Metaphor and Meaning
reviewed by Edwin M. Mosley - 1966
In a collection of essays that is at once clear and profound, economic in style and richly illustrative, Weller Embler has some telling things to say about metaphors and meanings and leaves a number of telling things unsaid while he knowingly provokes his readers into saying them for themselves. Two of his important points are, at initial glance, dichotomous: first, the contention that prevalent or recurrent metaphor, whether in everyday speech or in literature and art, is extensional in its origin and, then, the contention that it is intensional. "A whole philosophy of life is often implicit in the metaphors of creative writers, the philosophy of an entire generation, indeed, even of an entire civilization," Mr. Embler says in one way or another again and again. Still, his repetition of this primarily extensional point is never trite nor boringly familiar, for he accompanies the variations on this generalization with a luxurious frame of reference, with an easy and authoritative sense of the relatedness of things, with an unfailing sense of the whole growing out of the parts in one period of time and indeed from one time to another time. His intensional emphasis is that "art mirrors not so much the outward aspects of a civilization as the inner life of man," that not only the impressionist poet or painter or composer but every creative artist in one way or another "makes the world over in his own image" though he may refer "to common thoughts and feelings," common not only to men in his own time (hence back to the typical or topical) but to men in all times (hence the archetypal or, what Mr. Embler calls in his essay on everyday speech, the "natural").
This comprehensive interweaving of the extensional and intensional approaches to metaphor and meaning reaches its high point (that is, its most subtle, its most stimulating, its most evocative and provocative at once) in two exceptionally readable essays, "Five Metaphors for the Modern Repertory" and "The Rhetoric of the Absurd." The five "modern" metaphors Mr. Embler chooses are the prison (the extensional variations on which he suggests from Plato to Sartre), the wasteland (a marvelous example of the dramatization of inner spiritual waste by a characteristic waste-setting of the moment, for example, the unsettled wilds of pre-feudal Europe or the "valley of ashes" of Gatsby's Long Island), the monster (more archetypal than either extensional or intensional, whether the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth or the enormous cockroach into which Kafka's Gregor Samsa is turning), the machine (a strikingly prevalent extensional metaphor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in such diverse works as Marx's Capital, Chaplin's Modern Times, and Halper's novels The Chute and The Foundry), and the hospital (on which Mr. Embler tempts me to make a comment of my own).
Mr. Embler pursues the extensional metaphor of the world as a hospital and the intensional one of the sickness of the spirit from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine to T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and Sartre, reminding us of the absence of a "Philosophy of Health" in our intellectual and artistic climate of opinion even unto a kind of pride in being "sick, sick, sick," especially on the part of the consciously non-intellectual intellectual youths, that is, the "beat" ones. With quite a different specific emphasis but with, to be sure, the similar implication of an age being defined by its prevailing metaphors, a sociologist acquaintance of mine has described the ideal locale for the medieval world as a metaphorical monastery to be retreated into either during or beyond life after renunciation and purification have taken place and the ideal locale for the contemporary world as a metaphorical hospital in which the government will take care of and cure everybody and everything here and now. This sociologist is apparently talking entirely in terms of physical (bodily and economic) ills and of our belief in "relief," unemployment "insurance," and now "medicare" whereas Mr. Embler would point to a favorite irony of modern writers that physically-aimed hospitals do nothing for the essential sickness of the soul, perhaps even a more deeply embedded sickness among the rich who need least and even oppose most the doctoring a socially-conscious government has to offer.
This discrepancy between the sociologist's seeing in the metaphor of society-as-hospital a strong indication of a dominant Philosophy of Health and Mr. Embler's seeing in current imaginative literature a striking lack of such a philosophy with the primary emphasis on spiritual and moral sickness, on outer disorder and inner non-reason, on existential acceptance of what is rather than on a quest for what should be, is in a way the very core of the already mentioned essay, a truly fine one, on "The Rhetoric of the Absurd." "We are constantly at work transmuting the incongruous in thought and experience into the congruous," Mr. Embler writes; "nevertheless, a one-to-one correspondence between the inner and the outer is less easily imagined than the absurd, because, indeed, the absurd is." He then proceeds in a revealing essay to examine "the devices which the modern writer uses to present the absurdities, the incongruities, of our world." Here is Mr. Embler at his very best, with enviable ease relating diction, imagery, tone, and rhetorical devices to each other within one writer and among writers, placing them in the context of a particular moment and, in passing, contrasting them to the prevailing language and techniques of another moment, documenting with abundant illustrations from everyday speech, from literature, and from the other arts, and by way of example giving succinct yet comprehensive explications of difficult and demanding literary works.
In the essay on the absurd certainly and with rare exception throughout the entire collection Mr. Embler measures up wonderfully to the very yardstick he judges the critic by in this piece on "The Language of Criticism:" "teaching" with "all the resources of language and all the resources of learning in the various intellectual and artistic endeavors" at his service, taking "all knowledge for his province, and the wider the knowledge the richer the criticism and, incidentally, the deeper the humility." The intention is grand and the sweep is wide, and consequently now and then too much is included, as in some of the all-too-apparent sections of the essay on "Metaphor in Everyday Speech," and too much is omitted, as in the failure to relate design in the visual arts more firmly to a concept of metaphor and to delineate more fully the convolutions of symbol-and-metaphor. Still, Mr. Embler's freedom from the accustomed narrow concerns and specialized language of modern criticism is very, very welcome, and the achievement of his high critical aims is remarkably consistent.
Very welcome too in criticism is the unashamed intrusion of the critic's own personal and moral values into the method he teaches and the information he gives. In a final essay on "Metaphor and Beyond" Mr. Embler distinguishes among the "language of reports" (for presenting the facts of the world), the "language of truths" (for expressing the ideas of the world), and the "language of art" ("in some respects a perfect combination of the language of reports and the language of truths") and then declares, with convincing humility after his rich delineation of language and meaning, that beyond language, beyond articulated or conscious meaning, is existence. The artist's function, he concludes in a section at once confidently analytical and directly respectful, is to caste "the portrait of the one against the background of the many," to project "the idea of the one, the one who is like the many, but different," that is, to define the essential metaphor through which we arrive at "meaning alone, limpid, palpable meaning." With remarkable success Mr. Embler has guided us to understand the workings of the artist's pivotal metaphors in our time and in all times and hence to understand more fully what, in the first and the last analysis, has everything and nothing to do with language: ourselves and this our world.