Beyond Like and As in Images:
Metonymy and Metaphor in Some Recent Art
Metonymy, then, is substitution through perceived connectedness: component, contact, closeness, context, cause and effect. In visual art the most common forms of metonymy have been the detail standing for the whole (i.e. synecdoche) and the particular for the general or the concrete for the abstract. Thus the skeleton or the skull can represent death, because the former is a natural consequence of the latter.
Metaphor, on the other hand, is substitution of one item for another through perceived similarity. Art, however, stresses resemblance while it actually relishes the remoteness of the things implicitly compared. Hence an extinguished candle can signify death, the expiration of life.
Unquestionably, these two modes can exist concurrently in a single piece. A preeminent example here would be those wonderfully overdetermined symbolic still-lifes of the Netherlands produced by moralistic contemporaries of Rembrandt. In a single so-designated vanitas painting an artist such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem would crowd in a bevy of metaphors and metonymies: a skull, rotting fruit, an hourglass with an almost empty upper chamber, flowers well past their prime, a recently extinguished candle, and so on.
David Lodge in his book The Modes of Modern Writing 3 and subsequent essays draws on this crucial distinction between metaphor and metonymy as advanced by Jakobson in order to describe and define the fundamental modes of linguistic expression. He applies it rewardingly to literature by various authors. When he discusses Hemingway’s metonymic realism in these terms, he enlighteningly shows that this author’s terse prose exploits metonymy to circumvent any symbolist-religious metaphor and thereby creates a style that is equally modern and realistic. Indeed, blatant metaphor in Hemingway, Lodge points out, is often an indication of insincerity. One of the most acclaimed passages from A Farewell to Arms displays this:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments, and the dates. 4
This, together with the resonance of his successions of repetitions permitted Hemingway to amplify a metonymic, in this case realistic, style toward the haunting power of much metaphorical writing of the modernists.
On the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, Lodge discusses the quintessential mythopoetic writer, James Joyce. Lodge shows how Joyce “painted Homer from nature” in Ulysses. The mythology re-enacted in it is drawn in a natural progression from the simple activities of daily life in Dublin. Ulysses is a metonymic novel with a metaphoric substructure (i.e. Homer’s Odyssey.) 5
Lodge even succeeds in applying Jakobson’s distinction to contemporary post-modern writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon and others.
Metonymy and metaphor, then, are not just another overused unproductive dichotomy in the nature of Apollonian-Dionysian: the distinction has a strong concrete basis in fact, it is more particular and illuminating in application, it is a theory of dominant qualities — not mutual exclusion — and deals directly with the processing of information.
The dichotomy here discussed, we feel is not merely fascinating but of direct relevance to contemporary visual art, yielding a new source of critical assessment. For one thing it begins to delimit that nebulous category “metaphor.” But even more importantly, rather than prescribing anything, it penetratingly describes what is intuitively recognized as unique in certain art. A theory which is descriptive grants understanding of original creative processes and opens avenues into the work itself, rather than supplying a list of “oughts” such as too much art theory.
Metonymy appears clearly, but in sundry and richly varied fashions in recent art. Jakobson’s scheme applied to certain artists enables us to examine the quasi-symbolic, but not often consciously understood, force of key devices in their work. The artists we will discuss have powerfully stepped beyond the now clichéd, and hence powerless, purely metaphoric gestures of modernism: by enhancing tangible particulars of the context into conveyers of meaning, or by extracting correspondences from the theoretical field of extension within the context.
One metonymic device to be derived from Jakobson’s description is the substitution of a part for the whole. This can surface as the use of “fish” for “sea” or the like. To return to Lodge again temporarily, he points out that this might be called “deletion,” for in using this mechanism we in fact merely (non-logically) delete a group of descriptive elements from the mass of details that would be present anyway. This is essential for the visual artist, who must always be specific to some greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, we would like to add that in visual art metonymy of this kind resolves itself in the vitality of particularity. That is, a visual artist can express so naturally this green, in this corner, or this man with such a nose having this blemish on this particular twist of flesh. This, while a necessary operation of the decision-making process of painting or other visual art, is a fertile synecdochical ground material to be utilized by the artist, to an extent virtually impossible in language.