Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Gorgon's Head and the Mirror: Fact versus Metaphor in Lanterns on the Levee

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Gorgon's Head and the Mirror: Fact versus Metaphor in Lanterns on the Levee

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago Mark Schorer published an article emphasizing the importance of metaphor in the novel: "Yet a novel, like a poem, is not life, it is an image of life; and the critical problem is first of all to analyze the structure of the image." (1) Recently critics have expanded the bounds of metaphor study to include the analysis of autobiographies, for although the composition of an autobiography is an enumeration of facts, it is also an artistic process. This process does not necessarily distort the facts but rather weaves them together and gives them a unity lacking in a bare chronology. The nature of man, and especially of man as artist, compels him to seek order in a seemingly disordered world. Particularly does man seek order in his own life. By expanding Schorer's rationale, a reader or writer is justified in believing that an autobiography, like a novel or poem, is not life but "an image of life." In producing an autobiography, a writer may well use some device such as the alter ego, the epiphany, the juxtaposition of inner and outer worlds, or recurrent symbols. If the autobiographer concerns himself with shaping his life rather than just narrating it, he may also use metaphor to create in the "image" a unity lacking in the original.

Apropos of the theory that autobiography may be complete with a defined and contributing style, James E. Rocks has recognized the art in William Alexander Percy's autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. Diverging from standard critical opinion, which deals with Percy's personality, subject matter, or philosophy, Rocks states that Percy's art is one of "opposition and tension" and that Percy uses metaphors to define the tension. (2) That is, Rocks identifies thematic tension expressed in metaphors as the organizing motif of Lanterns on the Levee. He says, "Although there is no conscious artistic pattern in the ordering of the chapters in Lanterns on the Levee, there is a movement back and forth between different themes and settings which gives evidence of Percy's dualistic mode of regarding reality." (3)

While not disagreeing with the substance of Rocks' analysis, I believe that the metaphors themselves are the primary organizing motif of the volume. My thesis differs from Rocks' in degree rather than kind, for he discusses the metaphors of nature, war, music, levee, garden, and journey as expressions of tension in Percy's autobiography while I shall consider them as consciously and adroitly used organizing principles.

Lanterns on the Levee is, naturally, ordered by chronology, but Percy's primary stylistic device is the transmutation of actual experiences and ideas (chronology and philosophy) into metaphor (art). I use "metaphor" broadly to include a whole family of related tropes: metaphor proper, buried metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, symbol, and the like. Percy's metaphorical technique organizes his thoughts and experiences and gives them symbolic value. With just a few exceptions, each of the chapters of his autobiography contains some dominant metaphor as a loose framework in which he writes.

The title of the autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son, is the reader's first indication that the chronological facts (the "recollections" of the subtitle) are subordinate to metaphors (the "lanterns" and the "levee" of the main title). Judging from its position in the title, the reader may infer that the levee is one of Percy's most significant metaphors. Although Rocks states that the levee represents "man's battle with nature," (4) the levee may be interpreted more narrowly as a metaphor for tradition. As a staunch Southern aristocrat, Percy firmly believed in the erection and maintenance of tradition to keep in control not just general nature but also human nature--the nature of both the black and the white man. Percy's "lanterns" are his recollections; they are his means of shedding light upon his views, particularly upon his views on the nature of the Southern aristocrat, on the beauty of the Southern order, and on the philosophy of the Southern mind regarding racial relations. …

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