Tuesday 6 January 2009

Interrogating Meaning in Metaphor

On the past two Wednesdays, I have considered some fascinating ideas about the experience of meaning raised by Alice Flaherty in her book about the experience and neuroscience of the compulsion to write, The Midnight Disease. As a writer, I am obviously fascinated by Flaherty’s analyses for the insights they provide into the extraordinarily varied experience of writing; her hypotheses make it more comprehensible why I might be able to write a complete chapter in one evening, then struggle for six months to write another. But as a social scientist interested in ways that people interpret the motivation expressed by others and themselves in various ways, I find her exploration of the problems associated with the "limbic, primitive, tortured desire to communicate" (p. 234) compelling in an entirely different way.

Although the book is expressly about the way that experience becomes imbued with meaning through the experience of writing, Flaherty’s exploration of phenomena such as metaphor clearly extend beyond the experience of written text to many of the acts of interpretation that make everyday life comprehensible. Understanding of the processes involved in metaphor seems crucial to any analysis of motivation and interpretation. Flaherty’s interrogation of "excessive metaphor" as "one of the processes that goes wrong in delusions" on page 233, for example, seems to provide a useful handle on understanding the politics of interpersonal or intergroup relations – or the myriad acts of translation that lie in the way of clear understanding of our own or others’ motives:
Metaphor lies on a continuum between fact and delusion, and exactly where it lies is critical. Simile becomes metaphor, the "as if" disappears; "I suffer like Jesus" becomes "I am Jesus." Other slides into the delusional are less obvious: "I shall behave, for my own gain, toward that person over there as if she were less human, less real, than I am" is rapidly shortened to "That person is like an object," and again to "That person is an object."
In my work as an ethnographer, trying to interpret the creative impulses and aspirations embedded in the mundane practices of everyday life, I often wonder if it might be useful (or even possible) to consider different ways that people experience meaning and metaphor in particular moods and situations. Like many of the tasks and skills involved in writing fiction, the ethnographic work of eliciting and interpreting narratives of everyday life is often relegated to the category of work that must be learned through experience (or brilliance) and can not be taught. But if the muses of inspiration are more likely to find us at our writing if we are seated comfortably at our desks, fingers on the page already, glass of water nearby, and a long evening ahead, surely there must be generative settings and moods that could act as aids in eliciting the meaningfulness of the metaphors that imbue our everyday locations with significance – the "limbic, primitive, tortured desire to communicate" embedded in the arrangement of the back garden or the parlor trinkets, even if that significance may handily evaporate under the stress of tasks to be done or the dry scrutiny of a social scientist’s interrogation.

Alice Flaherty (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I periodically visit OnFiction and peruse recent posts.

Tuesday's post on metaphor, however, got me reading (and thinking) more slowly.

At first, I found the idea that "metaphor lies on a continuum between fact and delusion" quite insightful but now upon more careful reflection only suggestive and inconclusive.

For instance, the shift from "That person is like an object" to "That person is an object" may or may not be delusional, as it entirely depends on the situation, i.e., the speaker's intention and frame of mind as well as the larger context.

"That person is an object" is trivially true when uttered by a physicist keen on emphasizing the fact that we occupy space-time. After all, we are objects that think and feel and worry and hope, etc.

"That windmill is a ferocious beast" is a delusion, not because metaphor collapses into literalism (which, once again, may or may not be true, depending on the situation), but because Quixote, foolishly deranged mind that he is, confuses falsehoods for facts.

Of course, we can always describe a person's delusion AS IF it were a derangement of metaphorical thinking.

But such a description doesn't make it true.

Which is why I find the idea suggestive but ultimately inconclusive.


Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Thanks, Kevin -- I'm grateful that you've taken up this line of thought; I'm exploring outside my expertise here, but I've found Flaherty's book thought provoking enough to provoke a short series of posts in large part because of just this fine line you highlight between evocative suggestion and inconclusive musing.

I find this a productive line of thought for several reasons; at a very prosaic (and most skeptical) level, the heuristic of the metaphor could be of great practical use in mediating disagreements premised on fundamentally perspectives on an issue (as in land use planning or politics), where it is not uncommon for people to think that people who do not share their perspective must be delusional.

However, I think that the implications of the metaphorical nature of delusion may be rather more profound in the context in which Alice Flaherty is exploring delusion: the domain of temporal lobe disturbances that prompt meaningful seeming effusions of textual production.

For one thing, she points to nature of mental "health" as itself a continuum in contrast to the categorical labels of sanity or insanity our culture is still liable to apply. I will restrain myself from summarizing the whole story, but in a brilliant anecdote toward the end of the book (p.234), Flaherty describes how while being admitted to a psychiatric ward, she attempts (in a move she admits may have been ill-advised, but that was driven by her "limbic, primitive, tortured desire to communicate") to describe to the person admitting her that although afflicted by potentially delusional experience of metaphor, she can still discern between metaphors that are, in fact, delusional and those that are merely exceedingly compelling likenesses (a hand like a leather claw, for example).

Understanding the experience of this continuum seems crucial for addressing the problems with which people who experience delusions are afflicted -- many, Flaherty argues, not related to "mental illness," but rather to the misunderstandings and systematic cruelties to which people experiencing delusions are subject -- Flaherty herself, for example, was labeled psychotic and placed in a locked ward for her effort of explaining her experience of the threshold of delusion, and then (over)treated with psychiatric drugs (neuroleptics), a treatment she argues represents a systematic problem in our cultural imagination of mental health.

As Flaherty mulls over this experience, I hope that this book is the preface to experimental work that will help sketch in some of the specifics of our missing knowledge about the role of metaphor not only in delusion, but in thinking in general.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirsten, I see how the heuristic of the metaphor can be helpful in resolving disputes, especially between people who are bound by a strong common interest, say, a marriage. By allowing subtle shifts in points of view, they can change the unspoken rules and scripts that cause problems. I'm a lot less sanguine about its usefulness in resolving political problems where disagreements are typically rooted in fundamental differences of value, as is the case with such hot-button issues as gay marriage and abortion rights, not to mention the ongoing travail of land, water, and energy access in Palestine.


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