Readings — From the January 1987 issue

The Action of Metaphor

Thrusting from the head of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden . . .
. . . the black bat night has flown.

Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period–the way the old lady had children–reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme–do/shoe–and thus closes or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea, and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

“Can you fix an idea?” asks Valery. “You can think only in terms of modifications.” Characters, place, and an action “once upon a time” are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme-techniques of sound that determine the psycho-physical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has sounded his part that another may succeed it.

St. Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation”, which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat.”

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

This transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “clean, clean, unbearable cleanness” of his thigh bone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition-let alone transformation of Hernandorena-which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say “unbearable,” he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belong to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.

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More from Leonard Michaels:

Readings From the December 1992 issue

After a Fight

Readings From the December 1987 issue

Literary Talk

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