Seminar Paper, 2010, 20 Pages
2. The concept of literariness: approaches and theories
2.1. Literature as text: linguistic and stylistic considerations
2.2. Literature as discourse: pragmatic and psycholinguistic considerations
3. Metaphor in literary discourse
4. Metaphor processing in literary texts
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” (1920: ll. 18-20), Robert Frost says in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” It is usually interpreted as dealing metaphorically with options for how to live life, and that the speaker chose to do things differently than most other people do. However, metaphorical language is not restricted to literary language produced by a highly creative poet or novelist, but is in fact produced by everybody.
Thus, the typical interpretation of Frost’s lines does not depend on the poet’s genius, but derives from the reader’s implicit knowledge about the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY. In everyday language, this conceptual metaphor is verbally realized in linguistic metaphors such as “to get off to a good start in life,” “to make one’s way in life,” “to know where you are going in life,” “to give one’s life some direction” or “to be at the end of the road.”
According to modern linguists, metaphor is both a cognitive and a linguistic phenomenon which structures the way we think and speak, and even influences our daily activities and behavior:
Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. […] We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3)
Taking this statement into account, one might ask where the boundaries between literary and ordinary language in terms of metaphoricity are or whether they exist at all. Metaphor is obviously neither an exclusively literary device in the sense of a defining feature of literature. Nevertheless, the scope of this paper is to show that literary metaphor has a special status not only because of its distinct features, but also due to a special way of processing and interpretation on the part of the reader. In order to situate these two aspects of literary metaphor within a theoretical literary framework, two basic approaches to the concept of literariness – a textual and a contextual one – are taken as a starting point. Building on this theoretical basis, the concept of literary metaphor is linked with each of these two definitions of literariness in order to show that it can be analyzed from a purely formal and stylistic as well as from a reader-related perspective, both contributing to the distinct characteristics of literary metaphor.
One of the main aims of literary studies is to define what literature actually is. In general, there are manifold models of literature, which try to explain what exactly makes people refer to a piece of writing as literary. They all take a different perspective on literature and take into account different criteria for defining literariness, which is the sum of special linguistic and formal properties that distinguish literary texts from non‐literary texts.
One of the most basic theories of literariness is the textual approach, which regards literariness as a formal linguistic and stylistic property of texts. In other words, literariness is an impression we receive from the presence of a dense web of prominent and corresponding linguistic features. Another basic approach is the contextual one, which defines the difference between literary and non-literary writing in terms of the relationship of author, reader and context, assuming that literature is a social practice – a form of communication between writer and reader in a certain pragmatic and cultural context.
Thus, the two most fundamental theories of literariness differentiate between literature as text and literature as discourse. In this essay, the main emphasis is put on a reader-oriented theory, focusing on the psychological aspects of the literary reading experience.
Language is the medium of literary art, so it seems reasonable to consider the possibility that there is something special about the way language is organized in literary texts, and to proceed to define literariness in terms of linguistic properties. (Pilkington 2000: 16)
According to Pilkington (2000: 16-21), the textual concept of literature includes literary theory within linguistic theory. The language of literature itself – in the form of text-internal linguistic and stylistic patterns that can be objectively discovered and analyzed – is the decisive factor in accounting for literariness. The question that of course arises is: ‘which qualities and features give literary language its special status and make it differ considerably from normal everyday language?’
Already in the early twentieth century, the Russian Formalists claimed that literary texts feature a specific language use which appears strange and unfamiliar in a given context. The process, whereby a new and fresh perception of reality is achieved, is called defamiliarization. The following example from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House illustrates this concept:
Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
(Dickens 1853: 13)
The way the bad November weather in London is described here has hardly anything to do with the way people normally talk about the weather. One thing particularly deserves attention: the metaphorical blending of a description of natural phenomena (“mud,” “bad weather”) with financial jargon (“deposits,” “accumulating,” “compound interest”). By combining these two areas, the words are taken out of their usual context and put into another one, which thus becomes unfamiliar to the reader. We are attracted by this strange linguistic description and we start to wonder why such language is used here. One explanation might be that London as one of the financial centers in the mid-nineteenth century has become so immersed in its business that even nature participates in it and is no longer ‘natural.’
In the sixties, the linguist Roman Jakobson introduced the concept of the poetic function of literary texts – the fact that they draw attention to the language they employ. This self-referentiality is achieved by extensive linguistic structuring and importance of form. In other words, literary language points to itself, whereby a text’s linguistic features are exposed as its main meaning and function: the medium is the message.
Jakobson emphasized the functional role played by structural parallelisms and contrasts on all linguistic levels. In the case of poetry, phonologically or syntactically related items are repeated to form complex symmetrical patterns. (Pilkington 2000: 16)
In this context, an important process is foregrounding of linguistic elements, which is basically realized by deviations from linguistic conventions and thought patterns as well as by the use of parallelism on all linguistic levels. Thus, foregrounding involves densely structured formal correspondences of phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic elements. One area, where these properties of literariness are particularly obvious, is poetry:
What is distinctive about a poem, […] is that the language is organised into a pattern of recurring sounds, structures and meanings which are not determined by the phonology, syntax or semantics of the language code which provides it with its basic resources. (Widdowson 1975: 36)
The following verses from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” serve as an illustrative example for the phenomenon of foregrounding on nearly all textual levels: “He is not here; but far away / The noise of life begins again, / And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain / On the bald streets breaks the blank day” (Tennyson 1850: VII, 132-135). These lines basically form a compound sentence which displays a phonologically deviant structure in comparison with the regular language code. On the most basic level, this deviation is effected by the division into metrical lines and the arrangement into an embracing rhyme scheme (abba). Moreover, the final line is made up of monosyllabic words exclusively, features a series of alliterations (“bald – break – blank”), and features a rhythm different to the preceding lines. This prominent organization of sounds was devised by the poet in order to convey a certain semantic effect:
[T]he monosyllabic structure of the words in the last line and the alliterative pattern they form reinforce the semantic import of the words as lexical items. The desolation that Tennyson feels is conveyed by the sound of the last line as well as by what the words themselves mean. (Widdowson 1975: 36-37)
Deviant expressions like “the bald streets” or “the blank day” might as well be used as isolated phrases in non-literary types of discourse. The decisive factor, however, is their purposeful combination in this verse and the obvious relation of the line’s phonological structure to the other verses quoted here and to the whole poem. It is only due to their complex interdependent organization that the deviant and parallel use of linguistic elements becomes literary:
They are understood not simply in terms of what value the individual words have as constituents of these phrases but of what value the phrases themselves take on as elements in a larger pattern. (Widdowson 1975: 37)
In poetry, prose and drama, the above-mentioned language structures do not constitute literariness per se – they are observed in non-literary texts like advertisements as well. Nevertheless, in literature they are characterized by higher frequency and tighter patterning, thereby intensifying the utterance and bringing it to the reader’s attention. In Jakobson’s terms, the poetic function may be present in non-literary texts, but would then not be the dominant function:
The key to poetic texts is not the presence of the poetic function, but the dominance of this function over other secondary functions (for example, over the expressive function in lyric poetry, the referential function in realist fiction and the conative function in didactic poetry). (Pilkington 2000: 19)
In conclusion, the linguistic approach to literariness is exclusively concerned with formal textual data and a precise way of analyzing them. It is often assumed that “whatever effects […] a literary text has on its readers are induced by […] its linguistic features. But […] this does not mean […] that such description […] yields an ‘objective’ interpretation of the text” (Widdowson 2002: 163). To put it differently, a textual definition of literariness does not offer “a correspondingly clear, precise way of analyzing the aesthetic effects in psychological or cognitive terms” (Pilkington 2000: 18). Therefore, it lacks pragmatic aspects which take into account the context, the writer’s intentions and, above all, the reader’s reception and interpretation of a text. These considerations will be the main focus of the next chapter.
From a contextual and pragmatic perspective, literature “is not only an exemplification of linguistic categories […] but is also a piece of communication, a discourse of one kind or another” (Widdowson 1975: 27). From this theoretical stance, literary theory goes beyond purely textual considerations, and focuses first and foremost on the relationship of author, reader, communicative situation and context. This takes reading also into the sphere of pragmatics, which is concerned with meaning as communicated by the speaker (or writer) and interpreted by the listener (or reader) in a certain personal, social, cultural, political or economic context. The purely formal linguistic elements and structures of text are only seen as mediating elements in chains of communication (Pilkington 2000: 54).
In this paper, the main emphasis is put on a reader-oriented theory, which examines the role of the reader as regards literary discourse processing and utterance interpretation. In analogy to the distinct use of language in literature, a special way of reception can be identified in the psychology of the reading process and in the ways of making sense of literary discourse. The basic assumption is that literariness consists in the way a reader approaches, processes and gives meaning to a piece of writing. It is she or he who has to understand, experience, analyze, and interpret the text according to her or his knowledge, abilities, social and cultural background, and inclinations:
You can get rid of the writer and consider a text in complete dissociation from the conditions of its productions. But reception is another matter. The only meaning that a text can have is what is read into it by the receiver. On its own it is simply an inert object. You cannot eliminate the reader, for the reader is the only agent whereby meaning can be activated. (Widdowson 1992: x)
Reader-oriented approaches to the study of literature in general, and to the psychology of literary reception in particular have been approached in manifold ways. In order to establish a suitable theoretical framework for this essay, the following theoretical framework was chosen because it is based on a psychological conception of literature as a form of discourse. It consists of four factors, namely (1) subjectivity, (2) fictionality, (3) polyvalence and (4) form orientation, which tend to characterize literary reading:
(1) Readers take maximal freedom for the subjective realization of literary texts because they are not aiming at achieving practically important functions.
(2) Readers treat literary texts as fictional because they do not take them as directly tied to factually relevant circumstances.
(3) Readers realize literary texts in more than one way without thereby raising consequential interpersonal or social conflicts of interpretation.
(4) Readers realize literary texts with special attention to form as contributing to, and indeed partly determining, content.
(Steen 1994: 34)
It is important to note that subjectivity is the most important factor in terms of reading purposes and aims. It is the starting point for any reading activity, and can be found in its purest form in literary reading, where it is independent of pragmatic functions: “it is constrained outside literature by a greater need for intersubjective communication than within literature” (Steen 1994: 34).
Steps (2), (3) and (4) are ways of how the reader can achieve subjective realization. Fictionality gives the readers a lot of freedom in terms of reference by allowing them to come up with their own versions of fictional situations by relating them to their own reality. Polyvalence is a consequence of freedom from both pragmatic functions and factual circumstances. It means that readers not only produce their own interpretation of a literary text, but often arrive at several possible meanings. In turn, “this increases the chance of divergence of processing within or between readers” (Steen 1994: 34). As regards, orientation to form, readers of literature are more likely to focus on formal and stylistic elements than readers of non-literary discourse. As a consequence, form and style often become the main message or function of a literary text – a view, which corresponds to the poetic function of literature introduced in chapter 2.1.
To sum up, this model neatly fits into a contextualist notion of literariness taking into account “the factor of literature as a discourse context for the actual process of understanding metaphor” (Steen 1994: 26). It is in chapter 3.2 that this psychological model of literary discourse processing will be applied to the understanding of metaphor in literature.
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