canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Wisdom & Metaphor
by Jan Zwicky
Gaspereau Press, 2003

Reviewed by Gilbert W. Purdy

Literary theory, such as it is, has become rather abstruse these days. Even such daunting theories as Deconstructionism 'now almost quaint ' are simplicity itself in comparison with Hermeneutic Phenomenology, Semiotics and Complexity Theory. While the more sophisticated writers of twenty years ago were able at least to import some vague description of Deconstructionism into a cocktail party conversation, or to be sufficiently aware of its implications that they were challenged by it when seated before a blank sheet of paper, today's theories tend to remain within the laboratory.

It comes as no surprise, then, that books are no longer written to explain contemporary literary theory to a popular audience. Such popularizing works as the Surrealist manifestoes of Andre Breton, F. R. Leavis's New Bearings in English Poetry, and even Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero, could meaningfully grapple with the most recent advances in the field without assuming a shared reading list of dozens of scholarly texts and a specialized vocabulary.

This is the context of Jan Zwicky's Wisdom & Metaphor. It is not clear whether the book is a throwback to Modernism with a dash of Post-Modernist vocabulary or an exegesis of a small corner of the Post-Modern world which seems strangely out of place because it tries to target a popular audience. The confusion may stem from an attempt, on the author's part, to avoid being perceived as a reactionary while she strictly limits the vast epistemological underpinning of the phenomenological method.

Wisdom & Metaphor is composed of a very brief forward and 118 texts with 118 accompanying commentaries. The presentation is redolent of the aphoristic style of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (from which several of the texts are taken). The argument of the book is stated in the forward:

The shape of metaphorical thought is also the shape of wisdom: what a human mind must do in order to comprehend a metaphor is a version of what it must do in order to be wise.

The thesis has the advantages of being simple, elegant and thought provoking. Its ultimate advantage, of course, is that it is right.

The early sections of the book are concerned with 'phenomena' and 'gestalt' ' as evidenced by a regular repetition of variations upon the terms. Zwicky is 'interested in the phenomenon of 'seeing-as' because it encapsulates the mystery of meaning.' Certain logistical problems are gotten out of the way after this fashion: most particularly, all questions of reality vs. perception are set aside. When one sees a toad as a toad, it is a sufficient datum. When one sees a toad as a prince, it is equally sufficient.

The question of the reality of a perception is answered in the forward, in the continuation of the quote from above:

But of course we are not wise in a vacuum; we are wise about things, situations, people, the world. Thus, this book argues, those who think metaphorically are enabled to think truly because the shape of their thinking echoes the shape of the world.

Presumably, we will know if a seeing-as 'echoes' the shape of the world if it is well received.

The author early provides her definition of metaphor: 'the linguistic expression of the results of focussed analogical thinking.' This is followed by the introduction to the various ontologies she has discovered are pertinent. It will be important to understand the ontology of metaphor, after which more concrete ontologies may properly be addressed.

The ability to think analogically is a reflection of sensitivity to ontological form.

Ontology ' the study of 'thing-ness' ' has been a major branch of philosophy, after one fashion or another, since ancient Greece. It is surprising just how difficult the questions are that arise from trying to describe thing-ness. Rather than become bogged down in epistemology, as we have already observed, she takes the matter in hand:

One might say: ontological understanding is rooted in the perception of patterned resonance in the world.

Without the epistemological foundation for these statements, they take on the quality of axioms. If these will serve as axioms, then, the following corollary is inferred: The ability to think analogically is a reflection of sensitivity to patterned resonance in the world.

There are other simplifications that are less easy to defend. 'The existence of metaphor', Zwicky informs us, 'is dependent upon the existence of a non-metaphorical way of looking at things.' As any decent philologist might tell us, there is little in language that is not metaphorical/analogical. Language is a road map of the progress of thought. It teaches us that today's non-metaphorical way of looking at things is made up of yesterday's metaphors become so familiar over time that their metaphorical origin has been forgotten. Metaphor itself, for example, is a 'bearing over', as from one side of a river (mountain, etc.) to the other, itself originally a metaphor for a kind of thinking that appeared more or less at the same time as the word that describes it. It now appears 'non-metaphorical' because we have assimilated the concept it describes.

In the second half of Wisdom & Metaphor, the insistent terms 'hypostasy' and 'reduction' are added to the mix and the going is slower. Hypostatization, we learn, is a kind of killing the subject in order to classify it. Abstraction proper is vital to metaphor but is problematical in that it constantly threatens to descend into hypostatization. Ironically, true abstraction preserves the individual quality of things:

The distinctness of things remains the foundation of their resonant connexion.

Abstraction is a quality of imagination. Imagination preserves the distinctness of things while it generalizes thus wisdom remains possible.

Reductionism is a close cousin of hypostatization. It consists of explaining the object in terms of a dominant system - presumably the historical Eurocentric, male, linear-analytical system.

Explanation establishes a relationship between two previously distinct contexts. Reductionist explanation achieves this by imposing the context of the explanans onto that of the explanandum, and ignoring what must be distorted or left out to achieve a fit.

Reductionism is assimilative rather than resonant. It is difficult to be sure whether Wisdom & Metaphor suggests a divergence from complexity theory or an eccentric restatement. The best guess would seem to be a combination of the two.

By the mere fact that Zwicky has taken pains to describe what exactly is metaphor, she seems to mitigate the pitfalls inherent in the contemporary attack on reductionism. The idea that the text (the micro-societal) is unfairly measured against such things as literary canons or techniques, cultural institutions, or a reader who takes these into consideration (the macro-societal) constantly threatens a descent into dysfunction. Equally as problematical is the ongoing attempt to replace the order of the reigning macro-social structure with a new order somehow inexplicably not heir to the conflicts of the old and therefore not condemned by the rules of the very system that created it. As a result of these, and other, conflicted prerequisites, the subjective text ' the supposedly holy self-expression ' is threatened with a reduction of a sort that seems still worse. It tends to become an artifact or little more than a pretext for the existence of a sprawling politico-critical apparatus.

Reductionism is spoken of in general terms in Wisdom & Metaphor. The need to include this central tenet in a discourse on metaphor, where it could arguably have been foregone, identifies it as a Post-Modern text. To have tried to limit its purview, as Zwicky has done, suggests a better direction. It is more important to show the nature of metaphor, and to let things go where they will, than to be rigorously prescriptive.

These questions, however, are likely to be lost upon the general reader. For him or her, there may be a more generalized 'less theoretical' reading of the issues. What anyone who comes to Wisdom & Metaphor will find is a well-chosen collection of texts. She or he will discover 'or be reminded of' the remarkable incisiveness of Max Wertheimer or I. A Richards, even when placed beside the host of fine and creative thinkers gathered together in this book. At the same time, they will share in Jan Zwicky's worthy internal dialogue with those thinkers.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation, has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket (Australia), Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Rain Taxi, Orbis (UK); Eclectica; The Danforth Review (Can.); Cosmoetica; and Polyphony. His hyperlinked online bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.  He accepts poetry, poetry-related and topical nonfiction books for review at: Gilbert Wesley Purdy, P. O. Box 5952, Lake Worth, FL 33466-5952. Queries to







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