Metaphorical Language

July 24, 2009

A blogpost in between about a subject that I am really interested in, and what I think is the essence, the core, of what I am trying to write about. It is a video of Leonard Bernstein who talks about music, how music is the metaphorical language of our interior lives. It was a lecture he gave at Harvard in the seventies, in a series called ‘The Unanswered Question’.

A while ago I wrote down what he said (hope it is all correct) and have been reading it a lot since then. He starts with a little demonstration on the piano with music of Beethoven and then he says the following:

“But, did Beethoven feel all that, or even anything like it? Or did I just make up those feelings out of the blue? Or are they in some way, to some degree related to Beethoven’s feelings, which have been translated to me through his notes?

Of course we will never know, but the probability is that both are true. And if so we have just revealed a major ambiguity, a beautiful new semantic ambiguity to add to our fast growing list.

But whichever is true, the basic point remains, music does possess the power of expressivity. And the human being does innately possess the capacity to respond to it. Everyone agrees on that in one way or another. Even William James who regarded our reaction to music as nothing but a nervous tic.

Where they disagree is in making the distinction between what music expresses and how it expresses it. The what is very hard to pin down, as we have seen.

But the how, we do know about and that is metaphor. In any sense that music can be considered a language, (and there are some senses in which it can not be considered a language) in the sense in which it can be, it is a totally metaphorical language.

Consider the word metaphor. Meta = beyond and phor = carry. Carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible, beyond the grossly semantic. To the selfcontained ‘ding an sich’ of musical meaning.

Metaphore is the generator, the powerplant of music, just as it is of poetry. Aristotle puts metaphor midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace. A marvelous remark. It is metaphor, he says, that most produces knowledge. The artist can not help but agree, nor can the lover of art.

It even more strikingly, he says, that metaphor accomplishes the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything. And by everything he obviously meant our interior lives. The things that can’t be named otherwise. Our psychic landscapes and actions.

And it is thus that poetry and music, but especially music, through its specific and far reaching metaphorical powers, can and does name the unnameable. And communicate the unknowable”.

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