Instress, part 2

Contagion as metaphor

“The Enamored Mage: Translation #6” a portrait of Robert Duncan by Jess, 1965. Courtesy of The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (

Language magic, language power, is in the balance of extremes. It’s in the Bardo. This, I would say, partly explains the Romantic interest in transgressing extreme boundaries through sublime experiences. The sublime in poetry is manifested as a description of an experience that involves returning, the pendulum swinging back to Earth from Heaven (or … wherever). Without the return, there is no sublimation, no matter-making (meaning-making, perhaps) from the transcendence. The visionary goes beyond the graspable, the namable, and returns without words. Words fail me. I cannot say

The sublime is a vision of instress, in this experiment, so to understand how to write instress, I’ll work through visionary experiences of the sublime, the transcendent, and the alchemical. The semiotic dip, as I’m going to think of it — moving out of symbolic or everyday meaning and into something else, the loosening of the jellyfish — is a sublime journey, there and back again, and can occur through metaphor.

Glimpses of the power of language (meaning and cognitive power) occur on the edges of chaos, when language dips into the unknown — into the prefigural meanings of the semiotic nothing. If this sounds like hyperbole, it is — excess as an arc, as thrown, curiously related to diabolus (to take across by throwing). The Devil in excess! See Dante, again. There’s something like essence, or essential meaning, in semiotic chaos. It’s not as if nothing exists there, in that sea. However, no-thing exists because the thing is not pointed at (this thing! it is called “lamp”). Rather, lamp-ness exists in that sea of semiotic chaos, but it exists perhaps as a feeling and not a word. The sea, again, is a metaphor. The “real” lamp only exists when we call it into existence, from the sea, by name. And if the lamp is not clearly aligned with lamp-ness when its name is used, how can it be purely “lamp”? Consider: “the lamp was an eye in the dark room.” A simple metaphor to illustrate that the lamp, in the span of just this sentence, was or remains no longer a lamp — but also an eye. That’s an intervention in the jellyfish tendrils, a tangling of two meanings.

Metaphor is both a basic unit of poetry and a basic unit of the spell. Spells, as language magic, use the same techniques as poetry, and we can see tight correspondences between linguistic theories and anthropological theories of magic because of this relationship. Take Roman Jakobson, linguist and cultural theorist of works including “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” alongside James Frazer, protoanthropologist studying “primitive” ritual and magic, author of The Golden Bough (1890). Metaphor and metonymy are Jakobson’s distilled linguistic units just as sympathy and contagion are Frazer’s most distilled magical tendencies, and these concepts correspond tightly. Jakobson is working with subjects who, at different ends of the spectrum, are incapable of comprehending metaphor and metonymy. Frazer is studying communities that, in what he sees as the absence of religion, believe that objects and entities obey the magical tendencies of sympathy and contagion. Metaphor sets up a sympathy, one thing as another, while metonymy reveals the clear connections of one thing standing in for another. Jakobson identifies metaphor and metonymy as ends of a spectrum of language while Frazer sees sympathy and contagion as unique types of magical energy transfer. It doesn’t matter in this discussion whether they’re poles or the “only” categories we can work with, but it does matter that certain magical properties share the same equation as poetic structures. Also, I’m not very interested at this exact moment in the distinctions of metonymy and synecdoche, though that warrants discussion further on. We might consider that all synecdoche is contagious. I have to look up the differences every time I try to work this theory out. If metonymy, specifically, represents contagious meaning, then the synecdoche of a part for the whole is similarly contagious, though perhaps in a more obvious way. I am thinking of synecdoche (the hair for the head) as a clear contagious relation, while metonymy transfers among things that may be less alike (the suit does not make the man). 

We need not confine metaphorical and metonymous units to the line alone; they extend to whole ecosystems of poetry. In the epic, the hero is metonymous for the nation. Personification is ultimately a metaphor of another being for the human. Even if we can’t draw everything down to these two concepts, we can bring much of poetry and its techniques into conversation with magic through direct sympathetic relationships. Metaphor’s transfer of qualities from this to that (this doll is like that person, or this stone is like the strength of that warrior), and metonymy’s replacement of this for that, wherein a symbol stands in for the whole (this hair is coterminous with the head I pulled it from; anything I do to the hair is done to the head) are direct transfers. Aeneas’s victory leads to the victory and ancestral pride of the Roman Empire, contagiously. Duncan’s falcon soars and so can he, though the two are not the same species. Sympathy and contagion, like metaphor and metonymy, are differently powered and offer the poet different ways of rounding up language energy. Another discussion worth having here concerns that poet and their will (see the Crowley quote and my discussion of it in defining “magic” in the sidebar of this commentary) as the capacity to manipulate these magical/linguistic qualities.

If we parallel these two sets of concepts, we can see the apt connections of spell language and its attendant actions and effects in poetry as well as in ancient magic. Robert Duncan’s declaration that his mother is a falconress and he, her gay falcon, makes it so; the metaphor establishes the relation. In the scope of the poem, no other meaning-making or manifestation is necessary or possible. The metaphor is the ultimate unit of declaration and definition in the poem. By sympathy, the power Duncan extends to or removes from the falcon is extended to himself, if the poem is a spell in which Duncan crafts a powerful queer self, as Jack Halberstam circles around in Wild Things (2020), and the sympathetic power of queer selfhood is transferred through metaphorical language. We might see a different sort of power in the extended motif of bougainvillea in Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990); the presence of the flower indicates colonial presence in the poem, so the flower stands in for the colonizer as a symbol. It is metonymous in that the flower flourishes where colonial power flourishes, not metaphorical, because the flower is not the colonizer, exactly, but stands in for the colonizer.

Contagious magic is applied to objects that are coterminous physically, like a fingernail and the person from which that fingernail came. Sympathetic magic is used with objects that share qualities, like the ever-apt “voodoo doll” example. Duncan is analogous to the falcon though the falcon is at a remove from him, which implies a sympathetic relation. Walcott’s bougainvillea is, on the other hand, an extension of the colonial body, relaying contagious magic between. I’m sure there are countless examples, and I could go on. But the point is that we may find the rules of magic in the compositional ancestry of poetic tools, and also that these constructs, in the scope of language, are all that we need. By “all,” I mean ultimate — in the scope of the poem, nothing can be more defining than these linguistic constructs. In language, we might say the same. There’s nothing more “real” to be had in language. So “magic” doesn’t work as manifestation. You didn’t see, with your eyes, Robert Duncan turn into a falcon and fly off. Who cares? 

Speaking of language, metaphor is a very real way to break the power of denotation. This brings us back to the sea. Metaphor is a deconstructive tool, and, when used properly, can take power away from language’s denotative “this is this” rule of the categorical imperative. Metaphor does not break denotation as a rule, but it has the capacity to do so more, perhaps, than other poetic structures. More so than metonymy because metonymy relies on a preexisting relationship between things. Metaphor is not a simple simile that allows something to be “similar” to or “like” something else. Metaphor declares that this thing is that thing. The rosy-fingered dawn now has fingers, the mother is now a falconress. The metaphor suspends our need for equivalent meanings by saying that we are wrong to assume the dawn could not have fingers in the first place. The possibility was always inscribed in the sea. For a moment, in our mind and pictured in our mind, the dawn reaches out.

It seems overly simplistic to make this argument, sure, but from it builds a poetics of magical thinking. If metaphor makes, in the poem, something so, then what else can metaphor, or poetry, do? If we craft a language of welcome or inclusion and implement it, do we become more inclusive? Does form follow meaning-making, so to speak?

 — Eric