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Decoding Sarah Kane
Dimensions of Metaphoricity in Cleansed

by Timo Pfaff

2.3 Transgressing the Borders: Minimalism, Metaphoricity and Literality

Someday when we’re dreaming
Deep in love, not a lot to say
Then we will remember
The things we said today.
(John Lennon/Paul Mc Cartney: Things We Said Today)

A further dimension of the play is the interplay between statements and their literal realisation, or rather the examination of their validity, on stage. This is to say that the metaphorical nature of language is being ignored and thus the metaphorical meaning is made visible on stage by comprehending statements only in their literal sense. The person who pushes forward the plot in this respect is Tinker because he is unable to understand any meaning beyond the literal meaning of statements. This way of conveying meaning has to be seen in the light of the development of cognitive linguistics in the twentieth century: “In the course of the twentieth century the assumed distinction between the literal and the metaphorical has come under increasing attack” (Fludernik et. al. 384). From a cognitive perspective “linguistic expression arises from strategic adaptations of body schemata that we project onto our environment” (Fludernik et. al. 385). Consequently cognitive linguists tend to think “of metaphor as a process of thought rather than a product of language . . .”
(Fludernik et. al. 388). In this respect, Tinker can be construed as a representative of objectivist and empiricist tradition. As outlined by Lakoff and Johnson, objectivism holds that because meaning is objective, there can, by definition, be no such thing as metaphorical meaning. According to this view, metaphor can only be a matter of language evoked through talking (blatantly false) about some objective meaning by using language that would be used literally to talk about some other objective meaning. Consequently, a further conclusion is:

Again by definition, there can be no such thing as literal (conventional) metaphor. A sentence is used literally when M' = M, that is, when the speaker’s meaning is the objective meaning. Metaphors can only arise when M' ? M. Thus, according to the objectivist definition, a literal metaphor is a contradiction in terms, and literal language cannot be metaphorical. (209)

Such an approach is based on “fear of metaphor and rhetoric” (Lakoff and Johnson 191), which is equivalent to a “fear of emotion and the imagination” (191). “Words are viewed as having ‘proper senses’ in terms of which truths can be expressed. To use words metaphorically is to use them in an improper sense, to stir the imagination and thereby the emotions and thus to lead us away from the truth and toward illusion” (191).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “literal” as “the distinctive epithet of that sense or interpretation (of a text) which is obtained by taking its words in their natural or customary meaning, and applying the ordinary rules of grammar; opposed to mystical, allegorical, etc” and “[h]ence, by extension, applied to the etymological or the relatively primary sense of a word, or to the sense expressed by the actual wording of the passage, as distinguished from any metaphorical or merely suggested meaning” (“literal”). Thus, literality and metaphoricity form a further binary opposition besides the already analysed love-violence antithesis. In accordance to the theoretical background given above, Opel states:

Wenn in der Folge Rods Behauptung, Carls Versprechen sei Selbstmord, sich durch den Vollstrecker Tinker nahezu bewahrheitet, so gewinnt man den Eindruck, die Bildlichkeit der Sprache habe sich in den szenischen Raum hinein erweitert. Es wird nahegelegt, der szenische Raum und die Dinge, die dort geschehen, seien Effekt der sprachlichen Operationen und Metaphern, die die Figuren gebrauchen. Sie repräsentieren in diesem Sinne eine Sprache und ein Denken, das sich verselbständigt hat und sich nun szenisch betätigt, dadurch aber als Metapher unlesbar, nicht eindeutig übersetzbar wird.
(Opel 156)

Thus, Kane’s way of working in a way is a deconstruction of the myth of objectivism. Cleansed ridicules any objectivist assumptions and brings to light the essential metaphoricity of language on stage. The most obvious example of this literal translation of speech is when Grace states that she wishes to change her body into that of Graham: “So it looked like it feels./ Graham outside like Graham inside” (22). Meanwhile, “Tinker is watching” (22) and thus overhearing her wish. “Was die Figuren im poetisierten Überschwang an Wünschen und Absichten äußern, Tinker nimmt es buchstäblich. Seine Wunscherfüllung übersetzt sprachliche Wendungen in materielle Realität” (Opel 147). This is in line with Ken Urban’s observation that from the way Kane’s plays are staged “we can no longer respond to the action as literal, but allegorical” (45).

A further instance of literal understanding of metaphoricity in language is Carl’s pledge of love to Rod. This scene displays the second aspect of literality, namely putting the validity of statements to the test. According to Opel, this goes along with an extreme minimalism of language: “Daß dieser sprachliche Minimalismus auf der Binnenebene mit einer extremen Empfindsamkeit gegenüber sprachlichen Ungenauigkeiten einhergeht, mit einem Bestehen auf absoluter Wahrhaftigkeit der Sprache, zeigt der erste Dialog zwischen Rod und Carl” (Opel 155). Tinker again overhears their conversation. In scene 4, he puts Carl’s commitment to the test and Carl fails to proof the validity of his statement. Therefore, Tinker cuts off Carl’s tongue.

Sarah Kane Cleansed

As the actor Stuart McQuarrie, who played the part of Tinker in the 1998 Royal Court production of Cleansed, states about Tinker “[i]t’s almost as if he were scientifically testing out the boundaries of love” (Saunders 181). In this respect, the testing of the authenticity of love seems to be equivalent to the testing of the validity of statements. Saunders convincingly argues:

Integral to the theme of love in Cleansed are the ways in which love is tested. Often this is brought about in the most brutal and violent ways by the figure of Tinker. . . . Tinker is certainly a meddler in the fates of his charges, testing their desires, their delusions and professions of love; often to savagely logical conclusions. (96)

In the case of Rod, this “savagely logical conclusion” is to murder him. In scene 13, Rod wonders what would have happened if Carl had insisted on being murdered himself. Rod concludes: “He ever / asks me I’ll say ‘Me. Do it to me. Not to Carl, not/ my lover, not my friend, do it to me’” (32). This announcement is put to the test in scene 17 and Rod, insisting upon his decision, is murdered (38). The dismemberment of Carl’s body, however, has primarily to be interpreted in terms of punishment for being dishonest and inaccurate in the use of language. “Die oft derbe und obszöne Sprache in Kanes Stücken ist durch ein Mißtrauen gegenüber sprachlicher Ungenauigkeit geschärft und zugespitzt zu einer kargen Poesie” (Opel 155).

As Saunders puts it, “Cleansed frequently relies on theatrical imagery to add a further dimension to linguistic meaning” (88). This has already been shown above: large parts of the speech in Cleansed have their scenic counterpart due to an understanding of speech (by Tinker) that is purely literal and thus brings about what Opel calls “Ausgestaltung sprachlicher Wendungen als Wirklichkeit” (Opel 159). This embodiment of literal phrases, however, is not restricted to actions, but also extends to characters: The figures “aren’t so much characters as states of being; they speak in meagre, stilted jabs” (Clapp, Observer). This has already been argued in chapter 2.1, where the metaphorical nature of Tinker is analysed and in chapter 2.2, where Graham is interpreted as a metaphor for Grace’s longing.

To sum it up, the “feeling of metaphoric truth” (Sierz 117) that permeates the play, just as in Kafka’s The Trial, is brought about by literal translation of statements onstage. Opel nicely paraphrases this phenomenon of Kane when she states: “Man könnte in dieser Phase von Kanes Schreiben vom Nebentext als szenischer Erweiterung des Haupttextes sprechen” (159). These features in Kane’s playwrighting are embedded in her search for a language of theatre that allows a different view on reality: “Die Suche nach dieser Theatersprache beinhaltet in Kanes Ästhetik eine Buchstäblichkeit der Sprache, die etwa in Cleansed ein Eigenleben entwickelt und als monströse Materialität wiederkehrt” (Opel 169).

2.4 “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?”—Form as Meaning

This final chapter intends to reveal some similarities of Kane’s conception of theatre and Nietzschean thought as expressed in his essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873). Of course, this can only be an enquiry touching little more than the surface of the topic. An adequate analysis would require an additional research paper of its own.

In terms of metaphor, the Nietzschean attitude expressed in his essay is known as the “It’s All Metaphor Position” (Lakoff and Turner 218) and shares some striking insights with Kane’s theatre. Nietzsche raises the question: “Is langauge the adequate expression of all realities?” This goes along with an investigation into the nature of man’s quest for truth, because adequacy in the expression of reality would imply truth-claims. For Nietzsche, there exists no such thing as “the truth” uttered through language. Nietzsche argues:

The “thing in itself” (for that is what pure truth, without consequences, would be) is quite incomprehensible to the creators of language and not at all worth aiming for. One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one.

Thus, if there were such a thing as the res in ipsum, it would be completely inaccessible for mankind because language has to be seen as twice removed from this “truth.” The first metaphor is a neural stimulus translated into an image; the second the translation of the image into a sound. Hereafter, Nietzsche formulates: “Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.” This is the point where the issue can be brought back to Kane. To dissolve her scenic images into a concept is at least problematic. The disturbed reaction of many theatre critics should be understood from this angle. Kane’s scenic metaphors can hardly be endowed with concrete, plain sense. On the contrary, Kane goes the other way around, dissolving ideas, terms and feelings into scenic images.

Nietzsche’s line of argumentation leads to the insight that “the world as it is experienced is protometaphorical in its structure” (Wilshire 239).

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

This metaphor of coins implies that mankind has forgotten its own active part in “imprinting” meaning onto the things external to us. Therefore, it seems valid to assume that Nietzsche would probably have felt some affection for Kane’s work. Her way of working with theatre bears some analogies to the way Nietzsche would like people to use language. Kane (and other representatives of in-yer-face theatre) refuses to work in the way she is expected to do by societal authorities such as theatre critics, but also by the audience. This is why her plays set off vivid controversies. “After our vision clears, we can’t help but wonder how much all this sound and fury really signifies” (Marlowe, What’s On). Reactions like this one are the consequence of Kane’s refusal to make use of conventional theatrical imagery and metaphors. Nietzsche’s aversion “gegenüber der Festschreibung von Werten, oder gegenüber wahrheitswertfähigen Aussagen über ethische Sachverhalte, oder auch gegenüber Begründungen und Herleitungen von unbedingten Sollenssätzen” (Rauscher 22) can thus be extended to the stage of theatre to draw an analogy between him and Kane.

But in any case it seems to me that the correct perception—which would mean the adequate expression of an object in the subject—is a contradictory impossibility. For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation. . . .

Bearing this in mind, Nietzsche seems to have been a forerunner of cognitive linguists. The conclusions of Lakoff and Johnson apparently derive from Nietzsche’s body of thought. Lakoff and Johnson argue against traditional Western philosophy and linguistics that meaning

is never disembodied or objective and is always grounded in the acquisition and use of a conceptual system. Moreover, truth is always given relative to a conceptual system and the metaphors that structure it. Truth is therefore not absolute or objective but is based on understanding. (197)

As Bruce Wilshire points out, “since perception is basic to that worldly presence of things-along-with-other-things which is meaning itself, then metaphor—that sensuous grasping of things in terms of what they are not—is endemic and fundamental to cognition itself” (241). Kane was well aware of how she worked. In an interview she stated: “All good art is subversive, either in form or content. And the best art is subversive in form and content” (Stephenson and Langridge 130). To make the form carrier of meaning and to refuse conventionalised working is a key feature to understand her work: “form and content attempt to be one—the form is the meaning” (Stephenson and Langridge 130).

The similarity in the works of Kane and Nietzsche would thus be the acknowledgement of the fundamental, universal metaphoricity of human language. Because they both accept this fact they become free to intuitively create really new instances of thought and, in the case of Kane, theatre.

That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect. And when it smashes this framework to pieces, throws it into confusion, and puts it back together in an ironic fashion, pairing the most alien things and separating the closest, it is demonstrating that it has no need of these makeshifts of indigence and that it will now be guided by intuitions rather than by concepts.


reproduced on the site with the kind permission of the author
©Timo Pfaff 2005

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