Metaphor and Dreamwork


I just came across, for the twentieth time, that enigmatic sentence from Thoreau’s Walden. It opens his chapter, “Sounds”:

. . . while we read only particular written languages . . .we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.

It’s bad enough that Thoreau has “all things and events speak,” but how do they manage that without metaphor? Does a tree literally whisper? Do things and events literally speak? What is he getting at?

There’s a quick way to make sense of this, and that’s to challenge the figural/literal, or metaphorical/literal contrast.  There are more options than are dreamed of in this contrast. We might speak neither literally nor metaphorically. If we ride with this possibility, then “things and events” can “speak without metaphor” — and yet not thereby be speaking literally.

When I complain of a stabbing pain in my forehead or praise the joy and sadness of weeping willows I don’t want to say I’m using ornamental metaphors; but I don’t insist that the stabbing or joyful sadness is literal, either.

We might think that if we’re out to corner truth, then either we mean literal truth, or a second best figurative “metaphorical truth.” But we should resist. When the cello speaks back to the horn, or the waves murmur to the breeze, or my forehead suffers a stabbing pain, we are not wandering among ornamental figures where truth has no grip. But if it’s true that my pain is stabbing or that the cello speaks, this is not the land of wooden literality, either. And when dreams speak, is their speech literal, metaphorical, or neither? I’ll opt for neither.  And how about when my bones tell me to slow down?

Donald Davidson opens an essay on metaphor boldly: “Metaphor is the dream work of language.”  That seems a good place to start! But to say “metaphorical language performs dream work”—the saying of it—will have transformative effect (or not) quite apart from whether I can place that remark as literal, figural, or neither.

“The dream work of language” is as brilliant and befitting a reverie as Thoreau’s reverie of dreaming toads or loons that laugh. The reveries ring true. The literal/figural contrast is not a reliable life buoy to cling to. Waves lap the edge of the sands, but their lapping is neither literal nor figural.

We can drop the idea that trees speak metaphorically without falling into the trap of thinking they speak literally. Come to think of it, children often speak in ways that are neither literal nor metaphorical – they don’t have enough exposure and mastery of language to have that contrast in their grip. Their teddy bear cries, and that’s OK. And for my money, it’s OK to have trees weep and stars sparkle quite beyond invoking the clumsy division between literal and figural.  Thoreau’s right: things  — say my bones — speak without metaphor, and speak eloquently.


—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Citations:  Henry David Thoreau, Walden, many editions.  Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” Critical Inquiry, 5 (1) (1978): 31–47.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: