In defense of metaphor

"That's how they all squeal at first," he said.
"As if the world could be changed without killing someone." Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Grieche sucht Griechin Mephistopheles: No Lord, I believe that, as always, A few years ago, the papers announced that the government of South Africa was going to set up a programme to import and producelow-cost drugs to treat patients with AIDS. Almost four years after theannouncement, the Association of Pharmaceutical Industries, whichrepresents several of the largest laboratories in Europe and NorthAmerica, filed a suit in the High Court of Pretoria, claiming that the SouthAfrican law which allowed for such a programme --a law signed by NelsonMandela-- contravened the international copyright and patent agreementmeant to protect the rights of scientists, artists and writers.
In South Africa today there are 4.2 million people infected with the HIV virus, close to 10% of the population, the highest percentage in theworld. They cannot be treated, purely for economic reasons. A year ofAIDS drugs costs, in Europe or North America, between twenty andthirty thousand American dollars. This, in Africa (and in most of Asia, andin South America) is far beyond a common mortal's dreams. Localpharmaceutical companies, however, have managed to produce genericdrugs (that is to say, the same drugs as their costly European andAmerican counterparts, without the designer labels) at a tiny fraction ofthe price, about four hundred dollars for a year's treatment. In answer tothis, the largest of all pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline (bornfrom the fusion of the two British giants, Glaxo-Wellcome and SmithKline-Beecham) solemnly declared that "the patent system must be maintainedat all costs". At all costs.
It will be said that without the monetary investment of these companies, scientific research would be impossible. To allow for newdiscoveries, those with the money must be coaxed into investing inresearch and, in order to get people with money to invest in anything, theymust be convinced that their money will make a profit. Not just a profit,but a large profit. And a guaranteed profit. And what greater guaranteecan be found on this earth than sickness leading unto death, and thehuman desire to overcome it. Therefore, the temptation for setting up apharmaceutical company in our time is clearly strong. The motives behindsuch companies are not what one would call philanthropic: the call forhealing is not foremost in their mandate. There is an illumination in thesixteenth-century French manuscript Chants Royaux du Puy de Rouenthat depicts Christ as an apothecary, dispensing (at cost, I'm sure) thedrugs of eternal life to Adam and Eve. I don't believe this image is knownto the trustees of GlaxoSmithKline.
Now, barely a few months ago, due to international pressure, thirty-nine of the biggest companies dropped their suit in South Africa.
The protests and letter campaigns of Doctors Without Borders and otherorganisations created what one of the pharmaceutical companies called"exeedingly adverse publicity"; carefully balancing profit gained fromusury and profit lost from a tainted image, the advertisement-savvycompanies chose to negotiate. However, the question of the legitimacy ofthese gargantuan profits remains unanswered.
How can we (I mean our societies) tempt these companies into investing in scientific research without giving them in exchange the lives ofmillions of human beings? I leave the practical problem of funds, trusts,rates and taxes to economists, my elders and betters, and choose toconcentrate instead on the other factor in this equation: the moral contextwhich allows these practices to thrive.
Is it possible for a society to pose convincingly such moral imperatives while addressing effectively the practical demands of thescientific industry? Is it possible for a society to consider, at the same time,the urgencies of science and the context within which that sciencedevelops? "Erst kommt das Fressen, dan kommt die Moral", sniggeredBrecht some time ago. "First comes the fodder, then the morals." Is itpossible for a society to lend equal importance to both morals and fodder,to the ethos and to the business of a society simultaneously? This ancientquestion keeps cropping up, again and again, in all ages and under all skies.
It was asked when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of fair winds that would allow the Greeks to sail to Troy. It wasillustrated by Shaw in Major Barbara. It was implicit when, in search ofChinese investments, the Canadian Prime Minister refused to address thequestion of human rights in China. It was imagined by Mary Shelley inFrankenstein and by Wells in The Island of Dr Moreau. It was raisedwhen the Nazi doctors experimented on live human beings. Its trueessence was put into a story by Oscar Wilde, when the Young King, whorefuses to be crowned in jewels crafted by suffering, asks whether the richman and the poor man are not brothers, and receives the answer, "Aye,and the name of the rich brother is Cain." This unanswerable question is all-important. Literature, as we know all too well, does not offer solutions, but poses good conundrums. It iscapable, in telling a story, of laying out the infinite convolutions and theintimate simplicity of a moral problem, and of leaving us with theconviction of possessing a certain clarity with which to perceive not auniversal but a personal understanding of the world. "What in the world isthis emotion?" asks Rebecca West after reading King Lear. "What is thebearing of supremely great works of art on my life that makes me feel soglad?" I know that I have come across that emotion in all kinds ofliterature, supremely great and supremely small, in a line here and there, aparagraph, and sometimes, not often, a whole book, for no obviouslydiscernible reason, when something that is being told about a particularcharacter or situation, suddenly acquires for me, its reader, enormousprivate importance.
Are Don Quixote's quixotic gestures commendable when, after threatening a farmer for viciously beating his young apprentice, the farmerredoubles his punishment once Don Quixote is safely out of sight? IsPoirot, at the end of his long life, justified in murdering a murderer inorder to prevent others from being murdered? Is it excusable for Aeneasto abandon to her tears the welcoming Dido for the sake of the glory ofthe future Roman Empire? Should Monsieur Homais have received thecroix d'honneur after the death of the miserable Bovarys? Is Galdos'sDoña Peffecta a monster or a victim, and should we pity him or fear him,or (this is much more difficult) fear and pity him at precisely the sametime? Reality deals in specifics under the guise of generalities. Literature does the contrary, so that A Hundred Years of Solitude can help usunderstand the fate of Carthage, and Goneril's arguments can assist us intranslating the dubious ethical dilemma of General Aussaresses, thetorturer of Algiers. I'm tempted to say that perhaps this is all thatliterature really does. I'm tempted to say that every book that allows areader to engage with it, asks a moral question. Or rather: that if a readeris able to delve beyond the surface of a given text, such a reader can bringback from its depths a moral question, even if that question has not beenput by the writer in so many words, but its implicit presence elicitsnevertheless a bare emotion from the reader, a foreboding or simply amemory of something we knew, long ago. Through this alchemy, everyliterary text becomes, in some sense, metaphoric.
Literature handbooks since the Middle Ages have arduously distinguished between metaphor and image, image and simile, simile andsymbol, symbol and emblem. Essentially, of course, the intellectual insightthat conjures up these devices is the same: an associative intuition intent onapprehending the reality of experience not directly but once removed, asPerseus did in order to see the face of the Gorgon, or Moses the face ofGod. Reality, the place in which we stand, cannot be seen as long as weare in it. It is the process of "once removed" (through imagery, throughallusion, through plot) that allows us to see where and who we are.
Metaphor, in the widest sense, is our means of grasping (and sometimesalmost understanding) the world and our bewildering selves. It may bethat all literature can be understood as metaphor.
Metaphor, of course, breeds metaphor. The number of stories we have to tell is limited, and the number of images that echo storiesmeaningfully in every mind is small. When Robén Dario speaks of El mar, como un vasto cristal azogado. he is hearing once more the sea (the same sea) that Mallarmé listens for, solongingly, after telling us that "all flesh is sad" and he's "read all thebooks". It is the same terrifying sea that Paul Celan hears, "umbellet vonder haiblauen See", "barking in the shark-blue sea". It is the wave thatbreaks three times for the tongue-tied Tennyson on "cold grey stones" --the same "tremulous cadence" that moves Matthew Arnold on DoverBeach and makes him think of Sophocles "who long ago/ Heard it on theAegean, and it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow,/ Of human misery." Mallarmé, Celan, Tennyson, Arnold, Sophocles are all present inDario when, far away on the Nicaraguan shore of the Pacific Ocean, hesees the metallic water shine. And what does the reader find in that sound?Arnold says it exactly: we find "in the sound a thought". A thought, wecan add, that translates itself through the power of metaphor into aquestion and into the vaporous ghost of an answer.
Every act of writing, every creation of a metaphor is a translation in at least two senses: in the sense that it recasts an outer experience or animagining into something that ellicits in the reader a further experience orimagining; and in the sense that it transports something from one place toa different one -- the sense in which the word was employed in the MiddleAges to describe the moving of the pilfered remains of saints from oneshrine to another, an activity generously known as furta sacra or holythefts. Something in the act of writing, and then once more in the act ofreading, pilfers, enshrines and changes Arnold's essential literary thoughtfrom writer to writer and reader to reader, building on the experience ofcreation, renewing and redefining our experience of the world.
A few years after Kafka's death, Milena, the woman he had loved so dearly, was taken away by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.
Suddenly life seemed to have become its reverse: not death, which is aconclusion, but a mad and meaningless state of brutal suffering, broughton through no visible fault and serving no visible end. To attempt tosurvive this nightmare, a friend of Milena devised a method: she wouldresort to the books she had read, stored in her memory. Among the textsshe forced herself to remember was a short story by Maxim Gorki, "AMan Is Born".
The story tells how the narrator, a young boy, strolling one day somewhere along the shores of the Black Sea, comes upon a peasantwoman shrieking in pain. The woman is pregnant; she has fled the famineof her birthplace and now, terrified and alone, she is about to give birth. Inspite of her protests, the boy assists her. He bathes the newborn child inthe sea, makes a fire and prepares tea. At the end of the story, the boy andthe peasant woman follow a group of other peasants: with one arm, theboy supports the mother; in the other he carries the baby.
Gorki's story became, for Milena's friend, a paradise, a small safe place into which she could retreat from the daily horror. It did not lend meaning to her plight, it didn't explain or justify it; it didn't even offer herhope for the future. It simply existed as a point of balance, reminding herof the light at a time of dark catastrophe.
Catastrophe: a sudden and violent change, something terrible and incomprehensible. When the Roman hordes, following Cato's dictum,razed the city of Carthage and strew salt over the rubble; when theVandals sacked Rome in 455 leaving the great metropolis in ruins; whenthe first Christian crusaders entered the cities of North Africa and afterslaughtering the men, women and children set fire to the libraries; whenthe Catholic Kings of Spain expelled from their territories the cultures ofthe Arabs and the Jews, and the Rabbi of Toledo threw up to Heaven thekeys of the Ark for safekeeping until a happier time; when Pizarroexecuted the welcoming Atahulapa and effectively destroyed the Incacivilisation; when the first slave was sold on the American continent; whenlarge numbers of Native Americans were deliberately contaminated withsmallpox-infected blankets by the European settlers (in what must count asthe world's first biological warfare); when the soldiers in the trenches ofWorld War I drowned in mud and toxic gases in their attempt to obeyimpossible orders; when the inhabitants of Hiroshima saw their skin fly offtheir body under the great yellow cloud up in the sky; when the Kurdishpopulation was attacked with toxic weapons; when thousands of men andwomen were hunted down with machetes in Rwanda; and now, when thesuicide planes struck the twin towers of Manhattan, leaving New York tojoin the mourning cities of Madrid, Belfast, Jerusalem, Bogotá andcountless others, all victims of terrorist attacks -- in all these catastrophes,the survivors may have sought in a book, as did Milena's friend, somerespite from grief and some reassurance of sanity.
For a reader, this may be the essential, perhaps the only justification for literature: that the madness of the world will not take us overcompletely though it invades our cellars (as the Brazilian novelist Machadode Assis pointed out) and then softly takes over the dining-room, theliving-room, the whole house1. The poet Joseph Brodsky, prisoner inSiberia, found it in the verse of W. H. Auden. For Reinaldo Arenas, lockedaway in Castro's prisons, it was in the Aeneid; for Oscar Wilde, at ReadingGoal, in the words of Christ; for Haroldo Conti, tortured by theArgentinian military, in the novels of Dickens. When the world becomes 1Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, cap. VIII: ".passarmansamente do sótão à sala de jantar, daí a de visitas e ao resto." incomprehensible, we seek a place in which comprehension (or faith incomprehension) has been set down in words.
On Tuesday 11 September, having heard the unbelievable news, I opened Chateaubriand's Memoirs d'Outre-Tombe and came across thefollowing: "The Revolution would have carried me along, had it not begunwith murder: I saw the first head carried at the end of a pike and I drewback. Murder will never be in my eyes an object of admiration or anargument for freedom; I know nothing more servile, more despicable,more cowardly, more narrow-minded than a terrorist." Across thecenturies, Chateaubriand speaks to me of my own time and place.
Every act of terror protests its own justification. It is said that before ordering each new atrocity, Robespierre would ask, "In the name ofwhat?" But every human being knows, intimately, that no act of terror ispossibly justified. The constant cruelty of the world (and also, in spite ofeverything, its daily miracles of beauty, kindness and compassion) bewilderus because they spring up with no justification, like the miracle of rain (asGod explains to Job) falling "where no man is". The primordial quality ofthe universe seems to be absolute gratuity. Attempting to push the creativeact as far as possible outside the confines of the rational mind, to free itfrom prejudices and conventions, André Breton outrageously suggested, inthe second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930, that "the simplest Surrealist actconsists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly,as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd." He meant the action toexist only in the sphere of the unrestrained imagination. He was writingabout literature; reality co-opted his writing.
Of all this we are aware, as we also aware the old trusims: that violence breeds violence, that all power is abusive, that fanaticism of anykind is the enemy of reason, that propaganda is propaganda even when itpuports to rally us against iniquity, that war is never glorious except in theeyes of the victors who believe that God is on the side of large armies.
This is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books:to find words and metaphors for what we already know.
Metaphor builds on metaphor and quotation on quotation. For Montaigne, for Thomas Browne, for Martin Buber, for Anne Carson, thewords of others are a vocabulary of quotations in which they express theirown thoughts. For Joyce, for Eliot, for Borges, for Lawrence Sterne thoseother words are their own thoughts, and the very act of putting them onpaper transforms those words imagined by others into something new,reimagined through a different intonation or context. Without this continuity, this purloining, this translation, there is no literature. Andthrough these dealings, literature remains immutable, like the tired waves,while the world around it changes.
During a staging of Ionesco's Rhinoceros in Algiers, at the height of the War of Independence, after the hero, Béranger, had pronounced theplay's last brave words, "Je ne capitule pas!", the entire audience,Algerian independantistes and French colonials, burst out in cheers. Forthe Algerians, Béranger's cry echoed their own, intent on not giving uptheir struggle for freedom; for the French, the cry was theirs, intent on notsurrendering the land their fathers had conquered. Ionesco's words are, ofcourse, the same. The sense (the reading) is different.
It may be useful here to look at the practical side of this question of intellectual ownership, that is to say, at the notion of literary copyright.
What it sets out to protect is not the right of, say Homer, to put himselfforward as sole inventor of the expression "the wine-dark sea", but ratherto regulate the exploitation of that expression by, say, Ezra Pound and theGreek Tourist Board. While Martial brags about his poems being read byeven the centurions posted at the empire's farthest borders, he alsocomplains about publishers who sell those poems to the far-flungcenturions without paying him, the author, for the privilege. It was inorder to make sure that Martial got his sestertium, that on August 4, 1789,the Revolutionary Assembly in Paris abolished all privileges of individuals,cities, provinces, organisations, and replaced them by the notion of rights.
Authors as well as publishers, printers and booksellers were grantedparticular rights regarding a text, and would from then on share in theprofits of what the author had written, the publisher published, the printerprinted and the bookseller sold. Two essential points were made. The first,that "the work is deemed created, independently of its being renderedpublic, by the very fact of its having been conceived by the author, even ifleft unfinished." The second, that "intellectual property is independent fromthe property of the material object itself." That is to say, Rhinocerosbelongs to Ionesco even before the first production, independent from thefact that Algerians and French may each have appropriated the playthrough their individual readings. The "value" of Rhinoceros belongs toIonesco.
What is this value? This is the best answer I know: "Value does not carry whatever it is written on its forehead. Instead, it transforms each ofthe fruits of labour into a hieroglyph. In time, man seeks to decipher themeaning of the hieroglyph, to penetrate the secrets of the social creation towhich he contributes, and this transformation of useful objects into objectsof value is one society's creations, just like language itself." The author ofthis splendid discovery is the sadly ill-reputed Karl Marx.
Value as meaning: anyone interested in literature can grasp the common sense of this notion, akin to Keats's Beauty as Truth and Truth asBeauty. "What imagination seizes as beauty must be Truth -- whether itexisted there or not", Keats wrote to a friend.Value then is a metaphor, asare Truth and Beauty. They stand as conceptual realities, things that weknow are there, in our flesh and blood, but, like the thrill of King Lear,cannot be defined more precisely. We try, of course, for better or forworse, so that every work of art is accompanied by its critical assessmentwhich, in turn, gives rise to further critical assessments. Some of thesebecome themselves works of art in their own right: Stephen Sondheim'sinterpretation of Seurat's painting "La Grande Jatte", Beckett'sobservations on Dante's Commedia, Mussorgsky's musical comments onthe paintings of Viktor Gartman, Henri Fuseli's pictorial readings ofShakespeare, Marianne Moore's translations of La Fontaine, ThomasMann's version of the musical oeuvre of Gustav Mahler. The Argentiniannovelist Adolfo Bioy Casares once suggested an endless chain of works ofart and their commentaries, beginning with a single poem by the fifteenth-century Spanish poet Jorge Manrique. Bioy suggested the erection of astatue to the composer of a symphony based on the play suggested by theportrait of the translator of Manrique's "Couplets on the Death of HisFather". . Every work of art grows through these countless layers ofreadings, and every reader strips these layers back to reach the work onhis or her own terms, searching to decipher the work's "value". In that lastreading we are alone.
A company, an aptly called Anonymous Society, a protean Multinational or an Umbrella Organisation, is a thing invisible andincorporeal, except in its effects. It has no face, no soul. The "value" of itslabours, the meaning of its metaphors is falsely advertised, and it issociety's dull obligation to read its pronouncements closely, over and overagain, in order to be aware of their potential harm in which we are, ascitizens, implicated.
In March of this year, Paul Stewart, one of the directors of the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, was touring anAIDS clinic in the township of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town.
Boeringher is the maker of nevirapine, a drug used to treat certain AIDS-related illnesses, and Mr Stewart was in South Africa to prevent theproduction of a generic version of the drug. At a certain point in the tour,Mr Stewart came upon an emaciated seven-year-old boy alone in acrowded waiting-room. The boy was too weak to lift his head, and hischest was covered in raw blisters. Mr Stewart grew pale. "I would like topay for his treatment, personally," he blurted out. Wisely, the clinic'sdirector told Mr Stewart that it was too late for such private emotionalresponses. Mr Stewart had to do more than address one single heart-breaking case. He had to confront the vastness of the problem, the largemoral question, the horror of which the seven-year-old boy was the visiblereality, a horror in which Mr Stewart's company played an intricate part, ahorror which Mr Stewart could not change by the expiatory gesture ofdigging into his pockets.
I am not certain that a piece of writing, any writing, however brilliant and moving, can affect the reality of South Africa's AIDSsufferers, or any other reality. There may be no poem, however powerful,that can remove one ounce of pain or transform a single moment ofinjustice. But there may be no poem, however poorly written, that maynot contain, for its secret and elected reader, a consolation, a call to arms, aglimmer of happiness, an epiphany. Something there is in the modest pagethat, mysteriously and unexpectedly, allows us, not wisdom, but thepossibility of wisdom, caught between the experience of everyday life andthe experience of literary reality.
There is perhaps a metaphor that may conjure up this space between our imagining of the world and the page (from the point of viewof the writer) or the space between the solid page and our imagining theworld (from the point of view of the reader). In the seventh canto of theInferno, Dante describes the punishment of thieves who in the looking-glass universe of sin and retribution are condemned to losing even theirown human forms and are endlessly transformed into creature aftermonstruous creature. These transformations happen in staggered stages, gradually, so that at no one time the agonised soul is a single self-possessedshape. And Dante says (this, in Richard Wilbur's translation): Just so, when paper burns, there runs beforethe creeping flame a stain of darkish huethat, though not black as yet, is white no more. Between the blankness of the page and the authoritarian letters in black, there is a space, a moment, a colour in which, everchanging, thewriter and the reader, both, may find illumination just before the meaningis consumed by the flames.


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