Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tenor, vehicle, transference

I.A. Richards on psychoanalysis:

A "command of metaphor"--a command of the interpretation of metaphors--can go deeper still into the control of the world that we make for ourselves to live in. The psycho-analysts have shown us with their discussions of "transference"--another name for metaphor--how constantly modes of regarding, of loving, of acting, that have developed with one set of things or people, are shifted to another. They have shown us chiefly the pathology of these transferences, cases where the vehicle--the borrowed attitude, the parental fixation, say--tyrannizes over the new situation, the tenor, and behavior is inappropriate. The victim is unable to see the new person except in terms of the old passion and its accidents. He reads the situation only in terms of the figure, the archetypal image, the vehicle. But in healthy growth, tenor and vehicle--the new human relationship and the family constellation--co-operate freely; and the resultant behavior derives in due measure from both. Thus in happy living the same patterns are exemplified and the same risks of error are avoided as in tactful and discerning reading.
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 135-6

This interesting reflection, made way before there were Lacanians (Richards delivered these lectures in 1936 at Bryn Mawr, pictured above), is made really specific and useful through the use of the tenor/vehicle distinction which Richards introduces earlier in the lecture.
This distinction, one of those many unbelievably handy tools that Richards in particular and the New Critics in general gave us, runs like so: metaphor is often described as the comparison (roughly speaking) of two things, one through the other (or, as we also often say, by substituting itself for the other). But we can specify those things, the one and the other--through which the one is compared. Tenor is the original thing (the one) which, through the introduction of another (the other) thing, the vehicle, gets related to that new other thing in a meaningful way. In other words, the vehicle is that which modifies the tenor and in doing so establishes a relation which is meaningful (it creates a new meaning) and is called metaphor (the new meaning is metaphoric). So in the old lines Johnson quotes,

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great exemplar as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full.

The flow of the mind of the person to whom the poem is addressed ("thee") is the tenor--it is the original thing, the one thing--and the river (or "stream") is the vehicle--it is the other thing through which the original gets compared (cf. Philosophy of Rhetoric, 120-121).
The tenor and vehicle, insofar as they share some commonality or resemblence, can be said to have a ground, and it is in the shifting of this ground (by the transfer between tenor and vehicle) that is effected by the establishing (through the introduction of the vehicle) of a relationship. Meaning is the effect of this shift, and metaphoric meaning can only be said to take place when both tenor and vehicle are present. In other words, if either tenor and vehicle are not there, or if one can't establish where both are taking place, then there is no metaphor, and there is no metaphoric meaning being produced.
Thus in the above, what happens is that there is an overemphasis upon one of the two aspects of the metaphor, preventing the copresence of tenor and vehicle, and thus no understanding of the shift happening in the metaphor, or an adequate ability to engage in healthy transference.
I don't think I've brought this all out adequately insofar as it bears on the amazing quote above. But part of this is that the remark on psychoanalysis occurs close to the end of a huge, huge effort of Richards which is not easy to reconstitute. But this gets at a problem concerning Richards in general: his sensibility is so subtle, and his conception of the function of literature so refined and, while not abstract in the least, is so hard to easily capture--in fact, precisely because he sees literature and language working so dynamically, and at the same time in such a determinable and determinate way (not unlike Nietzsche, whose forces are dynamic and at the same time very specifiable if one has the right way to get at them)--that it isn't easy to really summarize a point of his without reference to the real intuitive sense of language that he gives you. This is part of the reason why he in particular, as well as the New Critics I think in general, are so maligned now, or at least have largely been forgotten: the sense of the work of literary language is more intuitive than able to be expressed, and unless one really spends time with them, anything they say can be easily and pointlessly dismissed. The best refutation of the New Critics in my mind is Raymond Williams', but this is only because literature for Williams is almost equally complex and subtle and dynamic--in other words he has such a rich and comparably acute sense of what it is. In other words, New Criticism is first and foremost a practice before it is a theory, and so dismissing it as a theory (or even theoretically summarizing it) is doomed to have too shallow a conception of what the New Criticism is doing. This doesn't mean New Criticism isn't profoundly wrong in certain respects, but merely that it has to be addressed as a practice, as a sort of vague sense of what literature is doing and how to address it.

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