More Metonymy: the thread of quotation

The second paragraph in “Quotation and Originality” provides a good example of Emerson’s use of, and philosophical interest in, metonymy–as well as its difference from metaphor. Here is the paragraph:

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws ; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. The Patent-Office Commissioner knows that all machines in use have been invented and re-invented over and over; that the mariner’s compass, the boat, the pendulum, glass, movable types, the kaleidoscope, the railway, the power-loom, etc., have been many times found and lost, from Egypt, China, and Pompeii down; and if we have arts which Rome wanted, so also Rome had arts which we have lost ; that the invention of yesterday of making wood indestructible by means of vapor of coal-oil or paraffine was suggested by the Egyptian method which has preserved its mummy-cases four thousand years.

Metaphor: the warp and woof of every moment, a metaphorical image of weaving, picked up by “thread” and strands–a metaphor we use all the time: the ‘thread’ of an idea in a book or discussion. Emerson’s “thread” here–or as we also could call it, his philosophy, his thesis–is that all ideas and thoughts are effects of quotation because “all minds quote.”

However, the idea of quotation is further elaborated with metonymy, where an idea is represented or discussed by way of language and image that are directly associated with the idea.

Metonymy: the various actions and materials associated with quotation: books, reading, writing. And of course, these metonymic associations are particularly relevant to the essayist, certainly Emerson, who spends his life engaging with books as a reader and writer.  Emerson further extends the metonymy to the invention of machines he discusses, reinforcing the idea that all inventions are quotations of previous machines–and the ideas that those machines are based on. In this way Emerson stretches the metonymy (various things associated with the idea of quotation) to the point of metaphor (quoting a chair). But in Emerson’s philosophy of quotation, the invention of a machine or a chair is a real act of quotation (not just a metaphorical one), since ideas circulate through our thinking, reading, and writing.  In fact, I would argue that the very word “invention” here is being directly associated with writing and reading.  We can imagine inventors getting their ideas from books and other texts (blueprints, documents). But even further, I hear Emerson quoting his way back to a much older sense of “invention” from classical rhetoric: to invent means to discover, to come upon an idea. And in the rhetorical tradition, the “invention” of an argument emerges not with an original idea, but through the process of finding it already existing in previous models of thinking and writing that one studies, imitates, adapts.

How can a better grasp of metonymy help us in studying nonfiction and the essay? Metonymy is a figure of speech, just as metaphor is. But in the ways this figure focuses on details and real things associated with the idea, proximate to it (a book and its relation to the act of quotation), we can think of it as both figurative and literal at the same time. The figurative literalism or realism of this rhetorical figure will therefore be of interest in a genre (nonfiction) that wants to represent the world non-fictively. Think of it like a close-up in film. You are looking at the real thing–but in looking that closely, you might also be looking at something you haven’t seen before, something unfamiliar, surprising. This is how metonymy can work in an essay.

We will see more of this at work in Annie Dillard’s writing, a writer who reads and quotes from Emerson.






Metaphor and Metonymy

There are two key elements of poetics, figures of speech, that we have encountered recently with Woolf’s (and Dillard’s) “Death of the Moth” and White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and Emerson’s essays. The moth and Emerson’s circles are examples of metaphor; the lake (and all the various things White describes connected to it, from fishhook to the soggy, icy garment at the end) and Emerson’s books, reading, scholar are metonymy.  These poetic figures can also be thought of as rhetorical figures or what are known as “tropes”; they create imagery in the essays, but they also serve a larger, organizing purpose. The writers focus–or “turn” (from the Greek “trope”) our attention almost entirely around them. As Emerson says of the power of analogy in “American Scholar”: “the near explains the far.” Both metaphor and metonymy are symbolic figures: they substitute or replace one thing with another thing in some way related to it. With metaphor, the relation is one of resemblance: two things are physically different, but share some sort of similarity or resemblance. With metonymy, the relation is one of proximity or contiguity; two things are compared that are physically related, often a part of something that represents a larger part or whole. In his later work, Emerson characterized metonymy as the primary figure of all thinking and writing–since to his way of thinking, everything was scientifically, not just poetically, related, even the most remote items.  I suppose Terence Malick’s Emersonian-inspired vision in his film Tree of Life, taking the local story back to its remote origins in the big bang, is an example of this metonymy in action.

As elements of poetics, as well as rhetoric, these important figures of speech (and thinking) remind us that in nonfiction, in an essay, the writer can be creative and symbolic and still be nonfictional. You can, and do need to, “make” stuff up in an essay, and still represent the topic truthfully. Metaphor and metonymy play important, but different, roles in the symbolic action (remember Kenneth Burke’s definition) of all writing and thinking–not just in poetry.

Here are two further examples of metaphor and metonymy in action in writing. The examples are both from poetry, but the ways the figure of each works (the bird as metaphor for young writer/daughter in “The Writer”; the metonymy of the car/road and all its associations of travel, moving in “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road “) applies to nonfiction writing as well, since the larger issue is how we conceive of the world in language. With metaphor, we tend to see and represent our world through resemblances and figures that substitute wholly for what we are thinking about–that are not directly related to thing we are thinking about; with metonymy, we tend to represent and see through the various parts and pieces of the world we are in, with things in some way related to what we are thinking. 

Here is the metonymy example:

“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams

sittin´ in the kitcken, a house in macon
loretta´s singing on the radio
smell of coffee, eggs, & bacon
car wheels on a gravel road
pull the curtains back & look outside
somebody somehere i do not know
c´mon now child we are going to go for a ride

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

can´t find a damn thing in this place
nothing is where i left it before
set of keys & a dusty suitcase
car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
you better do what you are told
when i get back this room better be picked-up

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

low hum of voices in the front seat
stories nobody knows
got folks in jackson we are gonna meet
car wheels on a gravel road
cotton fields stretching miles & miles
hank´s voice on the radio
telephone poles trees & wires fly on by

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

broken down shacks engine parts
could tell a lie but my heart would know
listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
car wheels on a gravel road
child in the backseat about four or five yeahrs
lookin´ out the window
little bit of dirt mixed with tears

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

Here is the metaphor example:

Richard Wilbur, “The Writer”:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

For some further thought on metaphor and the essay, consider this discussion from the essay journal River Teeth about the origin of its name.