GS 297, Fall, 2015
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3. Metaphor, Part 1
Language Profile Survey (name optional)
1. What language is for you your “Birth/native/mother tongue”?
5. In what languages besides English do you have a moderate amount of conversational speaking ability?
2. What Grammar Is and What Grammar Isn't--
3. Metaphor: the Jewel of any Language
Part 1: Literary Metaphor
A metaphor is a special use of language which offers a comparison asserting a similarity between two apparently dissimilar things. Sometimes these comparisons are explicit (“my love is like a rose”), sometimes they are implicit (“the heirs were wolves”), sometimes they are submerged—which means more or less buried within language. To say someone “attacked” his sandwich is to compare eating with warfare, though only in a very indirect, half-hidden way. Explicit comparisons with “like” or “as” are usually called “similes.”
Metaphors are among a language’s most powerful tools, and as such they present a number of complicated issues. First, think of metaphor in terms of the semantic logic of comparison. Whenever you say A is like B, you ought also to be able—provided it is a well-formed comparison—to add some sort of adverbial expression (often termed the “grounds” of the comparison) that would specify the way you think they are alike. Thus, “My love is like a rose” is a comparison of a love to a rose, and you could add something like “in that s/he is sweet, soft, and beautiful” in order to specify the grounds upon which your comparison is based.
What makes metaphor a particularly powerful form of expression is that while the logic of comparison demands that we understand the expression by understanding some way in which a likeness exists between the thing talked about (in this case “my love”—traditionally called the metaphor’s “tenor”) and the thing the tenor is compared to (in this case “a rose”—traditionally called the “vehicle”), very often, especially in literary contexts, the adverbial phrase that would define the way in which a vehicle is like its tenor is omitted. Instead, the expression’s interpretation is left up to its readers/hearers to supply. To be sure, as speakers of a language we are usually capable of doing just that—we supply our best guess as to what the likely grounds for comparison would be.
Consider the comparison that opens Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:
Here Shakespeare’s speaker compares his aging self (the metaphor’s tenor) to the autumn of the year (the metaphor’s vehicle), the season when leaves turn color and fall from the trees, leaving them bare and shaking in the cold autumnal winds. But while the speaker gives you details about autumn, he doesn’t actually explain how they are like him. That doesn’t, however, mean we can’t understand his thought. For if we think of the details he gives us, they suggest things we know about how old age is like autumn: if trees lose leaves as the year grows old, so human beings lose hair, and if trees begin to look thin and bare as their leaves fall, so, too, do older people begin to look gaunt and less full. And if wind can cause bare limbs to shake, so can the weaknesses and palsies of old age.
So we could rephrase what Shakespeare writes by expanding his metaphor with a “how”-clause that gives the grounds which explain how the metaphor is to be understood: In me you may see someone who is in his autumn in that my signs of age are like a tree's signs of going dormant: its falling leaves are like my falling hair, its bare boughs are like my loss of strength and beauty, its wind-shaken limbs suggest the palsy I may soon have.
When we expand metaphors in this way we can say that we are "interpreting" the metaphor; we can also say we are participating in a kind of "argument"—something that can be either true or false, or relevant or irrelevant. From this point of view, we can say a metaphor makes a kind of claim about its tenor which we may judge in one way or another: interesting and provocative, or, alternatively, perplexing, misleading, hackneyed, or just plain wrong! The fact is that part of our ability to understand metaphors is our ability to make judgments about how "apt" or "imaginative" or "effective" or even "true" any given metaphor is.
So: a metaphor is not just a comparison, it is also a kind of argumentative claim. We can express that a little more formally by saying that the speaker/writer of a metaphor says in effect: I claim that A is like B, and in support of that claim I can either supply the grounds that support my claim (a full comparison that includes one or more "how"-clauses) or I can leave it to you to do it for me (a condensed metaphor, where you as reader/hearer are left to supply appropriate "how"-clauses).
Whether implicit or explicit, full or condensed, then, all metaphors have a logical form of something like “I assert that A is like B in that G,” where G stands for the metaphor’s grounds—or the explanation of how it makes sense to compare these obviously dissimilar things. Grounds are thus often supplied by one or more of what we can call “how”-clauses.
Expanding condensed metaphors by supplying how-clauses is actually one of the key processes of literary interpretation, since literary metaphors very frequently omit their how-clauses. As a result, recognizing, exploring, and then making explicit the semantic logic of metaphoric comparisons is a central skill that sophisticated readers must cultivate. Indeed, those readers who have not learned to explain the ways in which literary metaphors work will be missing precisely what is often the most powerful dimension of literary expression. Conversely, those who have learned to recognize, explore and then explain metaphors will tend to be more successful readers and writers about literary matters.
So good poets use metaphors well, and often without including how-clauses to explain how their readers are supposed to understand their comparisons. But for the rest of us (and for bad poets!), not all metaphors allow one to drop the how-clause and still be understood. We can get away with “My love is a rose” because it has been used so many times that it is a thought that anyone can understand. But the very similar looking metaphor “My cat is a dog” doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Indeed, it seems a pretty unclear way of saying something, since without any other help, hearers of that sentence are unlikely to know how to proceed in understanding the proposed comparison. Indeed, since the comparison is implicit (there is no “like” used), we may not even think it IS a comparison! Does the speaker mean she actually has no cat, but a dog instead? Or does she simply mean she does have a cat but that it is a terrible cat? (as in the expression “what a dog of a meal”).
In such cases of indecision a hearer can ask the speaker for the relevant grounds: “I don’t get it—how is your cat like a dog?” At which point the speaker might add an explicit how-clause: well, she’s like a dog in that she waits at the window for me to come home in the evening. Indeed, instead of “My cat is a dog” she might even clarify her comparison by rephrasing the sentence as “My cat sits in the window at night, dog-like, patiently waiting the sound of my car in the drive.” There she would have given you both tenor and vehicle, along with the grounds that explain how, exactly, the comparison is to be taken.
So let me sum up. Metaphors are comparisons in which two non-identical, dissimilar things are compared in order to focus on one or more ways in which they are alike. Sometimes the ways in which they are alike is fully spelled out, but very often the ways in which the two things are alike is not articulated. This creates what is in effect a compression or condensation of meaning—which in the hands of a skilled poet offers readers an opportunity to explore the semantic logic of that poet’s language in an effort to find satisfying significations, but which among unskilled poets and all the rest of us can lead instead to failed communication or even misunderstanding.
The Semantics of Metaphor
That’s a brief sketch of what a metaphor is—now let’s talk about the semantics of metaphor. How do human speakers of language go about making sense of these comparisons?
Linguists have often talked about metaphor in terms of semantic features. You learned in our semantics chapter about "lexical fields" as a way of grouping various words in terms of the similarities of the entities they refer to. Thus dogs, cats, elephants, human beings, and ducks are all members of the lexical field of "animals," while broccoli, mustard, grapes and lettuce are all members of the lexical field of "edible things." Of course, duck, for some is also a member of the lexical field of "edible" things--though none of the other members of that field listed here are animals.
To organize the relations between the lexical fields of reference of different words linguists have often resorted to what they have called "semantic features." This is a way to categorize any given word in terms of the kinds of things it can be used to refer to, and it includes such things as human and non-human, animate and non-animate, concrete (as in something actually visible, even touchable) and abstract (or, "not-concrete"). These are binary categories, which means they demarcate exactly the class of those things that have the named quality, and exclude everything else. Thus, you and I are members of the [+human] class; we are also [+concrete] and [+animate] (where the brackets indicate we are using these words to designate semantic features. And we can distinguish ourselves from our pets (except those which don't breathe) by noting that while our pet dogs and cats and fish are like us in being marked [+animate], we are differentiated from them in that they are not human—which makes them [-human].
Linguists have proposed lots of semantic features, some with very large classes like [+/- human], [+/- animate], [+/- female], and these can be hierarchically arranged. Thus anything that is [+human] is necessarily [+animate], too, which means that [+human] is subordinate to [+animate]. Similarly, anything that is [+female] is necessarily [+animate], but not necessarily [+human] (though many obviously are!). The sorts of semantic features like these that govern large classes of entities can be called primary features, and they give a way to understand certain sorts of syntactic constraints we must follow when we string words together to make sense. Thus one can say: “The woman wrote an essay” or you can say “The elephant wrote an essay,” and both are syntactically correct. But the first of those two makes an easy sense, while the second requires some special maneuvering. Elephants can do many wonderful things, but writing isn’t among them, and that, in fact, is true for all the animals in the universe except human beings. Thus we can say that while “write” is itself neither animal, vegetable or mineral, still, because it can be used only in combination with entities that are marked [+human], it is also marked for [+human agent], meaning that semantically the word can only be used when the subject of the verb—the agent—is human.
That said, some of you will say that “The elephant wrote an essay” might actually be useable in a conversation, and you’d be right. It might be about Babar, the elephant character in the French children’s stories who did all sorts of human things, or it might be about real elephants but saying something about their doing something that wouldn’t literally be writing, but could still be called that because it bears a certain likeness to it. Maybe the elephant was using her trunk to push around the sand in front of her, and the result was such that you might say: “That elephant’s trunk has moved so much sand that she’s written an epic with it.” In that case, though, you have actually clarified the sentence to show that you are speaking metaphorically, not literally. You could then make your meaning fully explicit with a how-clause: What the elephant has done in the sand is like a kind of writing in that she has used her trunk like a pen to make designs in the sand that bear some resemblance to a series of words or hieroglyphs.
And as for the Babar example, the real solution to that quandary is to notice that Babar may “be” an elephant, but he is also a character in a story, and in that fiction he is marked [+human-like], and thus, pretending as we read that Babar can talk and write and wear suits, we understand easily whatever he does, whether it is marked [+human agent] or not. Babar isn’t after all a story about elephants in the wild, it’s a fantasy about elephants who are pretty much like humans, except with very big noses.
So what? The thing that makes a reader of the Babar sentence go into metaphor-reading mode is an automatic perception on that reader's part of a mismatch of primary features. Elephants are marked [–human], but the verb “write” is marked [+human agent]. So when we read the sentence, we very quickly notice the mismatch and either instantly think that the sentence makes no sense (a literal reading), or we go into our metaphorical reading mode—something all speakers of human languages learn to do—and sort it out that way (a figurative, or metaphoric, reading).
For a different example, think of what happens in Shakespeare’s King Lear when Gloucester remarks at 4.1.33 that before he jumped off the cliff in an effort to kill himself he had been made to “think a man a worm.” With this he makes a comparison between human beings and worms, but his expression is condensed because he doesn’t explain anything about the ways in which he thinks these two entities are alike. He assumes his listeners will fill in that missing part, expanding the bare terms of the metaphor to include the ways in which the likeness makes sense. When this happens, I think of it as a condensation of meaning—something that interestingly does not lose meaning, but instead becomes much more dependent on a reader’s capacity to “read into” what is on the page by looking for features of worms and human beings that could justify such a statement.
What is powerful in literary condensations of this sort is that the expanding we must do if the metaphor is to be understood is left to our imaginations, and often, by using our imaginations, we can expand the expression in very provocative ways. Here Gloucester says only that he used to think man was worm-like, but how exactly could man be worm-like? Gloucester doesn’t say, so we reader/hearers must unpack the comparison to supply an appropriate how-clause, a range of possible meanings, any one of which, or even all of which, might be ways to understand what Gloucester has in mind. Thus humanity might be worm-like in being low, mindless or crawling. Those are all either secondary or tertiary semantic features of worms that could apply to human beings in certain circumstances like those Gloucester was in. Or maybe human beings are to be understood as worm-like in their being repulsive to the touch, a thing no one would want to handle, and thus a thing no one could possible love. Or maybe it’s only to declare us more like a worm than the thing we more frequently would like to think ourselves: a copy of the divine. Each of these would fit, even explain, Gloucester’s state of suicidal despair—why would any human being want to go on living if they really thought themselves to be as low or mindless or soulless or undeserving of love as a worm?
The general point here though isn’t simply that every metaphor has a multiplicity of meanings, but rather that many metaphors have a wide range of potential implication, much or all of it unspoken and functioning only by indirection. As a result, once we’ve noticed a metaphor—“man is a worm”—we are offered an opportunity to explore the logic of how the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor are, and are not, like each other, and to ask how the comparison’s very incompleteness offers perspectives of one kind or another on the speaker or the situation. Sometimes those meanings seem actually intended by the line’s speaker (as Gloucester certainly does mean to suggest that he had been thinking that man is as lowly and unlovable as a worm). But at other times such meanings are only ironically present. Thus we may think—in ways Gloucester himself was obviously not thinking—that while man may indeed be worm-like, many of this play’s characters are far more worm-like than he is. Indeed, although Gloucester has done some pretty stupid and harmful things, and had decided to kill himself in despair, ironically he is by no means the wormiest of this lot. Edmund, Goneril, Reagan, Cornwall—even Lear himself—all seem more worm-like than Gloucester.)
But let’s return to the way linguists would use semantic feature analysis to clarify just HOW it is that we construct these meanings. Man is but a lowly worm, Gloucester says, but that is physically impossible and semantically impossible, too, at least as a literal expression, since “man” is marked [+human], and “worm” is marked [–human]. But the fact that it is “literally” impossible sends our minds into their metaphorical search routines. And what does THAT mean? It means that when we can't interpret something literally we search our internal semantic inventory for ways in which the expression in question could make sense as a comparison. So although the verb here is “is,” and thus suggests identity, it can only make sense if we read it as “is like.” “Like” is the great adjustor word—it allows us to use all sorts of different and diverse words in new contexts to generate new meanings. If we can’t explain something, we’ll sometimes say, “Well, it’s like when you….” Do that well enough and your listener gets the point. But how? How do we figure out that point?
Understanding metaphors, then, is about understanding semantic features, so let's go a little farther towards understanding what we human beings know about the way the semantics of words works.
There are actually three different kinds of semantic features: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary features (like [+abstract (vs concrete), +living, +human, +animal, +vegetable, +/-female, +locomote, +cause, +growing/inchoative and quite a few others]) govern large classes of words. Thus the word cat is marked for: [+animal], [-human], [+/-female]—which means cats are animals, but not human, and can be either male or female. In this they are unlike stones, which though [-abstract] like cats and all other objects in the world, are [-animal]. They are also [-living] and therefore also neither [+female] or [-female]. These features give a fairly general way of seeing similarities and differences across large classes of words.
Secondary features then extend this basic meaning skeleton by adding things we know more specific to given entities. In the case of cats we could add several secondary characteristics: four-legged, whiskered, long-tailed, purring and meowing, pointy ears, domesticated, may hunt small animals and insects, is more or less omnivorous, and has sharp retractile claws and a long tail. (You can, no doubt think of others—e.g., has fur, is a big self-groomer, normally lives to 15 or so). Those features would hold for all cats generally, but (as I say above) with significantly less general scope with respect to all the other concepts and objects in the world than primary features have.
Tertiary features are those significances that come along with a word like cat but which are not necessarily true of any or all of cats, but are rather contained in our cultural knowledges about them. Thus it is said often that cats can see in the dark, although that is actually not true. They can indeed see in lower light than we can, but not in the dark. Still, because it has been said a lot, it has become part of what we “know” (or think we know!) about cats. Similarly it is said of cats that they always land on their feet. This, too, is not actually true (I have paid vet bills for a cat who did not land on his feet when he fell from a height of some ten feet), though they are on the whole pretty agile. Other tertiary features of cats include stand-offishness, nap happy-ness, silent or sneaky walker, sexual profligacy, is easily scared, and is a creature of the night. Many of these features MAY be true of any given cat, but none are necessary to cats as a whole. (Most of my cats have gone to sleep early and didn’t get up until morning.)
So, when someone says “I think there is a new cat-burglar in the neighborhood,” we first recognize that "cat-burglar" is an implicit and condensed comparison (this particular burglar is like a cat somehow, but how is unspecified) and then go on to construct our understanding of how that comparison makes sense by searching through our mental inventory of things-we-know-about-cats that would fit this conversational context, and especially we look through those tertiary features we’ve learned here and there all our lives long, and in this case we can expand this metaphor by proposing that this is a burglar who, like a cat (at least according to our culture’s general semantic store of information about cats), works stealthily and by night. (Note, again, that those two features are both tertiary features; neither is necessary to being a cat, but both are associated with cats and certainly work well here to explain the grounds that support the implicit comparison here of a burglar to a cat.) What we would not expect is that the cat-burglar had retractile claws or fur. Indeed, we'd be pretty surprised if either turned out to be true.
Concepts to know from all of this: metaphor, simile, tenor, vehicle, grounds (how-clause), semantic features (primary, secondary, tertiary), condensation/compression.
part 2: Conceptual Metaphor
Literary metaphors are not the only metaphors in language, even though that has been the traditional understanding of them. In fact, metaphor is a very common occurrence in speech and writing of all sorts. Indeed, we live in a world of figurative comparisons, and most of them pass us by without our even noticing that they are metaphors. Consider the way we talk about arguments. Here is a paragraph about argument:
The language of that paragraph is not unusual, but it is pretty much all based on a single metaphor: engaging in arguments is like engaging in war.
Commenting on the way we talk about arguments as if they were wars, George Lakoff writes:
He then goes on to explain:
George Lakoff, "Humans as Symbol-Using Creatures," p.105
Now, the interesting question is not whether this “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another” happens at all (it obviously does); rather, it is whether the use of war as metaphor in cases like this changes or limits or controls what we actually do when we argue. Lakoff, perhaps the inventor of the field of metaphor study in linguistics, thinks the answer to that question is unequivocally YES.
We could think about this better, perhaps, with a contrastive example. Suppose we changed the metaphor of argument from war to, say, conversation. Here instead of talking about “winning” or “losing” an argument you might instead look to “understanding” and “agreeing.” In that metaphorical context, instead of attacking or undermining your opponents arguments, you’d be offering ideas, explaining why you believe something, giving support to your explanations, engaging others in dialogue about whether and how they might not agree, looking to find ways to bridge differences. Your kind of argument, you might think, would be a whole lot less stressful than an argument whose participants worked within the language of war.
Can we define the difference that shift of metaphor makes? Those who think about conceptual metaphor would suggest it makes a huge difference. Thinking of argument as war reinforces notions of force and winning at any cost; it promotes an ethos of competition, winning and losing, a kind of verbal violence which may actually lead a lot of people to avoid engaging in it altogether. Argument as conversation, by contrast, is far less agonistic, far less threatening either physically or emotionally to its participants. In conversation one can in fact (though in reality we don’t always manage this) agree or disagree without recrimination, or a sense of loss or self-endangerment. Preferring the metaphor of argument as conversation would also allow “face” to be handled differently. As in normal life, conversational argument would allow for conventions of respect and face-saving as part of what makes the process work, and not as a sign of weakness.
If any of that is true, it leads to another question: if argument as conversation can in fact take place, and if most of us would prefer that form of argument to a more agonistic mode, why is argument so often NOT like a conversation? Why does argument so often turn into ego vs. ego? Is it the nature of argument itself, or is it the metaphorical frame within which it is set?
[When I polled you as a class on the question of whether you tend to avoid arguments because of their aggressive, competitive nature almost every one of you indicated that yes, indeed, you did. Would that be the same if an “argument” wasn’t so stressful an enterprise? if it were no more or less than an intelligent and thoughtful conversation?]
These considerations seem fairly uncontroversial. Others are not. Thus the government declares a war on drugs, and we may not notice that that declaration, too, is a metaphor. For what it has us really saying is that we will treat drugs as if they were an enemy to be resisted by all extraordinary means, and we will attack drug runners and peddlers as if they were soldiers in the druggy army. To use this expression instead of something more literal—like "we are going to enforce our drug laws fully and effectively"—seems to many to make us sound more serious, more forceful, and perhaps even, since Americans don’t like to think we ever have or ever could lose a war, already half successful just for having declared one!
So from a president’s point of view to use the war metaphor here makes sense. But does it also make sense in terms of what we actually do? Or in terms of what our actual goals for a national policy with respect to drugs might be? Some would argue that to use a metaphor like war restricts our vision and our realm of possible actions, and converts ordinary human beings (some of which you may know—indeed, one of whom might be someone in this very class) into “enemies.” In fighting "the War on Drugs," such critics would argue, we are thus short on treatment, long on imprisonment, short on clarity about what elements of drug use are abhorrent and socially destructive and long on general and blanket condemnations that many think sweep with the good along with the bad.
We have as a nation similarly declared a “War on Terror.” Maybe that is just the right metaphor—certainly the Bush administration liked it, and the Obama administration has at the very least not very clearly rejected it.
But there are again those who say that the war metaphor here, too, obscures our full vision and, in consequence, our very conceptualization of appropriate ways to respond. If it’s a war, it makes sense to use bombs and drones and so on. And indeed, maybe it makes sense to do that whether we call it a “War on Terror” or not. But, as we noted above with the "War on Drugs," the semantic features of "war" tend to license all sorts of actions that civilized nations reject during peacetime, and this in turn has given rise to the notion that conducting a "war" on terror all around the globe has in fact been way of authorizing a set of actions that Americans, and American law, would normally reject, and screening out, as inappropriate to war, certain actions which might (critics would maintain) result in better outcomes than the dropping of bombs. Critics would say that calling this a "war" helps mask what is an extraordinarily expensive enterprise that wreaks death and destruction even when carried out as humanely as possible. If you are at war, they would argue, you are not working as effectively as you might for political solutions, or for winning hearts and minds with well- targeted foreign aid, infrastructure projects and the like.
Please understand. I’m not here taking a side in this conversation.
Rather, I only point out that we deploy metaphors in many different and
very important ways in all sorts of contexts and all sorts of places,
and to suggest that you as citizen as well as student will
be better served in the long run if you can come to see how these hidden
conceptual metaphors can structure thinking. If the metaphors around
us do in fact impose ways of thinking about many things, wouldn’t
we all want to be able to free ourselves from their over-all conceptual
(adapted from Lakoff, "Humans as Symbol-Using Creatures," pp.105-6)
Two Examples of Metaphor at Work
1. Two Cartoons
5. The GS297 Portfolio
The portfolio for this class is like many other portfolios: it is a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:
1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio.
2) All of the exercises/writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter.
3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.
The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your work for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the nature of the learning you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how those strengths may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about language have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?
However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it.
The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):
The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. Its
presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. To have it returned,
be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty
pages or so you will have submitted.
Munro and Hermeneutics
Last week we began to develop a reading of Munro’s “Boys and Girls.” In this process we have done what we can call interpretation—which means reading the literal story in a figurative way. From this point of view the story is not just about what a woman growing up on a rural Canadian farm remembered about the time the horse got away. It is certainly about that, too, but what trained readers of fiction know how to do is read such stories figuratively, either as metaphors for their own lives, or as a way of talking about human experience in a more general sense. We thus can understand the story as not just about this one child’s growing up, but also about how many (or even all) children grow up.
Moreover, in this story we accept/expect that the author intended that we see this as more than just a “story.” That last element is not necessary for our thinking of this story as a work of literature, or as a literary work, since there are stories we read as literature whose authors’ intentions are either unknown or, if known, not really intending that their story be anything more than just a story. From that point of view, the decision to see something as “literary” in the sense of capable of supporting figurative reading is finally not the author’s, but the reader’s.
In doing what we did with “Boys and Girls” we were enacting a fairly standard role, that of the hermeneut, or of one practiced in hermeneutics. Historically, hermeneutics has been most developed in religious traditions; there you generally have one or more sacred texts which become revered in part because they seem to answer important questions. The answers provided, however, couldn’t possibly be particular to the many, many different situations for which they are sought. Instead, one sees applicability of particular passages to particular situations. This is tricky, and it calls into being a set of interpreters who can do this work. Jewish rabbinical tradition and Christian exegetical tradition develop out of this work and dominate the practices of much of western culture (religion often plays a role in other cultures as well), but while much of hermeneutics as a recognizable process was originally religious, it has also been generalized from the practice of mapping experience onto religious texts or vice versa to the practice of mapping our sense of human experience onto secular “figurative” texts.
We can see figurative texts in two broad categories:
1. texts that seem intended to be read figuratively, or at least lend themselves easily to such readings, and
2. texts that seem clearly not so intended, but which have been read in such ways anyway.
“Boys and Girls” is an example of the first. As an example of the second, let me tell you about a classroom interchange I heard of a few years ago. The class was in geography, and at a certain point the teacher referred to the Thames (the large river that runs through London). She called it the [tεmz]--which is in fact how the British pronouce the word. But at this point one of her students quickly interrupted by saying, “you mean the [θemz], don’t you?”
The sentence “You mean the Thames, don’t you?” is not meant to be read figuratively. It is clearly an effort to correct the teacher’s pronunciation—though, ironically, done so by someone who didn’t actually know how to pronounce the word.
But even though what the professor and the student said is not a “literary” or “figuratively intended” text, we can still see it as a text with multiple “intentions,” and as such readable in ways that go beyond what could be explained by its original intention. Because if you say it was enough just to get that intention straight, you will leave out ways of reading that are both very interesting and yet not “intended” by the speaker of that sentence.
She seems to have meant to be correcting the teacher, but why? Perhaps helpfully, perhaps as a form of subtle attack. Thus she may also have “meant,” though in an unconscious or unrealized way, to be asserting herself in a classroom interpersonal dynamic where she was trying to establish her own sense of agency, of “knowing-ness”; and, any of her actual intentions aside, she was also participating in an exchange that we can read from a cultural point of view as a particular kind of episode in the academic ritual of class-taking. From this last point of view what the student says constitutes a moment of resistance, perhaps, to the sort of disciplining that schooling of necessity constitutes—the over-riding of students’ prior understandings or conceptual dynamics with new information by a teacher.
I’m not being cynical in this last—there is, we have agreed as a culture as well as individually for the most part, good reason for this ritual of education. Learning often requires unlearning; it can be upsetting, painful, boring, intrusive, and all of that. But while we think these rituals are worth enduring because it’s hard to see how we will promote learning in any other way, they can also be wrong-headed and more aimed at indoctrination than education (let us say), or they can simply be a personal exercise in power/domination by a teacher who feels threatened.
But the point is that if we limit ourselves simply to the expressed intent, or even the possible set of intents, of an “author” of a given text, we will be excluding much from what we might quite reasonably and significantly want to say about what a text in its full context “means.”
All of this will matter a great deal as we move on to our next reading: Jasmine. It bears much resemblance to “Boys and Girls,” though it is also very, very different. Some of the themes of B&G are used here, too—which should not surprise us because human cultures, though they differ, all begin in a similar place, with the physical and psychological necessities of human existence. What we do in response to those necessities certainly differs by culture, but the traces of the origins of those actions are similarly there.
So as you read the first chapters of Jasmine, use B&G as a template—against which to ask: what is similar, and what is different.