- Fragmented Continuities: Reflections on Metaphor, Narrative Construction and the Early Modern Historian
- Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Inc.)
- Volume 15, Number 2, January 1998
- pp. 115-144
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Fragmented Continuities: Reflections on Metaphor, Narrative Construction and the Early Modern Historian Conal Condren I Like a dog, any word might have its day, but as Horace famously remarked, words can die and be reborn, all because of the vagaries of use, which have thus an ever fickle authority over us all. Academic discourse might well seem to support his judgement, not least because casual linguistic habits can dissipate meanings and damage the efficacy of once useful or harmless terms. The m u c h abused 'paradigms' and 'parameters' have had their day and n o w is the moment of 'interrogation' and 'self-reflexivity'. The first, a pronouncement as to the seriousness of one's analysis, involves a looseness which can obscure the issues of contentious interpretation. For, unlike"the statements extracted by the Inquisition, the answers of interrogated texts and concepts are given by the interrogator. The second solecism seems to suggest little more than a clumsily confused redundancy and so ironically symbolises a lack of linguistic self1 Horace, Ars poetica, II. 70ff. P A R E R G O N ns 15.2 (January 1998) 116 Conal Condren awareness. This paper 'interrogates' no texts, it exhibits no 'self-reflexivity'. Yet it does arise out of an increasing appreciation of the importance of what C S . Lewis called, with distressing lack of chic, the 'dangerous sense' of a word.3 Such senses are the result of fragmented continuities misleadingly evocative of our o w n world. A s the French linguist Meillet had put it, language is transmitted discontinuously;4 and it is the broken continuity or opacity of the contexts of use that can easily create impressions of spurious familiarity, as we compensate for absence by the projection our o w n presuppositions and linguistic habits upon the past. The paradox of transmission, then, is that fragmentation creates an impression of continuity which the fuller picture confutes. In this way, Horace's point about linguistic fashion is itself not quite mine, indeed it cannot be. For, the habits of unreflective word use, however important, are part of a broader conspectus of linguistic change. Nevertheless, m y initial evocation of the Horatian topos will amount to more than a grace note to an argument that urges greater reflexivity in historical analysis in order to resist the authority of fashion. M y comments are restricted to the fragmented continuities involved in the transmission of identifiable metaphors in early modern discourse. Within this context I shall focus mainly on seventeenth-century England. The issues raised, however, are highly 2 The Horatian point about fashion can readily be extended to embrace the talismanic names of academic haute couture invoked in lieu of argument. Only a few years back it was Levi-Strauss who had shown us all this or that, and as I write it is still Foucault and Derrida who teach. The obvious irony of postmodernism relying on the word of founding authors and their texts is not itself not a particularly exciting aporia. It indicates that despite what we say, argument is not everything in academic discourse. Fashion and the needs of cultural and sub-cultural consolidation go hand in hand. 3 C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 12-17. 4 A Meillet, 'Comment les mots changent de sens', Linguistique historique e linguistique generate, vol. 1 (Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1938), p. 235ff; discussed in W . Ullman, Semantics: An Introduction to the Science ofMeani (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), p. 193. Fragmented Continuities 117 ramified and unsuitable to any calibrated treatment, so it m a y be helpful to outline the general direction of these reflections. First, I shall comment briefly on early modern conceptions of the functions of metaphor. Broadly, I will suggest that understanding the cognitive functions of certain forms of figuration in the Early modern period requires a sense of the different discursive contexts in which theories of metaphor are found. In illustrating the point it will be necessary to make reference to superficial continuities with modern arguments about metaphor which have addressed issues of figurative language and cognition. I shall then turn to the preoccupation with metaphor arid narrative construction as...