The Song’s Imagery, again

Yesterday, I noted Exum’s observation that the Song’s imagery is not straightforward visual, but describes the experiences of the lovers.  Exum is drawing on a 1967 JBL article by Richard Soulen, who says, “It should be obvious that comparisons of the female body to jewels (7 1), bowls of wine (7 2a), heaps of wheat (7 2b), and so on, are not intended to aid a mental image of the maiden’s appearance or merely to draw parallels to her qualities; they, and others like them, seek to overwhelm and delight the hearer, just as the suitor is overwhelmed and delighted in her presence. Likewise, the point of comparison between the maiden’s hair and a flock of goats on the slopes of Gilead (4 ?) has nothing to do with Egyptian sculpture, color, motion, or with the quality of either the hair or the flock; it lies simply in the emotional congruity existing between two beautiful yet otherwise disparate sights.”  The images work because they are Eliot-esque “objective correlatives.”

More needs to be said, though.  The specific images are set within a biblical framework and system of images.  And, besides, as Michael Fox ( The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs ) points out, there has to be some sensory feature connecting the image with the referent if the metaphors are to function as metaphors at all:

“we cannot fully explain the meaning of a metaphor merely by pointing out the sensory resemblance between an image and its referent.  What an objectively shared trait does is to bridge the terms of the metaphor and allow the reader to think of the referent in terms of the image.  In descriptive metaphor, where the sensory link is prominent and extensive, the linkage serves to communicate a sharper picture of the referent.  But that is not the case with these metaphors, where the primary role of the sensory common denominator is to make the metaphor possible .”

Citing Ricoeur, he argues that the point of a metaphor is to “reduce the shock engendered by two incompatible ideas.”  For instance, “shorn ewes are a pleasant and effective image for teeth because of their evenness and whiteness, whereas a comparison such as ‘your teeth are like gazelles’ lacks a bridge between the terms to allow the transfer of affective qualities.”  Yet the metaphor depends for its full meaning “not only on the extent of the common ground but also on the ‘metaphoric distance’ between image and referent: that is, the degree of unexpectedness or incongruity between the juxtaposed elements and the magnitude of the dissonance of surprise it produces.”  A small gap between image and referent might make the referent more visually vivid, but “greater metaphoric distance produces psychological arousal, a necessary component of aesthetic pleasure.”  In short, “the sensory common denominator attracts image to referent, while a metaphoric distance is adamantly maintained by a certain incongruity between the terms.”

This tension, he claims, is “essential to the creation of a profoundly new vision of love” in the Song.

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