Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Darwin’s Echo Before Dawn

This morning before dawn I heard Darwin’s echo in my own words.

Last evening, two of my students asked me to clarify and expand upon the meaning and use of metaphor, simile, and analogy in rhetoric, whether written or spoken. The ensuing discussion went something like this.

I reminded the students that verbal imagery, such as simile or metaphor, requires a trans-dimensional “warping” of language, viz, a marriage of otherwise incongruent words and ideas. For instance, the statements “Mary is a girl” and “Mary is like a girl” cannot be a metaphor or simile because the terms “Mary” and “girl” indicate the same dimension - “Mary” and “girl” both signify the human dimension. 

To create metaphor or simile, we must “marry Mary” to a word and idea from another dimension, such as “Mary is (or is like) a gazelle” because Mary runs swiftly and beautifully, or “Mary is (or is like) an angel” because Mary is sweet, benevolent, nurturing, and supportive. Comparing Mary to an entity in another dimension, such as a gazelle or an angel, creates the trans-dimensionality necessary for verbal imagery.  Beyond metaphor and simile is analogy.

Analogy expands, extends, or "stretches" a simile or metaphor. Rather than saying that “Mary is (or is like) an angel,” analogy stretches the trans-dimensional comparison and affirms that “Mary has wings” because she is always swift to fly to others' needs; that “Mary is radiant” because, like an angel, she brightens the hearts of those around her; or that “Mary is angelic” because she is lovingly and gently sensitive to others. The parables of Jesus are analogies that stretch metaphor and simile, such as when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a great net.” But Jesus does not stop with the simile; he expands it into an analogy. He stretches the simile by stating that “the great net” is “cast into the sea,” the “sea” representing humanity; the great net becomes “full,” indicating that the net “catches” all humanity; the great net is “drawn to shore,” signifying that the kingdom of God will eventually reach an eschatological terminus; and lastly He declares that the “fish” in the “great net” will ultimately be divided between “good fish” and “bad fish,” the “good fish” put into “vessels” and the “bad fish . . . cast away," denoting final judgment.

Subsequent to that discussion of the trans-dimensionality of symbolic language, we then considered the superiority of poetic language over didactic language, “superiority” in the sense that poetic language inherently possesses a greater power to illuminate the mind than merely instructional and declarative didactic language. Jesus Christ and Socrates personify the primacy of poetic language, both employing figurative language as the ultimate rhetorical device to lead their hearers to “higher truth,” examples of which would be Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the Savior’s Parables and “I am” metaphors, such as “I am the light.” To illustrate the point, I cited two examples in the Pauline corpus where Paul discusses very knotty theological ideas in didactic terms, but when his didactic rhetoric nears an epistemological limit, he resorts to poetic language. For example, in Galatians Paul provides a didactic discussion of a theology of works versus a theology of grace, but he crowns his didacticism with poeticism, specifically the Allegory of Sarah and Hagar. Similarly in Romans, when Paul explores the complexity of Israel’s national reprobation versus the salvation of the individual ethnic Jew, Paul again summons poetic language to elucidate and magnify his didactic point, specifically the Parable of the Vineyard. That discussion then led to our considering the ultimate purpose of symbolic language – the discovery of transcendent truth.

At this juncture I asked the students to pick up a writing instrument and draw a circle. I gave them thirty seconds to draw their circles and then asked the class, “Did you draw a circle?” to which they all replied, “Yes.” I then said, “No, you did not draw a circle; you drew something that approximates a circle.” I pointed out the circle I had drawn upon the board, and noted the imperfect curvature of my circle, simultaneously declaring that all of our attempts to draw a circle had in fact failed because all our circles were imperfect. Even if we could attempt to draw a circle with laser-like perfection, under an electron microscope we would see that the atomic and sub-atomic particles were unstable and wobbled, thus making the curvature of even the best circle inconsistent and therefore imperfect. I then recited the legendary saying above Plato’s Academy:
Let no one enter here who knows not geometry.
Plato understood that, although a mortal could never draw a perfect circle, the human mind could in fact conceive a perfect circle via geometric formula. Plato deduced, therefore, that the ability to conceive perfection testifies to the absolute reality of perfection despite failed human attempts to attain perfection. For instance, all human efforts to attain Justice; such as laws, lawyers, judges, courts, and politics; though imperfect expressions of, and flawed endeavors for, Justice; are nonetheless shadowy witnesses of Justice as a conceivable Absolute. From the imperfect circle that witnesses to the conceptual reality of a perfect Circle, Plato extrapolates that all imperfect human efforts towards Love, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in fact give evidence to those transcendent Absolutes as conceivable but not achievable through human endeavor, thus necessitating something philosophically equivalent to the geometric formula that proves conceptually a Perfect Circle. For Plato, that philosophical equivalent was a Celestial Guide who can lead us to contemplate and eventually discover the reality of Absolutes. In the Socratic dialogues, symbolic language is the ultimate rhetorical device to accomplish this realization of the Absolute. Thus, the highest purpose of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, parable, or poetry, is to guide the mind into the sphere of transcendent truth.

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” his allegory leads his hearer to think upon the native human condition of intellectual darkness, viz, we are prisoners in a dark cave who have never seen “the light”; and thus the necessity of a celestial guide to descend into our darkness, liberate us from bondage, and guide us ever upward into the transcendent realm of illumination that we might behold what is absolutely Good, Beautiful, and True. Jesus Christ’s “I am” declarations function similarly so that our minds and hearts might, as it were, “take wings and fly” through and beyond the metaphors to celestial contemplation of what it means when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” or “I am the true vine.” But if figurative language actually and inherently possesses a capacity to elevate the mind to contemplate that which is transcendent, that capacity for transcendence necessarily demands an authentic celestial sphere of the Absolute: Absolute Beauty, Absolute Goodness, and Absolute Truth. I then remarked to my students,
Atheism has no poetry.”
The atheist can write a kind of poetry, but he cannot write the highest kind of poetry, the poetry of transcendence. The atheist poet has no claim upon metaphor, simile, parable, or analogy, all of which demand transcendence beyond the mechanics of language and the concreteness of meaning. The atheist poet who uses figurative language is thus a trickster, for his use of poetic devices that demand transcendence misleads the mind into a black hole where Nothing exists. His figurative language is only rhetorical deception. Neither can the atheist musician guide the soul into the sphere of sublime aesthetic experience. His music is merely sound waves caused by vibrating strings, hammered keys, and metal pedals manipulated by human hands. For the atheist musician, transcendence through music is but a destination-less journey into the dark vacuum of empty space. Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach are nothing but auditory masseurs who stimulate the flesh but do not pacify and ennoble the soul. The atheistic painter and sculptor never transcend the smears upon the canvas and the clay in the bust, and the atheist mathematician can never truly conceive, much less truly draw, a perfect circle that witnesses to absolute perfection.

So when I awoke before dawn and stepped outside to gaze at the stars, I heard Darwin’s echo in the words I had spoken the night before.

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. From The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

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