Making It Explicit


Sidewall, The Toys, 1880–1900. Image via Smithsonian Design Museum (cc)

by M. Munro

Even those scribes who regard grammar as a noble tradition learned the intricacies of English not via stuffy edicts but through living, reading, listening, talking, and, most important, writing. Any formalization of such learning came only afterward, once the foundations of grammatical convention had been osmotically absorbed. It’s like falling in love with someone: You can say you love them for x and y traits, but those reasons only articulated themselves after the feelings had formed. It doesn’t mean the explanations are false; it’s just that they didn’t create the love.[1]

It is like pointing out a person across the room and saying, “Someday you’ll love him.” No help at all. I have to find my own way to him and into love.[2]

Aristotle claims that what is distinctive of metaphor, in addition to its peculiar “clarity,” is its conjunction of “sweetness and strangeness.”[3] What could be at once “sweeter” and “stranger” than love? And so inevitably the question (our question): How, after what fact or fashion, might metaphor be related to love? In other words, how is “falling in love” akin to metaphor? What’s the implicit comparison here, and is this a comparison “like” any other?

One of Kafka’s posthumously published fragments concerns a philosopher whose sole activity, as a philosopher, consists in giving chase to a child’s toy. “He believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top.”[4] One commentator has doubted Kafka’s philosopher is motivated by the prospect of understanding, whether “of all things” or “the smallest detail.” On the contrary, it is alleged, the auspices of philosophy furnish him only “pretexts for running after tops.”[5] What the commentator’s otherwise astute suggestion fails to take into account, however, is—a minor detail—how the fragment, and so the narrative, ends: “The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.”[6]

How alike are these two comparisons (for clarity and sweetness and strangeness)—the fate of one who, as though entranced, of a sudden startles and totters “like” a top, and what it’s “like” to fall in love?

Or is that no help at all?

Too clumsy a whip?



[1] Jonathan Russell Clark, “Against Style Guides – Sort Of,” Vulture, July 18, 2019, Inger Christensen, The Condition of Secrecy: Selected Essays, trans. Susanna Nied (New York, NY: New Directions, 2018), 32: “Language can’t be separated from the world without separating the world from itself.” 33: “Which makes it possible simultaneously to differentiate and to not differentiate between what is in what.”

[2] Natalie Goldberg, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016), 153.

[3] Aristotle, quoted in Heather Altfeld and Rebecca Diggs, “Sweetness and strangeness,” Aeon, July 1, 2019,

[4] Franz Kafka, “The Top,” in The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, trans. Willa Muir, Edwin Muir, Tania Stern, James Stern, Ernst Kaiser, and Eithne Wilkins (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 444 [444]. What is in what, indeed. This analysis, for example—and not only for example—“does not signify an operation of the intellect external to the thing, but an operation of the thing internal to the intellect.” That is, “Explication is always a self-explication, a development, an unfolding, a dynamism: the thing explains itself.” Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1988), 68.

[5] Anne Carson, quoted in Karen Olsson, “The Pursuit of the Unknown,” Bookforum, July 24, 2019,

[6] Kafka, “The Top,” 444. “It’s the tension between what’s inevitable and what’s random, the juxtaposition of what I know and don’t know—what I call thought—that decides my concept of reality. This, I imagine, is what allows the world to see what it’s imagining.

“It’s these spiraling conclusions, and the way they never conclude, that make me think what I ultimately want to express is this: human beings have no choice but to imagine something more or less indefinite, as an expression of something definite we can’t imagine.” Christensen, The Condition of Secrecy, 116.


About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Philosophy for Militants (punctum books, 2017).