Dire Consequences for Transgressors

The warning in the parking lot of the campus Methodist Student Union seems an appropriate heading for a post on effective aphorisms. A perfect example of an effective aphorism is this pair written by Lavater:

  1. Know, in the first place, that mankind agree in essence, as they do in their limbs and senses.
  2. Mankind differ as much in essence as they do in form, limbs, and senses—and only so, and not more.

William Blake dutifully annotated both of these aphorisms thusly:

This is true Christian philosophy far above all abstraction
[written beside both aphorisms, with a line under each]

There is a reason why “Queer Studies” would assault the sensibilities of some people—because it confronts and critiques the idea that there is an “essence” which dictates what a human being is—that provides a limit condition, from which they may not deviate or there will be dire consequences. This also provides the core thought behind “universalist” attitudes.

But I digress. The reason why I chose this aphorism as an example is because of the way it works. This aphorism creates a metaphor for identity based on the transfer of inner states to the body. It is a metaphor, and as such is exempt from interrogation regarding its “truth value.”

I got into a debate with my professor in the Foucault seminar over this—“that can’t be right! A metaphor can be true or false. You can’t say, for example, ‘History is a fish’” My reply was— Yes you can.

In a debate reminiscent of the scene in Shrek where the donkey insists that Ogre can’t be like an onion, but is more like a parfait, I played the donkey. Remembering another film I saw recently, McLuhan’s Wake I thought of an idea common to both McLuhan and Foucault—that we live in the midst of the past. Everywhere we see the traces of our own history—we totemize it through nostalgia to such an extent that we might better consider our place in time as the past, rather than the present. The past surrounds us like a vast ocean, and any attempt at “history” is a fish eye view of the very water we live in—hence, History is a fish. A corollary of this thought, an aphorism from the McLuhan film, in fact, is: “We don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t a fish.”

The point I really wanted to make is that it is possible, with effort, to justify nearly any metaphor—to make it seem right. A metaphor cannot be tested for truth, only for appropriateness. What seems appropriate rests deeply on the foundation of world view—As Blake remarked, Lavater’s aphorism is “true Christian Philosophy”—it is free from abstraction, and full of metaphor—a metaphor he felt appropriate.

But it is just as easy to disprove the appropriateness of a metaphor, as is the case in this famous example from Shakespeare:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

I suppose though, that the sexy maxim serves the seducer well. And the most effective seducer is a seemingly appropriate metaphor. Paul Ricoeur deals with this aspect of the function of metaphor brilliantly. A metaphor is an aberrant attribution of meaning, a transgression, which disrupts the way we perceive things—an engine for thought, not a weapon of “truth” or falsehood.

Often, there are dire consequences for transgressors— as Shakespeare demonstrates, “false” compare is a question of appropriateness. However, as the persistent ass, I must insist that is possible to compare anything— such a metaphoric comparison cannot be tested for truth, because the truth of a metaphor lies in an individual’s perception, which as my interchange with the professor demonstrates, is hardly ever essentially the same.

**Oh, and lest anyone think that Blake was a universalist because he agreed with Lavater’s aphorism— I feel it prudent to point out that Blake, like any good diddler, thought it important to tend to the minute particulars. He was adamant that the difference between people was as important as their similarity. The difference in perceptual faculties across humanity was to him immense and thus when he agrees with Lavater that men differ only as they do in their senses, Blake is not adopting any sort of narrow universalist credo. Blake did not suffer fools, or “people who lacked vision,” lightly.

5 thoughts on “Transgression”

  1. This is great stuff. I’m heading off to read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell right after I am finished with the Pentecost.
    Keep it up.

  2. As I should’ve suspected, we’re in agreement: the successful aphorism challenges universalist “truth value” rather than attaining it.
    My apologies for the premature response. These comment things are hell on suspense. I can see why Keats didn’t install them. “But that nightingale won’t even stick around all day, much less for ‘generations’….”

  3. Thank you for that analysis of metaphor. I particularly enjoy the way you use simile and metaphor to close in on it.

  4. Thank you for that analysis of metaphor. I particularly enjoy the way you use simile and metaphor to close in on it.

  5. Shared warmth in the word-world

    Or perhaps the world is the words. Enough already! The point is, I have of late become very interested in the nature of metaphor. First it was thinking about Shelley’s RDF poetry finder. Also I had noticed that when I…

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