Review: ‘The modes of modern writing: metaphor, metonymy, and the typology of modern literature’

by David Lodge (Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1977. 279 pp. £9.50)


William Harmon


I can see it now. I am going to be sent to hell when I die, what with the this and the that, deeds and misdeeds, and it will be bad indeed. There will be things like pitchforks and brimstone, vulgarity and embarrassment, wall-to-wall bureaucracy and inefficiency, and—given the specific gravity of my sins of blasphemy - a particular figure: Mister (but sometimes Major and sometimes Ms.) Malacoda, let us say, forcing me, kalpa after kalpa, to pay careful and sympathetic attention to an endless lecture called something like ‘Beyond the Structuralist Myth of Écriture.’ Now and then, screaming ‘I am Tarn!’ into me, all ears for the moment, s/he (as depersons are called) will tattoo me, all skin for the moment, with sentences; I will be sentenced: ‘The lovers start as structures for each other. As the act progresses, they sparagmatize vis á vis of each other into a kaleidoscope of bodily parts.’ There will come, after exponential millions of nightmares, a coffee break, and Malacoda-Tarn and I will stand in line together. I will whine, ‘Could you, sir or madam, at least replace the infernal acute accent in vis a vis with a grave?’


After a sub-eternity of putting up with puns on my last word, I will be shown the library ‘wing’ of Pandepersonium, a billion books with the titles wrong, everything misfiled, every square centimetre of every margin covered in idiots’ ballpoint glosses, irony, nature, oh yeh? and i.e. Mauberly and Elliott’s Wasteland (or Finnegan’s Wake!!!). The i.e. will mean e.g. The head librarian will have one utterance: ‘Kafkaesque, n’est-ce pas?’ I will have ten seconds to try to find two texts. A fellow wretch will have been instructed to say to me, ‘I see you’re into textuality.’ Haunted and hounded, I will try to find a copy of Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ because I believe there is something wrong with a passage—‘when the ages are reverently, passionately waiting’—as quoted in David Lodge’s The modes of modern writing (198); ditto John Barth’s ‘Life Story’ ditto ditto ‘Just as he finished doing so, however, his real life and imaginary mistresses entered his study’ (244-45). But with every second another deadline is missed, each marked by klieg and klaxon, din and stench, Tarns sparagmatize me, and it all begins again.


Very well, then. Lodge’s The modes of modern writing, subtitled metaphor, metonymy, and the typology of modern literature, strikes flat the thick rotundity of the world and rolls the flat thing ever more thinly until it is one axis. The poles of the axis are called Metaphor and Metonymy, because Roman Jakobson decided that two (out of many) sorts of clinical aphasia suggest that linguistic conduct is two processes, selection and combination, that may be physically or psychically damaged. Modes of damage indicate modes of normal operation—what you can call ordinary or literal discourse as long as you don’t believe you are describing anything real. This ordinary discourse, style degree zero, is pushed toward one pole or the other by various pressures, so that the fundamental question addresses the means by which and through which a speaker passes from one topic to another: by association-contiguity-syntagmaticality or by analogy-dissimilarity-paradigmaticality? Then, by some systematic or chaotic wrenching of terms, you can call any piece of discourse metaphoric or metonymic and you can generalize indefinitely by aligning any binary distinction with the imaginary distinction between metaphor and metonym. Lodge opens his last chapter with a crisp summary: ‘The history of modern English literature, it has been suggested in the foregoing chapters, can be seen as an oscillation in the practice of writing between polarized clusters of attitudes and techniques: modernist, symbolist or mythopeic, writerly and metaphoric on the one hand; antimodernist, realistic, readerly and metonymic on the other.’ This, I take it, is criticism degree zero, and I suppose you reach such a point (at which you can say zero about an unlimited number of entities) by assuming early on that literature is a kind of use of language and that what you say about language applies—mutandis maybe or maybe not mutatis—to literature, and a fortiori to poetry at large and to poems verbatim. But literature is not a kind of use of language, and if you pretend that it is then you find yourself with a brutally impoverished critical vocabulary limited to one dimension of a multidimensional art. If language is in focus, then plot and character and states of mind and feeling will be out of focus and finally, like the wings of BOAC, viewless.


Ours is a postpostmodern age of metametacriticism. Hell’s Orientation Period features outlandish pedants explaining things to us patiently, slowly, loudly, the way one has to talk to an imbecile or a computer (which is a mechanical imbecile), repeating the same message, langue versus parole, foregrounding, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson, midnight Ravens of the spirit pecking out every light but the neon I LIKE IKE that remains the only ‘text’ ever analyzed satisfactorily. (Abaddon—the deperson whose name means ‘deconstruction’—hangs around the card catalogue telling us wretches all about the linguistic and phenomenological ins and outs of ‘The cat sat on the mat.’ We seem to have got rid of him for the present by asking for his treatment of this text: ‘There is my heart-throb deep in a whodunit.’)


Lodge (for we are getting back to him) works, believe it or not, in two modes. In his metaphoric mode/mood he theorizes about what is literature and what means realism; the metaphoric theorizing is balanced and ballasted by metonymic contiguity to texts, not all of which are ‘made strange’ by such misprints as those that altered ‘aged’ and ‘wife’ to ‘ages’ and ‘life’ in the passages from Auden and Barth left back in the Pandepersonium eons ago. The Jakobsonian model of ideal discourse as a double process of selection (from a paradigm of candidates) and combination (in some answerable syntactic array) works fine as long as the cat can sit on the mat but somehow goes permanently haywire with samples taken from real speech or writing; and Lodge can do nice tricks with metonymic metaphors and a simile that ‘is, as it were, simultaneously a synecdoche,’ but his discourse dissolves when it comes into contact with actual instances of literature. Some imp of the perverse skews the vocabulary (as when ‘perceptively’ is used when ‘perceptibly’ is clearly meant [204]) and certain historical sequences (as when Auden’s revision of ‘Spain 1937’ is made to look like an acknowledgement of George Orwell’s complaints in ‘Inside the Whale,’ when the fact is, according to Edward Mendelson, that ‘Auden first published his revision a month before Orwell published his objection’).


With a critical apparatus limited to two meagre notions—metaphoric modernism versus metonymic antimodernism, plus loops and oscillations—Lodge cannot do much at all with Samuel Beckett, whom he must classify as ‘the first important postmodernist writer,’ a category neither metaphoric nor metonymic and therefore only triflingly compatible with Lodge’s version of literary history. Tant pis.