Saturday, 23 June 2018

Can Tolstoy explain Anna Karenina?

Writers are notorious for not being able to communicate adequately a justification of their writings. As a reader, you read a great novel, and you look for some explanation of the reading experience. So, once I had finished reading Anna Karenina, I looked for some external description of the power of the novel. Of course, I did not expect a full explanation from Tolstoy explaining how he managed to create such an overwhelming reading experience, but nonetheless, given the title of his treatise What is Art?, it is tempting to think he might be able to describe why that novel was so powerful.

The key theme of What is Art? is the infection theory:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art … Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Of course, Anna Karenina comprises many separate stories interwoven, and as a reader I will have a response to each of them. As a reader I respond to good or bad characters as they are presented to me. But there does remain, after reading a vast novel such as Karenina, the perhaps foolish feeling of a single work; and if it is a single work, does it create in this reader a single over-riding impression? Perhaps the impression I have is that of Konstantin Levin, by no means perfect, but struggling to make some kind of meaning from his life. That “impression” is indeed a feeling, perhaps, as Tolstoy says, similar to the boy recounting an experience with a wolf, even if the experience never took place:
a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own light-heartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art.
Does is convince? Yes. Is that a sufficient explanation of Anna Karenina? Certainly not, since that novel contains far more than evoking a feeling. Nonetheless, as a justification for creative writing, I think it is a good start. It isn't even necessary for you to have experienced the wolf to be successful in communicating the feeling of an encounter with it. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Are there good and bad metaphors?

George Lakoff is famous (according to Wikipedia) for the “conceptual metaphor theory”, which is that people are influenced by the metaphors they use.

Intrigued by this claim, I read the short book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by Lakoff and co-author Mark Johnson.  Sure enough, by the end of the book, the authors demonstrate (to their satisfaction, if not to mine) that if you choose the wrong metaphor, then who knows what might happen. “Drastic metaphorical differences can result in marital conflict”, state the authors, a claim I never expected to encounter in a book about linguistics. If Adam thinks marriage a haven, but Eve thinks marriage is a journey, then problems lie ahead. No doubt there will be disagreements, but not, I think, because their metaphors have landed them in different places.

How did metaphors become a yardstick (nice metaphor, that) of the good life? In terms of argument, the book proceeds as follows: it’s what I call the “slyly introduced hammer blow”. If you want to say something controversial, don’t say it upfront, but dress up your argument in the most persuasive terms that nobody could disagree with. Then repeat the process two or three times until, when the reader is lulled into acceptance of your drift, you insert something highly contentious. Don’t say it is contentious; simply state it follows logically, as night follows day.

Hence, Metaphors We Live By begins by saying much of human discourse uses metaphor – I can’t deny that. The metaphors we use can often be grouped, and Lakoff and Johnsen capitalise the names of these groups,  a charming gesture. Thus, we have groups such as

TIME IS MONEY, e.g. “I’ve invested a lot of time in her.”

TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, e.g. “Do you have much time left?”

 The argument proceeds without controversy, in easily understood steps such as these, until suddenly signs of metaphors are linked to morality.  For some strange reason, Lakoff and Johnson object to metaphors that do not fit into one of their metaphor groups. Hence the seemingly inoffensive phrase “the foot of the mountain”, which is condemned outright:

“Examples like the foot of the mountain are idiosyncratic, unsystematic, and isolated. They do not interact with other metaphors, play no particularly interesting role in our conceptual system, and hence are not metaphors that we live by.”

Where did this argument come from?  Commentators have been complaining for years about “stale” use of language, and “dead” metaphors, but they are not usually trained linguists.  For Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphors we use have to be those that “enter into our everyday lives” – otherwise they are dubious.

The claims about the moral value of choosing the right metaphor are only fully stated in the book’s final chapter, when the authors become positively lyrical. I bet you had no idea that by adopting the correct use of metaphor, as described by Lakoff and Johnson, your life will be less “impoverished”.

I completely agree that in a conversation, “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common.” But to say that the well-known “conduit” principle, which states that ideas are objects, linguistic expressions are containers, and communication is sending, is “pathetic” or even “evil” seems to be overstating the case.  “When a society lives by the Conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products”.

How then should we use metaphor? That isn’t so clearly described, but there is a reference in Chapter 30 to “appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives”, in other words, that provide “self-understanding”. If self-understanding is possible through metaphor, why not then claim that metaphor enables “ritual”, “aesthetic experience”, and “politics”- and the authors have a section dedicated to each of these topics. Why politics, for example? Because “a metaphor in a political or an economic system, by virtue of what it hides, can lead to human degradation.” Lakoff & Johnsen quote the metaphor “Labor is a resource” and point out the labor could be “meaningful” or “dehumanized”. This seems to be an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that words in a language determine the way we think. It recalls the famous Roman proverb quoted by Marx in Capital, “Pecunia non olet”, meaning that cash – coins and, today, notes -  carry no associations from the possibly illegal and devious things they might have been involved with in an earlier transaction. For Lakoff, metaphors seem to be like coins, in that coins do not carry associations of the situations in which they have been transacted, but some moralists believe that they should. For Lakoff, the simple phrase “labor is a resource” is deeply suspicious: “the blind acceptance of the metaphor can hide degrading realities”, since phrases such as these are often used in a context where labour is seen as a cheap, undervalued resource.  Yet Lakoff himself earlier in the book has no difficulties with TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE.

Next time I use a metaphor, I’ll think carefully about how it can enter my everyday life.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Thoughts about the Afterlife

Last Judgement, Beauvais Cathedral, 16th century
One of the odd things that struck me on reading Dante is how obsessed he is with the afterlife and the Church's emphasis on judging the world. So absorbed is he in describing the afterlife, it seems, that he does not appear to notice the ludicrousness of apportioning everyone in human history to a specific location in the afterlife, like marking an examination. Today we laugh at the scales being used to weigh the souls of the dead for their moral goodness, but clearly at the time it was taken very seriously - and few seemed to notice who it was holding the scales.

Philip Almond's book, Afterlife: a history of life after death (2016), mentions this point:
Almond ... notes that as early as the fourth century Ambrose was wanting to acknowledge that a straight division between saved and damned at the point of death was morally crude and unnecessarily harsh. He also acknowledges that the historic preoccupation with purgatory and hell (more than heaven) has been largely for psychological and political reasons - namely to motivate a good and obedient life.[Vernon White, review of Afterlife,TLS, November 4 2016]
Somewhere here the obsession with the afterlife seems to have overtaken ideas of tolerance and acknowledgement of human doubt; something that still occurs today, where attachment to a principle continues to outweigh ideas of reasonableness. It makes those scales of judgment just slightly less endearing.