Comments on Zoltán Kövecses, “Metaphor Universals in Literature”

Kathleen Hart, Vassar College

Metaphor Universals in Literature” succinctly synthesizes important conceptual metaphor scholarship (to which Kövecses has made substantial contributions) that offers valuable tools for analyzing metaphor in poetry and other literary forms. In what follows, I propose a theoretical justification for Kövecses’s decision to focus on poetry: more than other genres, poetry approximates the experience of ritual. I then explore the implications of this theory for the content Kövecses proposes for the schematicity levels of the skyscraper metaphor in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper.”

Kövecses’ “schematicity hierarchy” can serve to illuminate the interpretive choices available to readers (including literary translators) by bringing to conscious awareness the different levels of abstraction associated with a metaphorical expression. Readers generally access the compound conceptual metaphor “Life is a journey” to interpret Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” But since a journey, like a walk in the woods, can be voluntarily undertaken, and to a known destination (for which the complex metaphor “A purposeful life is a journey” is more apt), the “Life is a journey” metaphor can lead readers to overlook the poem’s emphasis on what is involuntary and unknown. Applying Kövecses’ method, one can articulate an even more schematic (less specific) metaphorical level above “Life is a journey” that removes volition from the proposition: “A life from beginning to end is movement from a start point to an end-point” (the event-structure metaphor “Change of state is change of location” would not be specific enough). Now it becomes clear that life is from the outset a “journey” we are involuntarily thrust upon, under conditions not of our choosing, even if we exercise some choice with respect to paths taken. Likewise, identifying “path” (the route along which something travels) as a less specific source term than “road” (a wide, specially prepared surface) throws into relief the poem’s allusion to civilization as another factor narrowing our life choices:

Image schema: A life from beginning to end is movement from a starting point to an end-point.

Domain: Life is a journey

Frame: Making a life choice is embarking on one path instead of another

Mental spaces: I made a significant life choice (“that has made all the difference”) when I took the road less travelled by

Establishing such distinctions to create what Kövecses calls a “multi-level view” better enables readers to identify both choice and lack of choice as thematic preoccupations of the poem.

Probing relationships between different levels of abstraction can also call attention to the specific sensory-motor or perceptual representations activated by the source domain at the “mental spaces” level, enhancing our appreciation of the esthetic as well as symbolic value of a poet’s linguistic choices. The question of value, however, raises a theoretical consideration beyond the practical ones Kövecses cites for focusing primarily on poetry. If poetic choices have both esthetic and symbolic value, then we may need to take a text’s generic status into account when attempting to articulate its levels of metaphor. In the case of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper,” for instance, the traditionally ritualistic character and functions of pro-labor poetry, with its emphasis on the neglected humanity of low-wage workers, participate in Sandburg’s questioning of the “Society is a building” metaphor.

As Kövecses observes, the “typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts.” This raises the question as to why poetry treats such topics, or why we read poems metaphorically for those topics in the first place. Never does Frost’s poem explicitly map the metaphor “Life is a journey,” though literary works often do offer explicit metaphorical mappings (e.g. “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players”). It’s the text’s recognizable status as a poem that invites us to give abstract meaning to a walk in the woods. If we were to take the news report of a fatal accident that occurred when a driver swerved into an oncoming car to avoid hitting an animal, and rearrange the same “ordinary” language on a page to resemble poetry, then it would automatically have metaphorical import. Now the driver becomes every human being who has tried to avoid a wrong path in life, only to embark on a worse one. Higher-level construal involves a certain discounting of the precise details that separate us. Not all of us drive cars or walk in a yellow wood, but we all share human vulnerability; we’re all on this journey together.

The very use of the adjective “higher” to refer to abstract processing is relevant to at least one significant theoretical rationale for focusing on poetry to explore metaphor: poetry comes closer than other genres to approximating the ritual affiliative symbolic practices of our pre-industrial ancestors. In ritual, humans experience a dissolution of boundaries between the self and other. Group ritual allowed members of a village or tribe to undergo self-transcendent experiences that had an “‘All for one, one for all’ subjective quality” (Yaden, et. Al, 153). Our capacity for self-transcendent experience likely conferred evolutionary advantages by promoting pro-social behavior. Experiencing the group as a single entity, one could forget the individual concerns of “the small self” and feel implicated in a “higher” purpose, with the word “higher” expressing the possibly embodied metaphor “Good is up.” One could then more easily reconceptualize “getting killed in battle” as “making a noble sacrifice” (see Dissanayake).

Poetry harkens back to ritual, as Ellen Dissanayake argues, in that it typically relies on “paralinguistic aesthetic devices” (56), including rhythm, repetitions, silences, and ways of bringing out words’ acoustic qualities; such devices are also characteristic of “motherese”: the style of speech adults universally use when bonding with infants. The poetic extension, elaboration, and questioning of metaphor is “covered by aesthetic devices” (67) that produce “bodily-emotional affective effects” (74). “Both baby talk and ritual ceremony structure (or pattern) and produce changes in feelings” (71), which influence our ways of thinking about something.

Ritual often takes place when something important is at stake. If we read “Skyscraper” as a ritualistic act that can change our ways of thinking about something, then the metaphorical expression involving a skyscraper at the beginning of the poem potentially means something different by the end of the poem. Citing cultural context – around the time the poem was written in1916, skyscrapers began to proliferate in major American cities — Kövecses asserts that the skyscraper can be construed as a metaphor whose four levels of schematicity he identifies as follows:

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are complex physical structures.

Domain: Society is a building.

Frame: The construction of a society is the building of a building.

Mental spaces: Building a new American society is building a skyscraper.

Never does the poem offer the explicit metaphorical mapping “Society is a building.” The poem’s own metaphorical expressions, on the other hand, point to a tension between the skyscraper as an awe-inspiring symbol of collective achievement, and the skyscraper as a money-making machine commissioned and controlled by “the master-men who rule the building.” Understood in historical context, that tension corresponds to two competing future visions of “the new American society”: it could potentially honor every “soul,” or be completely dominated by unregulated industrial capitalism.

At stake was the future of American workers. Would they ever enjoy an eight-hour workday, decent wages, compensation for job-related injury? Would child labor be outlawed? Or would workers continue to be the victims of employers’ unchecked power, while labor union organizers got beaten by the police, framed by the courts and executed? Would the rights to freedom of speech and assembly continue to be violated in the name of public safety? Sandburg cared deeply about those questions. And nowhere in the United States was the battle for labor fought more furiously than in the city of Chicago, where Sandburg had gone to write for a pro-labor newspaper amidst ongoing strikes.

Challenges to unregulated capitalism were associated in the public mind with anarchist violence, though violence often began when the police, at the behest of big business, fired into crowds of peaceful strikers. This may be why Sandburg’s publisher pressured him to soften the more radical tone of The Chicago Poems. “Skyscraper” leaves open the question of what more specific target domain, other than “new American society,” corresponds to the specificity of the source domain “skyscraper” at the level of mental spaces. That more specific target domain, I suggest, involves the “complex abstract system” of industrial capitalism.

The poem’s very first metaphorical expression hints at something ominous: “BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” The skyscraper is a huge inanimate object that has a “soul,” as if endowed with intelligence and agency: a thing is a being. Subsequent lines depict people being “poured” into the skyscraper, or identified as “broom” and “mop”: human beings are things. The personification of the skyscraper-as-instrument thus corresponds to the instrumentalization of the people who work in or on it, like the construction worker who becomes part of the building when he falls from a girder and breaks his neck.

As a product of unregulated industrial capitalism, the skyscraper was not a mere physical structure; it was an instrument for generating capital (Parker). Construction workers had no more say in its architectural design than in their own wages or working conditions; workers were treated as mindless and dispensable objects to be purchased cheap with the building materials: “Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.” The rise of unregulated industrial capitalism is the degradation of work, defined as “the separation of conception from execution” (Braverman 78).

Any working definition of a “society” includes “people.” It is the dehumanization of workers that the poet strives to oppose, by insisting that every person, regardless of social status, has “a soul.” Though reduced to machine-like status on the job, human beings deserve consideration with respect to wages, physical safety and daily hours. Offering a corrective to the representation of low-wage workers as mere things, the poet points out that “men and women, boys and girls,” are the ones “that give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.” The skyscraper minus human beings, on the other hand, is just a pile of concrete: “Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building . . . ?”

Society, then, is not a building (which is not to contradict Kövecses: to question a metaphor is to develop it). At the same time, however, humans are capable of feeling connected to a group as if it were a single entity; a building is a single entity. The poem’s final line echoes the first, while taking on a potentially new meaning: “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and stars and has a soul.” By the end of this poem that has repeatedly invoked every person’s “soul,” the skyscraper’s “soul” now potentially designates a society by and for “souls” who are united as a single entity, to uphold a lofty group purpose. Experienced as an oppressive force that pits “the master-men” against powerless workers reduced to things, society can be conceptualized as a soul-destroying skyscraper. Experienced as a single entity that makes us feel “we are all in it together,” with worker’s hours reduced and income increased, a society can be conceptualized as an awe-inspiring symbol of collaborative endeavor: a skyscraper.

Vision I.

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The perpetuation of unregulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people by reducing them to things

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on unregulated capitalism is the erection of a soul-destroying skyscraper that looms over the dehumanized masses.

Vision II.

Image Schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The establishment of regulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people while preserving (relatively speaking) their “souls”

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on regulated capitalism is the erection of an awe-inspiring soul-preserving skyscraper pointing to the stars.

Reading and writing pro-labor poetry was a ritualistic bonding practice of early twentieth-century Americans who fought for more regulatory policies and protections. Good or bad, their poetry and songs sustained them through terror and crushing defeat. Poetry helped them feel morally elevated above the proponents of unregulated capitalism who sought to keep them down.

To Carl Sandburg, poetry was a way of calling upon the soul’s power to transcend the “small self” and celebrate “people,” not profits, as the very highest purpose of humanity. Accordingly, “Skyscraper” uses the verticality metaphor in two ways: through the conceptual metaphor “Power is up” and the conceptual metaphor “Good (virtue) is up.” There are men in the skyscraper who aspire to a “million-dollar business,” to “live a lobster’s ease of life.” The “People are animals” metaphor – not just any animal here, but a lobster, quite low on the Great Chain of Being — indicates that only a low life aspires to “stacks of money” while disregarding the “souls” on whom fortune is made. Virtue, in the form of poetic contemplation and higher-level construal, belongs to the low-level watchman who gazes over the city from the building’s highest floor.

Kövecses’ term “conceptualizer” is appropriate, since the reader, and not just the poet, actively constructs metaphorical meaning; the reader’s background, and not just the writer’s, can account for the metaphors identified and articulated at different levels. My own background informs my reading: my great-grandfather, George Carey, was a Wobbly who met his Belarusian anarchist wife Ykaterina (“Kate”) at a rally for the labor activist Joe Hill (see Kornbluh and Gross 156-157). I have inherited their pro-worker pamphlets full of poetry.

Early twentieth-century America was at a crossroads. After laissez-faire economics failed to prevent the Great Depression, President Roosevelt took the view that “we” were all in this together, and had new regulatory policies and reforms adopted such as the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. By 1960 President Johnson called Sandburg “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Unlike a building, a society is ever at a crossroads, consisting of people who make crucial decisions. Sandburg’s skyscraper could indeed be a metaphor for a “new American society” committed to civil liberties and protection for workers. Without the guarantee of those rights and protections, however, the skyscraper would revert to the status of an inhumanly immense instrument of oppression. Which road gets taken is what makes the difference.

Works Cited

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Dissanayake, Ellen. “Prelinguistic and Preliterate Substrates of Poetic Narrative.” Poetics Today 32.1 (2011): 55-79.

Kornbluh, Joyce L. and Daniel Gross. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011.

Parker, Martin. “Vertical Capitalism: Skyscrapers and Organization.” Culture and Organization 21.3 (2015):  217-234.

Yaden, David Bryce, Jonathan Haidt, Ralph W. Hood, Jr, David R. Vago, and Andrew B. Newberg. “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology 21.2 (2017): 143-160.