Sunday, 14 October 2012

Geography and Metaphor 1: Sartre

There is a passage in War Diaries where Sartre talks about how his geographical environment doubles up as a kind of metaphorical landscape. The imposing height of the hill on which he is stationed, for example, is simultaneously his ‘will to dominate the war’, his imperiousness or proud apartness. There is a ‘grey wind’ down below. The grey wind is immediately, he implies, a fogginess, a confusion, from which he is separate and inured, like the captain of a lighthouse. The cold that encircles him has ‘the affective resonance of ‘purity’ and ‘solitude’, so that Sartre inhabits this clarity, this circle of isolation. 

When Sartre writes this he is not suddenly lending symbolic significance to geography, he is realising that this process has already taken place. Before he is fully conscious of it his ideas and emotions have nestled in the contours of his environment, assumed its shape, used it as a language. He has, unconsciously, ‘figured out’ things already.

Now clearly, this ‘symbolic language’, through which Sartre ‘figures out’ what he feels and thinks about things, is a combination of culturally given meanings and personal associations. The idea of a high edifice ‘dominating’ a landscape, the relationship between elevation and mastery, are common enough.  The more personal associations, though, are not purely idiosyncratic. For example, when he says “cold has always had for me the affective resonance of ‘purity’ and ‘solitude’”, this is an idea we can at once understand, we may possibly share it (replace ‘cold’ with ‘brick’, for example, and the idea seems nonsensical).
So again, ‘projection’ is the wrong word for what is going on here. If it was a case of projection we would get purely arbitrary associations. Sartre is working with a public, shared language, a language of things. If he goes beyond this language he must first of all travel through it and we, his readers, must be able to retrace the path he has taken. 

We might say that Sartre is working with metaphorical associations which are fairly conventional. And while this is true, I wonder if they are purely conventional. I wonder, for example, if there are any cultures where coldness is associated with attraction and gregariousness, rather than separation and solitude; are there cultures where elevation is a metaphor for subordination and powerlessness? I wonder then, if such metaphorical outlines are, rather, traced and defined by our practices, our paths through and our encounters with the world.

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