Too complex to be just romance, too full of personal feeling to be only philosophy, Daisy Lafarge’s Metaphor is a peerlessly accomplished take on love in literary and biological history, gripped with a social scientist’s certainty and the passion of a votary. As an extract from a longer work-in-progress, Lovebug, due to be published in the near future, it was written prior to the global pandemic, so was not intended as a comment or an analysis on current events and all resonance therewith, happy or otherwise, is entirely fortuitous.
Wherefore, sweetheart? What’s your metaphor?
– Twelfth Night
When was love first described as a sickness? Or the body in love as one battling an infection? Like a microbial intruder, love moves in and colonises all available space, reorienting everything to itself. A force disguised as an object (the beloved), love weaves beneath the skin of its subjects a fine gauze, a mesh through which all experience is filtered for the duration of the infection: healthy cells become love cells, resources are corralled and redirected, the body’s tangible and intangible energies are reconstrued as a living shrine to the beloved.
In Twelfth Night, romantic love is figured as a contagion that transfers between and consumes its victims: the noble duke Orsino becomes atrabilious under its influence, and lady Olivia – who fails to return Orsino’s affections – dubs it ‘the plague’. Upon first seeing her, Orsino believes Olivia’s beauty has ‘purged the air of pestilence’, but it is he who internalises love’s pestilential appetite. The lover is the one who gets sick by eating the apple of his own eye, bugs and all.
If love is a disease, is its nature contagious, as appears to be the case in Twelfth Night, or does it derive from and (de)generate within the lover, like theories of Spontaneous Generation, or the growth of a non-communicable disease? For Donna Haraway, love is a ‘nasty developmental infection’ signified in the flesh.[i] For Sappho it is a quasi-malevolent force which derives and intrudes from the outside as: ‘… neither inhabitant nor ally of the desirer. Foreign to her will, it forces itself irresistibly upon her from without. Eros is an enemy.’[ii]
Just as we are all struck differently by love’s arrows, each body responds differently to new, potentially harmful pathogens. So-called ‘healthy’ human bodies harbour communities of latent pathogens, which may be activated through contact with external agents. This was the case with the well-known outbreak of E.coli in Wishaw in 1996. Twenty-one people died from eating contaminated meat from a butchers in Lanarkshire; the butchers were condemned and the case propelled ‘food scare’ into the broader public consciousness. While the meat was confirmed as contaminated with Escherichia coli 0157, a more nuanced analysis – which didn’t make the headlines – showed that the main cause of death was the activation of pathogens already carried in the bodies of the victims.[iii]
Love may enter and bloom in us like a microbial infection, but, like these infections, it is never entirely one-way – we could say it activates and is activated by our latent pathogens of love. But perhaps this analogy already makes us uncomfortable, an uneasy straying between sickness and love, infection and affection. Are we speaking purely metaphorically when we describe lovesickness and heartache? Or is there something in love’s matter, its evolutionary journey through organisms and consciousness that binds affection and infection closer than we might presume?
When I sit down to write about metaphor, unsettling shapes float through my mind: the sinister-looking tools and instruments I have seen in the cabinets of medical museums. These were the implements developed by men to assist in obstetrics: long-handled metal forceps for reaching into the birth canal, clasping the infant’s head and pulling it into the world. At school I was taught that metaphor is something akin to this technique: an extractive tool for grasping the obscure, or what cannot be trusted to birth itself. I later learned that this view of metaphor complements the tenor and vehicle theory. According to the rhetorician I. A. Richards a metaphor consists of two parts: the tenor denotes the subject to which attributes are described, and the vehicle the object whose attributes are borrowed. [iv]
If I write that ‘love is a disease’, love is my tenor, and disease its vehicle. In this mechanised paradigm of forceps and vehicles, metaphors can pull or drive something from obscurity into the light. But wielded by clumsy hands they can also maim and damage their subjects; many of the infants subjected to these violent tools suffered deformities to the head. In his 1st century work On the Sublime, Longinus lists the conditions imposed on metaphors. Caecilius suggests two or three at most per text, while Aristotle and Theophrastus state that metaphors can be softened by the addition of modulating phrases such as as if and as it were.
Longinus’ own conclusion is that metaphors are justified by the intensity of the emotions they relate to. Perhaps this is why love’s metaphors are so abundant and endlessly renewable; there inheres in love an intensity that begets metaphoricity. Longinus warns that metaphors are liable to lead to excess, but his argument seems to suggest metaphors are already an excess, an exuberant surplus. Lisa Robertson once remarked that speech is the excess of a kiss.[v] Similarly, if metaphor is an excess of its subject, can we approach the two as materially coherent? That metaphor neither floats immaterially above its subject, nor crouches between its legs with forceps poised, but is instead co-extensive with the substance it describes?
The speculative melding together of metaphor and its subject steers us, mercifully, away from the cabinet of extractive horrors. But if metaphor is made from the same stuff as its subjects, we enter a state of freefall in which vehicles and tenors commune and copulate wildly, trying on each other’s syntactical and semantic shapes. The promiscuity of metaphor is a grammarian’s nightmare, because if love is a kind of disease, then might disease also be a kind of love?
If I write about love and disease in propinquity, metaphor will begin to push up between their cracks, binding them together. This emulsifying of nearness is one arm of language’s magic. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes language as the table on which any group of things, however eclectic, can be placed. He cites Eusthenes, a character in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, whose speech excites the assonant roll call of Enlightenment classification:
‘ … Aspics, Acalephs, Acanthocephalates, Amoebocytes, Ammonites, Axolotis, Amblystomas, Aphislions, Anacondas, Ascarids, Amphisbaenas, Angleworms, Amphipods, Anaerobes, Annelids, Anthozoans…’
But the list is not really a list that exists outside of Eusthenes’ mouth: ‘ … all these worms and snakes,’ Foucault writes, ‘all these creatures redolent of decay and slime are slithering, like the syllables which designate them, in Eusthenes’ saliva: that is where they all have their common locus’.[vi] While it is unlikely that this list may one day come to ‘life’ – that these creatures might coincide in the same time and place, or indeed coexist on Eusthenes’ tongue – it is nevertheless in the mouth of the person who speaks them that they come together. Through speech, the mouth becomes a home: ‘a feasible lodging, a roof under which to coexist.’
The commons of Eusthenes’ (bacteria-laden) saliva is perhaps related to what Aristotle called the epiphora. Anne Carson reminds us that epiphora is the bringing together of two things, and the mortar-like seepage of imagination into the cracks of their newfound proximity. The binding nature of propinquity ‘sees their incongruence, then sees also a new congruence, meanwhile continuing to recognise the previous incongruence through the new congruence.’[vii] The epiphora is language licking us back.
In William S. Burroughs’ phrasing language is an infectious agent that gets under the skin: ‘The word is now a virus.’[viii] Burroughs figures language as a parasite that has evolved with humanity as its host. Yet all parasites thrive by virtue of an Icarian balance of ambition and restraint; a parasite must be successful but not too successful, for its own survival depends on the survival of its host. Language consumes us but it doesn’t quite kill us.
In the course of just over a decade Susan Sontag wrote two short and seismic polemics against figurative language’s perceived lethality. Illness as Metaphor was first published in 1978 and sought to unravel unhelpful metaphorical thinking around disease, particularly non-communicable diseases like cancer. Sontag had recently received a diagnosis of breast cancer, and found herself embroiled in and frustrated by the many mystifications surrounding the illness. Cancer, she wrote, was too frequently used as a metaphor for the ills of society, whereas thinking around the illness itself was clouded by fatalism and misinformation about the psychological origins of disease. Metaphors and myths of illness were not just unhelpful but impacted how and if people sought treatment; and thereby – Sontag was convinced – metaphors could kill.
The military metaphor – her main complaint – is perhaps even more engrained now than when Illness as Metaphor was written; we are all so accustomed to the ‘war on germs’ and talk of the body’s ‘defenses’ against infection that these terms barely even register as figurative: they have become naturalised. Infection is figured as a movement from outside to in, a crossing of perceived boundaries and borders. It seems we lack a nuanced conceptual framework for describing this as anything other than invasion, or at best an unwelcome impingement.
At a conference I attended, one explicitly devoted to the military metaphor in medical discourse, I heard a surprising defense of its usage.[ix] A GP stood up and said she agreed that the military metaphor was an inaccurate and unhelpful model for understanding health. She concurred with Sontag that the body is not a battlefield, and that immunity and infection are infinitely complex and nuanced. However, in the pressurised space of a ten-minute consultation with her patients, how else was she supposed to communicate what was going on inside their bodies? The military metaphor may not be ideal, she said, but it is at least accessible, and one she can be sure that all her patients, regardless of their backgrounds, will grasp. If we do away with the military metaphor, what alternatives do we have?
The GP’s questions were a salutary reminder to me that ubiquity is graced by commonality; it constitutes a shared linguistic space. Language is full of these pockets of affective weather, linguistic micro-environments in which, like the common ground of Eusthenes’ tongue, we can gather and clumsily articulate. In her writing on cliché, Denise Riley reminds us that the cliché is not to be despised, since:
‘… its automatic comfort is the happy exteriority of a shared language which knows itself to be a contentless but sociable turning outward toward the world.’[x]
In Riley’s book the cliché is redeemed not in spite of its ubiquity but because of it – its contentlessness is described as one of language’s blind spots, ‘which are not flaws but are constitutive of it, needed for its workings.’[xi] This reparative view of language’s tics, discussed – perhaps not unsurprisingly – in relation to stoicism, acts as a counterpoint to Sontag’s diagnosis of certain metaphors as corruptive to the tissue of language.
The preface to Illness as Metaphor famously begins by describing illness as ‘the night-side of life’, stating that ‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’[xii] By surveying the two kingdoms, Sontag prefaces her book with the same spatial or territorial metaphor she later lambasts, with regard to cancer as a ‘pathology of space’, a disease which spreads or proliferates.[xiii] The first time I read this, the parody was lost on me. It was only on subsequent readings that I began to fully register the preface’s impasto-like texture, thick with layers of figuration. The most truthful way of regarding illness and the healthiest way to be ill, Sontag writes, is to resist metaphorical thinking. So what did it mean, I wondered, that her argument is mired in the figurative substance from which it seeks liberation?
In AIDS and its Metaphors, published twelve years later, Sontag describes her use of metaphor in the earlier book as a ‘brief, hectic flourish … in mock exorcism of the seductiveness of metaphorical thinking.’[xiv] Well, consider me seduced. But in her invocation of life’s night-side and its attendant shadowlands (or, if you will, blind spots), Sontag adumbrates a space of experience that is perhaps inimical to ‘purified’ language: a space made of blind spots into which only blind spots can venture. [xv] Riley’s embrace of the cliché’s contentlessness is a talisman for reading Sontag, a reminder that it might not be possible to cast light on the shadowlands, to peel off the fripperies of metaphor and image and arrive at the kernel of truth, some essential expression finally released from the shadow of projection, irradiated by its own authenticity.
The idea of language as a substance from which metaphorical thinking can be excised unsettles me in the same way as eradicative approaches to epidemiology. That disease is a crucial part of ecology is a relatively recent understanding, and one that is still often ignored by policies that seek to stamp out a disease altogether, regardless of the knock-on effects on its wider ecology.[xvi] If, as Burroughs and Sontag maintain, language is riddled with parasites and pestilential metaphors that harm some of its hosts, we could equally assert that these agents are as much a part of language’s ecology as parasites and diseases are to an ecosystem. Riley might have been speaking about disease ecology when she wrote about clichés’ role within language: not flaws but constitutive of it, needed for its workings.
At the turn of the millennium scientists discovered an unusual gene in the human placenta. This gene, syncytin, was found to be responsible for the production of a protein which, when produced by cells, creates a structure that fuses the placenta to the wall of the uterus. Without this structure in place, the foetus cannot draw nutrients from its mother. Scientists also found that syncytin suppresses the mother’s immune system so that she does not attack the foetus growing inside her as a foreign body.
What turned out to be unusual about syncytin is that it derives from a virus, variations of which infected the ancestors of most carnivorous, placental mammals. Humans, primates, mice, rabbits, cats and dogs all have a type of syncytin in their genome. Scientists estimate that 85 million years ago, when the ancestors of carnivores split off from other mammals, they all got infected with a virus, the genomic remnants of which has since become essential for their placenta; as Carl Zimmer puts it, ‘If not for a virus, none of us would ever be born.’[xvii]
Ongoing phylogenetic research tells us that ‘humans’ are estimated to be about 8% virus, and 37% bacterial.[xviii] Most organisms share up to a third of their genome with other species and kingdoms. Although many viral fragments in human DNA are thought to be ‘junk’ – strands of now-defunct code – many others produce vital proteins, including syncytin, without which reproductive biology would struggle. What does it mean that what we usually regard as maternal instinct – the ability to incubate life – is facilitated by the remains of a virus?
Perhaps it points us toward how intimately imbricated we are with nonhuman life. That microbes can reinforce our capacity to love as much as they can antagonise it; they are an indivisible part of our ecology that we cannot live without. This complex and compromising kinship between species and kingdoms, emergence and emergency, deserves a language more nuanced than that of warfare, and the reductive dualisms of attack and defense, us vs. them; but to get there perhaps we also need something more intimate and charged than a purely scientific grammar. With fraught and giddy resistance to Sontag, I would say we need metaphor and figuration, albeit of a different kind. We need a language of messy, complicated – even clichéd – love.
[i] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (2008) 16
[ii] Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (1986) 4
[iii] Hugh Pennington, When Food Kills: BSE, E.Coli and Disaster Science (2003) 19
[iv] I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1937)
[v] During a seminar on voice at the University of Glasgow, January 2017
[vi] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970) xvi
[vii] Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (1986) 73
[viii] William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (1962)
[ix] ‘Beyond the Military Metaphor: Re-imagining AMR’ Beyond Resistance Network, Edinburgh, January 2019
[x] Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (2005) 4
[xi] ibid. 46
[xii] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978) 3
[xiii] ibid. 15
[xiv] Susan Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors (1989) 91
[xv] ‘If language imposes on the understanding names which familiarity has deadened, how does a minister preach a sermon when words and images have become predictable? Ideas must be stripped to their essence, rhetorical embroidery torn off.’ Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (1985) 50
[xvi] One example among many is the case of bubonic plague in Mongolia, where it is endemic, and carried by marmots. While rates of human death from plague in Mongolia are relatively low, a further diminishing of plague levels would lead to an overpopulation of marmots, whose appetite for grasses and herbs would eventually lead to the desertification of the landscape. This would ostensibly pose a much greater threat to human life than the currently low levels of endemic plague.
[xviii] Margaret McFall Ngai et al. ‘Animals in a bacterial world, a new imperative for the life sciences’ PNAS February 26, 2013 vol. 110 (9) 3229-3236