More than Cool Reason

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Although this is a book about how poetic metaphor works, authors George Lakoff and Mark Turner argue that metaphor is not strictly for poets, nor is it merely a matter of words; it is rather the principal way human beings conceptualize, and thus deal with, abstract ideas such as life, death, and time. Metaphor is so universal, the authors claim, that we use the process unconsciously and automatically every day: It is indispensable to the way we think.

The study of metaphor is a dominant concern in modern literary theory, second only perhaps to the study of narrative. Literary critics, philosophers, linguists, and psychologists have devoted a number of weighty and complex studies to the means by which human beings engage in metaphoric thinking. Not many studies have been done, however, that attempt to make an original contribution to the field and still remain accessible to students who may not have an extensive background in this complex area.

Based on seminars taught by Lakoff and Turner in 1987 at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, this book for undergraduates is subtitled a “field guide” because it identifies and characterizes metaphors in terms of the taxonomic distinction between genus and species. Throughout the book (in capital letters to set them off from the rest of the text and listed separately in an index), basic conceptual metaphors, which Lakoff and Turner say are part of the common concepts shared by a culture, are identified and described.

For example, Emily Dickinson’s lyric poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” depends on a basic conceptual metaphor in Western culture that the authors term DEATH IS DEPARTURE. Furthermore, such conceptual metaphors are systematic in that there is a fixed correspondence between the structure of the conceptual domain that is to be understood (death) and the structure of the usually more accessible domain in terms of which the reader is led to understand (departure).

In defining “conceptual” metaphors as those metaphors which are conventional, unconscious, and automatic, Lakoff and Turner also make a distinction between generic-level metaphors such as EVENTS ARE ACTIONS and species-level metaphors such as DEATH IS DEPARTURE. Whereas the first presents only empty slots without either a fixed source domain or a fixed target domain, the latter has the slots for both the source (departure) and the target (death) filled in. Thus, within the generic framework of EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, there can be a number of species-level variations. Moreover, within the more fixed schema of the DEATH IS DEPARTURE metaphor, there can also be a wide range of even more specific variations. These widely differing variations are what makes poetry different from everyday language and thus harder to understand than the basic conceptual metaphors on which the poets’ more specific and individual metaphors are based.

Because basic metaphors are conceptual rather than merely linguistic, they can be conventionalized into everyday language, or they can be pushed beyond the conventional and given specific poetic use, Lakoff and Turner remind us. For example, although the basic conceptual metaphor TIME MOVES can be conventionalized in such expressions as “time waits for no man” or even “the deadline is approaching,” it can also be pushed to become “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,l Creeps in this petty pace from day after day” by William Shakespeare. To cite another example, Shakespeare takes a basic conceptual metaphor such as DEATH IS SLEEP and extends it to include dreaming in Hamlet’s line, “To sleep? Perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub.”

One of Lakoff and Turner’s most significant points is that although poets extend and develop metaphors in novel ways, they do not “create” the basic metaphors on which their poems are based. Such metaphors as DEATH IS THE END OF LIFE’S JOURNEY, DEATH IS DEPARTURE, DEATH IS NIGHT, and DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION are an intrinsic part of Western culture. Thus, although there are a large number of metaphoric expressions for life and death in Western poetry, they are all examples of a small number of basic metaphors.

Although this book is aimed at the undergraduate audience, it makes no small demands on the reader’s attention. In spite of the fact that it does not assume the reader has an extensive background in the study of poetry or the study of linguistics, the complexity of the subject matter itself requires careful reading, for although the terminology is not esoteric and the examples are common enough, the level of understanding required here is relatively abstract. The four-part book is organized in such...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

University Press Book News. I, June, 1989, p.19.