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2. Rhetorical devices in literary languages: metaphor and symbol. A study of different figurative sensitivities and the collective imagination, seen through the canonical literary milieus of every age and country


a) The strengthening of meaning

The difference between symbol and metaphor has to do with interpretation. Metaphor belongs to the cultural context in which it is elaborated, and can therefore be decoded with relative normative certainty. The symbol is mysterious, fleeting and unattainable. One of the ‘catastrophic’ events that can occur in a given culture is the degradation of the symbol to metaphor; a disturbing example being the swastika, a very old and noble symbol alluding to the Urobor, the snake that eats it tail, representing the circularity of time, and hence eternity. Adopted by Nazism as an emblem of "Kraft nach Freude", or that "strength through joy" which was the motto of the Luftwaffe, today, in the collective imagination the swastika is associated with concentration camps. Thus, whenever literature takes possession of a symbol, making it the poetic emblem of a ‘foreshortened’ view, and using it as a political ‘manifesto’, it becomes bad literature: the characteristic of bad literature is that of always and in any case seeking to interpret the symbol as metaphor. The failing of these operations is revealed in the frailty of the results. When Christa Wolf wrote Divided Heaven, the split personality, reflected in the Berlin Wall, had in the story a symbol for expressing the real ‘political’ drama innate in every human being: that of having to take on many guises in life. Yet, the writer’s inadequate dramaturgy is seen in the quest for political confirmation, with an almost sacred insight: that of the interior division in which every man spends his own life. Therefore, projecting such an inexpressible enigma onto the marmoreal solidity of the Wall paradoxically becomes a compensating strategy.

Far more courage is shown by those writers who use the device of ambiguity. In Tristan and Isolde, Gottfried von Strasburg attributes the fatal love between the knight and the future bride of King Mark to a love-philtre. Centuries of materialism separate us from this perception, but here the writer is clearly alluding to a supernatural inspiration symbolized in a liquid, in the same way that Divinity, according to Proco, is "a fluid suspended around the temples, which enters the spirits of the soul". The "dark ages" had metaphors of light of a refinement incomprehensible to us.

Therefore, a literary translator must be fully aware of the nature of a rhetoric device; be it metaphor or symbol. Plato compares the soul to a cart drawn by two horses: one white, that pulls upwards, and the other, black, attracted by the abyss. The former is the perceptive soul; the latter, temptation. In ancient Greece, during the Olympic Games the most important event was the four-horse chariot race. The speed of the chariots depended on the friction of the hubs against the axles: the freer the wheels turned, the more likely the win, but at the cost of ever greater risk. The number of black horses in the pair depended on the tightness of the hub on the axles. Thus, in Phaedo, Plato uses a normal and very clear metaphor, though appearing to us as a symbol which we tend to overload with meanings that the philosopher never intended. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson changes the symbol of the philtre from a mediator between the world of the gods and that of men, to a door open on the Underworld: the philtre becomes an expression of delirium, sickness, and splitting of the personality. For Gottfried von Strasburg it is different, because, in Tristan, the philtre comes as the climax of a game of glances where the ardour of the two lovers seems to become ‘liquid’. In Stevenson, the philtre is the end-result of a death wish, while in the medieval writer it is an escape from the world, representing an eternal rejoicing of the senses. In the medieval world, the spirits eyed human rituals in every corner of the soul and conveyed the events to a transfiguring dimension whose code was buried in the secret language of images. Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a denouncement of the mechanization that man was subjected to in the new age of machines. In Gottfried’s dematerialized world, such a declaration would be simply inconceivable. For him, metaphor is individualism, and the refore located outside the expressive context.

There is a sure way of knowing if an image is a symbol or metaphor. In the former case it does not convey ‘dramaturgy’; it does not allude or suggest. It simply is, making sense as it stands. The ways of the symbol pass through emotion; far from being a representation of intellectual contents, it is truth whose communication becomes a sensation when clad with sounds or colours. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal gives the description of a welcoming ceremony with the compiling of a lapidary of precious stones, based on "Blaueaugen Wasserflut" topazes or "Rotenlippenden" cornelians. Our descriptive habits bring about the dissolution of comparisons in narrative events, hence modern translators will render the first expression as "waters blue like blue eyes" and the other as "stones red like lips", ignoring the fact that the second way for distinguishing between symbol and metaphor is to pay heed to the agglutinative power of the figure of speech. The symbol does not cancel the physicalness of the polysemy; in other words, the translation of the first syntagma is "clear blue eyes like trickling water" and the second, "stones like red lips", with allusions to a supernatural smile.

Thus the symbol, whose nature would seem elitist and elusive, is really an immediate transposition of the physical sensation.

Another morphological distinction between symbol and metaphor concerns their temporal dimension: the symbol takes on an entire destiny in a figure outside time, while metaphor narratively follows the event from origin to outcome. A rhetorical device accompanying the symbol is the antonomasia: hence Don Quixote is the "Hidalgo del sombre semblàr"; where "hidalgo" alludes to those picaresque mendicant figures offering to escort wayfarers to the place of arrival, on roads made unsafe by bandits, while "sombre" refers to the night world, where identities vanish, and schizophrenia asserts its rights on the Persona. As for "semblar", we are in the area of votive offerings and icons on which the images of Saints were fixed for the eternal enlightenment of future generations.

In ancient cultures, every symbol derived from or introduced an allegory: a physical symbol of abstract meanings. But nothing is more physical and tangible in the scenario of ancient cultures than an allegory.

In the year 1600, Tommaso de Cavalieri produced Disputa di Anima e Corpo: a ‘melodrama’ in which Plato’s two horses become allegories. In this case, indicating the presence of symbols is the librettist’s omission of ‘anthropocentric’ directions. No faces, hands or signs: here, everything is expressed through the styles of clothing, gestures and above all the ‘tone’ of the dialogues. In ancient symbolism, speech is the metaphysical essence of the ‘character’.

Jungian psychoanalysis has theorized the existence, beyond sacred symbols, of metasymbols representing codes whereby the human psyche elaborates its own vision of the world, apart from any culture or development stage. Jung defined this innate grammar in the human psyche as a "language of archetypes". The linguist Noam Chomsky, theorizing the presence in man of a genetic predisposition, or a sort of intuitive knowledge of grammatical structures, followed Jung along the same path. And how does one recognize archetypes? Going back to the prelogical conditions of the mind: from dreams and madness to shamanistic obsession. For example, all cultures of every age allude to a flood that interrupted the course of civilization. And all speak of an Eden from which the human species was expelled because of an atavic sin.

Not long ago, psychobiology discovered that ontogenesis repeats phylogenesis, in other words, madness is none other than a wild thought. Far from being irrational, it goes through the magic states of those attitudes with which primitive civilizations saw the world. Archaic civilizations are animistic; they attribute the same feelings and emotions felt by man, to trees, rocks, rivers and everything belonging to the natural environment. In them, the entire universe is a boundless symbol, and every interpretation of it thus becomes a metaphor.

In this sense, even the end of Goethe’s Faust moves in an animistic sphere. "Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis", "Everything fleeting is merely a symbol": according to Goethe, the difference between symbol and metaphor lies in the different value that the two rhetorical devices attribute to time. The same events of earthly life are prefigurations of the real destiny awaiting us after death. A similar notion of the world led Dante to write the Divine Comedy. For him, human existence is a ‘figure’ of what man will be in the afterlife; hence, his true destiny.

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or in the prayers to the Egyptian god Ra, the ceremony of libations, when the tombs were filled with foodstuffs, jewellery and money, does not seem to be exemplified according to this same principle of the ‘figure’. Those civilizations believed that the person lived on in the same way as when his spirit was inside a body, except that now it has acquired the property of invisibility. For them, unlike Goethe or Dante, the parameter differentiating metaphor and symbol is the different notion of space as a ‘stage of phenomena’, rather than of time, understood as a concatenation of events. Thus, in ancient languages, the effect of an event has far more value, syntactically, than the position it occupies in the cause and effect chain; and a modern interpreter cannot render the implications hidden in the symbolism of archaic cultures.

In all archaic cultures, the Urobor (the snake that eats it tail) expresses the passing of time, whereby the ages and eons follow one another in the unredeeming immanence of the eternal recurrence. And yet, the fact that Nietzsche thought of elaborating this theory, which really belongs to the oldest symbolic substrate of man’s history, says much about the dulling of our awareness of past cultures due to the changed socio-cultural conditions.

Translating the great sacred-mythological Nibelung, runic, Greek-Latin or Oriental poetry, therefore means examining the transgressive potential of its symbols and finding, in today’s sensitivity, similarly effective models whose synthetic concentration can trigger those aporiae that will spring forth a priori from the meeting between time and eternity, and between the perception of the real world and its transcription, by the unconscious, into archetypes that are a pure materialization of oneiric processes. Hence, this very definition also holds good for a translator’s interpretation of the entire ancient world of symbols.