, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation.