Metaphors As Interrogatives

Leonard O’Brian
Community College Humanities Association
Fort Worth, 23 October 1998

I want to argue that metaphors are deep, determinate interrogatives. Each of these words-’- ‘deep’, ‘determinate’, and ‘interrogative’—needs explanation. But before we turn to definition and argument, it will be helpful, and enjoyable, to have examples to work with. Patrick Kavanagh, an Irish poet who died in 1967, wrote “Raglan Road.” Kavanagh intended that the poem could be sung to, “The Dawning of the Day.” You may have heard musical versions. Raglan Road, literally, is a road in Dublin.

On Raglan Road

  1. On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
  2. That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
  3. I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
  4. And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
  5. On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
  6. Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
  7. The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay—
  8. O I loved too much and by such by such is happiness thrown away.
  9. I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
  10. To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
  11. And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
  12. With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.
  13. On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
  14. Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
  15. That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay—
  16. When the angel wooes the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Roger Daltry, performing with the Chieftans, has sung a musical version.

I, and others, have been attracted to this song and poem. Why? There may be various ways to answer that, but at some point in our analysis we’re going to have to deal with the concept of truth: If this—or any—poem appeals to us, somehow for us it must express what we take to be truth. But then metaphors must express truth, since poems depend crucially on metaphors. How can the metaphors in a poem be true? For one thing, the declarative sentences that express metaphors are almost always literally false. For another, we normally think that only propositions have truth-value, and metaphors are notoriously difficult to translate into propositions. This is the specific problem that I wish to address, How do metaphors relate to truth? I propose that metaphors are deep, determinate interrogatives.

This puzzle over the possible truth-value of metaphors depends, I think, on a mistake we make regarding metaphorical grammar. Usually, metaphors are expressed in declarative sentences, even though they may be also expressed in imperatives and interrogatives. The form of metaphor, we are customarily told, consists of ‘A is B’. “…Let grief be a fallen leaf.… ” The form is declarative. Thus, since literal declarative sentences are either true or false, the assumption is made that, if metaphors involve truth at all, the truth is a property of the metaphors themselves.

On the contrary, I suggest that metaphors involve truth in their own distinctive way. The way that metaphors involve truth resembles the way that questions involve truth rather than the way that propositions involve truth. Questions characteristically elicit propositional responses from readers and listeners, and those responses bear the values of truth or falsity. Indeed, metaphors themselves resemble questions, though they are not questions in the ordinary sense. Metaphors, as I would put it, are deep, determinate interrogatives.

Metaphors involve two characteristics that justify our placing them on a continuum somewhere between questions, on the one hand, and declarative sentences on the other. The first characteristic I dub “reader agency,” the second “propositional finitude.” These characteristics compete: Reader agency inclines metaphors toward the interrogative end of the continuum, propositional finitude toward the propositional end. The competition produces the intermediary nature of metaphors on the continuum. Acknowledgement of these two characteristics helps to resolve the puzzle over metaphors and truth value.

Reader Agency

By ‘reader agency’, I mean that the reader or listener of a metaphor acts to supply much of the meaning of the metaphor, far more so than is the case in literal, propositional discourse. Understanding a metaphor involves three steps: First, understanding it as literal; second, understanding that it is not literal and that it is metaphorical; third, understanding it as metaphorical. The first step, understanding the language as literal, is required when we encounter any language, figurative or literal. The second and third steps distinguish our understanding of metaphorical language from our understanding of literal language. Both steps—understanding that the language is metaphorical, and understanding it as metaphorical—entail reader agency. In the interest of brevity, however, I will discuss only the third step, understanding the language as metaphorical.

We often find that the task of understanding a metaphor is ongoing, unending. The protracted nature of the task derives from a paradox: Authors of metaphors write in declarative sentences, readers of metaphors understand those declarative sentences, readers of metaphors elucidate those metaphors with declarative sentences; but no number of declarative sentences can explicate a living metaphor. Metaphors are theoretically inexplicable.

I argued for this position last year. In fact, I established it last year, though none of you agreed with me. I proposed a metaphysics of metaphor, based on the concept of dyadic similarities. Dyadic similarities are any two experiences that are similar, but not by virtue of a shared property. Our experience of orange is more like our experience of red than is our experience of yellow; but the two experiences, of orange and red, share no properties by virtue of which they are similar. They do—or may—share properties, but any shared properties fail to explain their similarity. Thus, to use Mason Myers’s terminology and phenomenological argument, we have proof, or at least strong evidence, that some similarities are dyadic.

The point applies to metaphor. Let’s turn to line 4 of Kavanagh’s poem.

4. “And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.”

Suppose a slightly different line:

4’. “And I said, let grief be a fresh-born leaf at the dawning of the day.”

‘Grief’ and ‘fallen leaf’ are dyadically similar. A fallen leaf is more like a grief than is a fresh-born leaf in the same way that orange is more like red than is yellow: In both cases, the first two terms are dyadically similar, relative to the third terms. In making this point, that ‘fallen leaf’ is more like ‘grief’ than is ‘fresh-born leaf’, I’m not trying to say anything else about ‘fresh-born leaf’: I’m not trying to say that ‘fresh-born leaf’ could not be part of a metaphor in line 4, and I’m not trying to say that ‘fresh-born leaf’ has no resemblance to ‘grief’. I’m only saying it has less resemblance to ‘grief’ than does ‘fallen leaf’. In fact, we’ll return to ‘fresh-born leaf’ in a minute.

Since dyadic similarities defy analysis into a shared property, an elucidation of Kavanagh’s actual metaphor is theoretically interminable. For example, grief can reflect an ending, as in the death of a leaf, an ending that may nevertheless be a beginning, similar to the dark beginning of light at the dawning of the day. But to pose this explicatory possibility immediately evokes other possibilities, for instance, that grief in love is inevitable, as is death in nature, the latter symbolized by the annual falling of the leaves; or that grief precedes illumination in the sense of personal understanding, as leaves that die as our day begins to dawn on us; or that grief in love is mitigated by an act of will, since the speaker tells himself, “… let grief be a fallen leaf…”—he would make it so, he would bring in the dawn; or is the ‘let’ here the ‘let’ of stoicism, something like the ‘let’ in ‘letting go’, in which the speaker lets the leaves as they may? Does he let the cards fall as they may? Does he let the Queen of Hearts go down, and lie, as she will? The possibilities are boundless.

If my premise that metaphors are theoretically inexplicable seems too strong, we can back off a bit and still sustain the point I want to make in this paper. If we wish, we can say not that metaphors are theoretically inexplicable, but that they exhibit explicatory depth. With this expression, ‘explicatory depth’, we suggest that even if metaphors are not inexhaustible, they can exhaust those who would explicate them. When we finish with a living metaphor, it’s not because we’ve completed the task but because we’ve run out of time or energy. Max Black once compared metaphors to maps. The comparison is not all that apt. A good map is something that we read, in a certain derivative sense of ‘read’, a non-verbal sense. A good metaphor is something that we do not merely read—of course, here, in the verbal sense; it is something that we explicate. The best maps are used by navigators in road rallies, who must finish as quickly as possible; the best poems are used by graduate students for dissertations, who finish only when they run out of money. A poem and its metaphors that do not require explication is not much of a poem; a map that does require explication is not much of a map.

Thus, metaphors require reader agency. This is why they resemble questions: With questions and metaphors, the noetic burden is on the person to whom the question or the metaphor is addressed. Let us distinguish between paradigmatic questions and non-paradigmatic questions. Non-paradigmatic questions narrow or even control the answerer’s response. The category of non-paradigmatic questions is exemplified by leading questions, complex questions (a technical term in logic), and rhetorical questions exemplify.

Paradigmatic questions, by contrast, place a noetic burden on the person to whom they are addressed. This burden varies in complexity with the question. “What time do you have?” Simple question. “Would you like to go camping with me?” Perhaps less simple. “Even though you liked the movie politically, would you say that it was good aesthetically?” More complex. “Should the United States have bombed the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum?” “Would you sketch for us a sound United States’ foreign policy?” “Does God exist?” “What is the meaning of life?” While paradigmatic questions vary in the degree of noetic burden, to the extent that they involve a noetic burden, they place by far most of it on the person to whom they are addressed.

By contrast, the noetic burden of propositions and the declarative sentences that assert them is on the person who performs the assertion. A corresponding point applies to maps: The noetic burden is on the cartographer.

Propositional Finitude

But if metaphors resemble questions, they are not questions because, in a certain way, they also resemble propositions. Although metaphors place considerable noetic burden on the person to whom they are addressed—indeed, the burden is virtually inexhaustible, as I have argued—the range of responses that a metaphor allows is limited. The same must be said, to some degree, about questions. If I ask, “Would you like to go camping with me?”, it would be inappropriate for you to respond, “We need tort reform now.” But within the confines of the topic, the respondee may respond as she wishes.

Not quite so with metaphors. Here we encounter the “propositional finitude” of metaphors. Return both to the metaphor that Patrick Kavanagh used, and the one that he did not use.

4. “And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.”

4’. “And I said, let grief be a fresh-born leaf at the dawning of the day.”

There’s a difference. ‘Fallen leaf’ and ‘fresh-born’ leaf send the reader in different directions. Regarding the former, I offered a possible elucidation that grief in love is inevitable, as is death in nature, which is symbolized by the falling of autumnal leaves. ‘Fresh-born leaf’ virtually excludes this interpretation. Not only do metaphors involve reader agency, they involve propositional finitude. They send us, as explicators, in some directions rather than others.

Thus, while metaphors are either theoretically inexplicable or, more cautiously, virtually inexhaustible, they also don’t mean just anything. “Raglan Road” is not “The Road Not Taken.” Metaphors are deep, but determinate, interrogatives. On the one hand, their depth—their emphasis on reader agency—reflects that they resemble questions, which also place the noetic burden on the reader or hearer; on the other hand, their propositional finitude or determinatness reflects that they resemble, to some degree, propositions, which retain the noetic burden for those who enunciate them.

How, then, do metaphors relate to truth? They are deep, determinate interrogatives. Like paradigmatic questions, they, themselves, lack truth-value. “What time do you have?” “Would you like to go camping with me?” “Would you sketch a sound United States’ foreign policy?” “Does God exist?” “What is the meaning of life?” These are paradigmatic questions: They do not have truth-value. They elicit responses that do have truth-value. Similarly with metaphors, which resemble questions. “Her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue.” This declarative sentence allows for a far broader range of responses than does a proposition, which we ordinarily associate with declarative sentences. But it is not fiction; it is not puffery; it is not nonsense, sophistry, or mere decoration. It is important to the speaker; it is important to us; and our responses to it, our explications of it, can be either true or false.