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A Review of
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2014
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Reviewed by Jacob Slaughter
I am sure that anyone reading this review could provide me with an example of a metaphor. Any metaphor will do. Go ahead, the comment box is below. Yep, right now. Did you do it? Fine, you don’t have to, but at the very least I’m still betting that you would be able to identify a metaphor among a list of other rhetorical devices. Metaphors are something we all recognize. We use them all the time. And like anything we use regularly it is easy to take them for granted. We forget that there are complex processes at work in order for them to even exist, let alone function with minimal effort in our everyday speech. How is it that metaphors have become an essential part of our language and yet are often overlooked and taken for granted?
Enter Denis Donoghue and his newest book Metaphor in which he asks just such a question: “Should I not resent the fact, or at least be defensibly gruff about it, that so much of what I think of as my conscious life is governed by a clutter of dead metaphors I have long since forgotten to think of as metaphors” (168)?
More than just an academic exercise, Donoghue’s book demonstrates a vital inquisitive interest in how metaphors function in all parts of our lives. Part autobiography and part scholarly examination, Metaphor sets out on this gargantuan undertaking via a leisurely stroll through several key historical understandings of this fundamental rhetorical device with several stops along the way to consult with the likes of Aristotle, Hegel, and J. L. Austin. Indeed, the breadth of material that Donoghue manages to address in the book’s brief 200 or so pages is quite impressive and only serves to demonstrate the extensive knowledge its author possesses.
I find it a bit difficult to describe this book. Structurally, Metaphor begins as a sort of autobiographical account of Donoghue’s attempt to process and grasp how his own interactions with metaphors have fundamentally influenced his thinking. And despite the not insubstantial risk of coming across as overly narcissistic or, even worse, exceptionally dull, Donoghue’s reflection is often erudite, insightful, and engaging.
One memorable example comes early in the book, as he examines several Latin hymns he grew up singing while attending his local Catholic Church in Northern Ireland during the 1930s. Even though he didn’t speak any Latin at the time these hymns made a strong impression and shaped his developing notions of metaphor through the sensory and symbolic practices and imagery of the Mass that these hymns were embedded in. One of these hymns, titled “Pange lingua” and whose verse St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, becomes for Donoghue a primary example of how metaphors not only shape individuals generally, but how specific religious and cultural traditions have fundamentally shaped the ways we are able to discuss metaphor as a linguistic device.
Donoghue isn’t the first to examine the importance of metaphor. Indeed, a significant portion of his book explores the ways numerous philosophers, rhetoricians, and linguistics have interacted with, and often privileged it among rhetorical devices. From Aristotle to Hegel, metaphor has often stood as an example of the highest form of complex thinking. And yet, Donoghue suggests that this privileging may be for the wrong reasons. More than just an intellectual exercise, metaphor is potentially even more significant than we typically allow for. A metaphor is not merely a device that allows for comparisons between two things. Its has a larger potential, for “It follows that the essential character of metaphor is prophetic. Metaphors offer to change the world by changing one’s sense of it. The best metaphors are revolutionary, not merely descriptive–although descriptions too may be revelations” (51).
And yet, despite the intriguing promise of this opening chapter other parts seem to stumble a bit as it becomes less clear what Donoghue’s overall thesis or even purpose is for the book. Lacking some of the clarifying focus of his earlier chapters, the final chapters feature tangential explorations that, while often containing interesting tidbits, don’t necessarily lead to anything substantially cohesive or memorable.
Without a clear traditional argument, Donoghue is at his best when exploring the differences between metaphors and other similar figures of speech. Principle examples are simile, metonymy, and synecdoche, which, functionally seem to be doing similar things as metaphor. All serve to draw comparisons between different objects (or suggest that certain parts of objects stand in for other parts) and it is through this comparison that hidden qualities are brought to the forefront. Yet, if there is a central claim in this book, it is that metaphors are special among this list of figures: “The minimal requirement in a metaphor is that the tenor is changed by the vehicle; not replaced by it or superseded but changed in quality or character by the new company it is made to keep. In extreme cases the change is revolutionary; it issues in a possible world, proclaimed by the audacity of the metaphor. The metaphor declares its independence” (91).
I wrote earlier that I find it difficult to describe this book. And as cliché as it sounds, it seems that the only real way to “get” Metaphor is to experience it. While this is frustrating for a reviewer, I have realized that this is also a stroke of brilliance on Donoghue’s part. His book embodies his subject matter. To read Metaphor is, in some ways, to experience metaphor’s full influence and power. Hopefully my review gives you a feeling of what that is like, but at best I’m providing you with a simile. The metaphor is the book itself, and to read it is to understand that “Metaphor, more than simile or metonymy, expresses one’s desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one’s devising” (86).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com