The Plot Against Metaphor


Wilhelm Marstrand, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at a Crossroads, c. 1847

by Paul Vacca

The rhetorical figure of comparison, the metaphor, is in jeopardy. Some conspirators, like white knights in pursuit of a platonic ideal of the truth-telling novel, are plotting against it. The metaphor is surplus to the narrative system: like the iconoclasts of ancient times, they intend to erase any form of metaphor considered to be useless and harmful to them. For the raiders of the “true novel”, truth – the one that the novel is meant to convey – can only be achieved by a style delivered of metaphor. Why not? The thrill of any literary revolution is welcome in these times. However, a question immediately arises: How many novels would survive a metaphor-free treatment?

Gone would be the literature of gesture and the medieval cycles. Don Quixote, the picaresque novels and the tales would become expendable. All the libertine and pre-romantic literature of the 18th century would sink to the bottom. Then come the 19th century novels – popular or highbrow – and the Romantics, of course, ever so fond of metaphor. Even the so-called “realistic” or “naturalist” novels like those of Emile Zola, with French titles like La Bête humaine, l’Assommoir or La Curée, would immediately be banished for metaphorical heresy, before they were even opened. As for Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it becomes needless to say that a metaphorical debasement would reduce the roman fleuve to a simple sentence on a Post-it Note: “For a long time I went to bed early.”

Alas, the modernist cause, with Molly’s stream of consciousness and Clarissa’s discursion both woven with bold and sensitive metaphors, does not seem any more defensible. We might think that Albert Camus’ The Stranger has a chance at resisting the strict elimination process. For it takes a trained eye to detect a few fleeting metaphors here and there: the narrator remains on the very surface of things, so matter of fact. And yet woven into the text: “a sun cymbal” and “I was drowned in the noise”.

What if we had the chance to save one novel from the hands of the anti-metaphor conspiracy theorists? Let’s try with Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion (1994). Feeling confident. Eyes almost closed. One flips through the novel at random, skimming over the pages, fascinated by this precise and dry writing, resistant to any libido metaphorandi. The perfect crime. Yet, all of a sudden, on the verge of closing the book, disaster strikes! One reads the prologue and faces the horror hidden in plain sight: yes, a metaphor about the act of writing pops up fiercely on the very threshold of the book. Doubt creeps in. Is it even possible to write a novel without metaphor? Besides, aren’t the conspirators of the “true novel” the first to sin against their own dogma? For aren’t expressions like “degreased style”, “writing to the bone” or “white writing” – their favourite expressions – totally metaphorical?

Nonetheless, the very idea of a novel 100% free of all metaphor remains quite appealing. Here is a challenge that should delight lovers of literary contests. Oulipian at the core, its theme could be the disappearance of metaphor. It could explore what it would be like to live in a world without any metaphors, where words would only endorse their proper meaning. A wonderful dystopia. Well, good luck to the one who sets out to write it. A Dantesque enterprise indeed, because how can one ever be sure that no trace of metaphor would slip into the pages of the book? Would we consider “a chair leg”, “a clear voice”, “a calm morning” or even “an armchair” as metaphorical expressions?

Remember Georges Perec. The French writer confessed to having been haunted for a long time by the nightmare of having let an “e” slip through his lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (A Void, translated by Gilbert Adair). Sure, this was before word processing. Computers and the search function would have saved him many a restless night. But when it comes to tracking down metaphors, no word processor – as far as we know – could be of any help. Indeed, a deep learning robot capable of detecting any hint of metaphor seems rather like a metaphorical hypothesis in a novel.

What if the death of metaphor was an unreachable project? For even saying that the “metaphor is dead” is a metaphor. Yes, it would even fail to disappear within the statement of its own death. Kill the metaphor and it always rises from its ashes. Let us not equate anti-metaphorists with Torquemada. Presented with certain kinds of metaphors, who doesn’t have sympathy with their desire for purity, for asceticism? Don’t we all need a good metaphor detox? Some worn-out metaphors certainly deserve to go, but should we consider all metaphors to be inherent enemies of truth?

It is true that, in essence, metaphors introduce something exogenous to the clear line of the text, insofar as a metaphor, in the words of Fontanier, a French grammarian, “presents an idea under the sign of another idea”, attaching a “comparator to the compared”. One could convincingly argue that metaphor necessarily “covers” the literary text with a superfluous and confusing layer. Going further, one might insist that its overtly artificial quality leads the novel inexorably towards artificiality. And yet, one can not be so sure and that is not the least of its paradoxes. On the contrary, Marcel Proust emphasises how much the search for truth owes to metaphor. In Time Regained, Proust gives us a clue as to its unveiling power:

In a description, one can make the objects that appeared in the place described follow one another indefinitely, but the truth will only begin when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, […] by bringing together a quality common to two sensations, he will draw out their essence by bringing them together, in order to remove them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor

And he continues:

Literature which is content to ‘describe things’, to give a miserable survey of their lines and surfaces, is, despite its realistic pretensions, the furthest from reality.

So, while some believe that metaphor conceals the truth, Proust believes that it is the only way to reveal it. As with masks, according to Oscar Wilde, the metaphor retains the paradoxical power to unveil the truth by veiling it.

About the Author

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and speaker. He gives courses and lectures at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris), Technocité (Brussels) and collaborates with the think-tank Volta (Milan). He writes a weekly column for the Belgian magazine Trends-Tendances and for the French magazine Ernest. He is the author of 4 novels and 5 essays. His first novel La Petite Cloche au son grêle (Mum, Marcel Proust and Me) published in paperback at Le Livre de Poche in 2013 have met a great success and was translated in Japan, and won several prizes (Madeleine d’Or Marcel Proust 2009 – Laureate of the First Novel Festival of Chambery, Laval and Mouscron…). Recently published, two literary essays Michel Houellebecq, phénomène littéraire published by Robert Laffont (2019) and Les vertus de la bêtise (“On Stupidity – And How It Can Make Us Smarter”) by the Editions de l’Observatoire (2020). He is currently working on the adaptation of his latest novel Au jour le jour (“The Feuilletonist”) for the screen.

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