Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Metamorphosizing Metaphor

John Hobbins has a nice posting on "proleptic metaphor" in Job 28. Take a look.

He writes, and maybe this will be a good appetizer:

Skilled authors are in fact very good at planting semes early on in a stream of discourse such that, at the appropriate time, they will, retroactively, bear metaphorical fruit.*

Be sure to read the asterisk at the bottom!

*It is fun, in a statement about metaphor, to use an expression like “planting semes.” I’ve run across people whose wooden view of Scripture makes them break into a sweat when they realize that the Bible contains playful etymologies which, from a linguistic point of view, are false. Sooner or later, when reading the Bible or anything else, it is necessary to “let it be,” to quote the Beatles. As Picasso said, “art is a lie which tells the truth.” The Bible is full of truth, but its authors are as faithful to their subjects as Picasso was to his. Since I am a believer, my response is: praise be to God. bring in Dante, Inferno 16.124: Sempre a quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna; to the truth that has the face of a lie, terminology that perhaps represents Dante's entire Comedy (see Teodolinda Barolini, Undivine Comedy, 58-73).

I've spent more time on simile lately (in Homer and Virgil). I have been playing with the idea that Ovid transforms Virgilian (and, ultimately, Homeric)simile in his Metamorphoses by literalizing it--instead of being "like" something, you become that thing...usually an expression of something you already were, something Dante consciously anxiously imitates with the double metamorphosis of serpent/thief and thief/serpent:

Let Ovid now be silent, where he sings
of sad Sabellus and Nasidius,
And wait to hear what flies off from my bow.
I do not envy him; he never did
transmute two natures, face to face, so that
both forms were ready to exchange their matter.
(Inferno 25.94-99; trans. Mandelbaum)

The one of formerly human form slithers away; the former snake, stands and speaks.

Returning to Virgil, how then can we think of simile (being like), metaphor (being), and metamorphosis (becoming), as verisimilitude subtly shifts into ver, as an image simulates itself from technique to technique, forcing us to work back not just from a proleptic metaphor in a single work, which, by the way, works wonders with the serpentine imagery in Virgil's Aeneid (which takes on myriad forms of "real" serpents to metaphorical ones)?

And then, before the very porch, along
the outer portal Pyrrhus leaps with pride,
his armor glitters with a brazen intelligence
he is like a snake that, fed on poisonous plants
and swollen underground all winter, now
his slough cast off, made new and bright with youth
uncoils his slipper body to the light;
his breast erect, he towers toward the sun;
he flickers from his mouth a three-forked tongue.
(Virgil, Aeneid 2.627-35)

From work to work, from technique to technique, it is as if Virgil's simile was just waiting for metamorphosis, a "planted seme" that bore fruit not just for himself, but for his admiring readers, or perhaps even more for them as simile becomes literalized, but its literalization is "truth with the face of a lie," an invitation to read multivalently. Yet only in retrospect, and it is part of the art of Ovid and Dante that they turn Virgil and Ovid into prologues of themselves, as a mere metaphor (or here simile) becomes proleptic of a later writer.

Perhaps Statius was right about Virgil in this respect, speaking to Virgil in Purgatory, creaing a new productive simile:

You did as he who goes by night and carries
the lamp behind him--he is of no help
to his own self but teaches those who follow
when you declared: 'The ages are renewed;
justice and man's first time on earth return;
from Heaven a new progeny descends.
(Dante, Purgatorio 22.67-72)

The new progeny is not only Christ as Statius says, but the richness of productive imagery that would bear much fruit in retrospect from his planted "semes." Something he could not foresee, but made possible.

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