Sunday, October 5, 2008

*sta- Understanding the Standing Metaphor

Early in our class on "Language, most dangerous of possessions" (Hölderlin), we read Rousseau and Herder, two eighteenth-century writers who were disgusted with what they saw as the arbitrary and abstracted conventions of French and German civilization. One of their contentions was that civilized and civilizing language develops in its citizens increasing distance from the body. 

Writing in the early twentieth century, the German poet Rilke said that he wanted to read the entire historical dictionary started a century earlier by the Grimm brothers (of fairy tale fame). That would take him back to the origins of words, to the "word kernels," to the metaphorical roots that are lost with time and use.

There are advantages to abstraction, I guess, to shifting meanings and new contexts, to abstract thinking.

But every time I want to understand an idea better, I turn first to the underlying metaphors, reach for the Grimm's dictionary or to the OED, and more often than I would have ever thought possible, the root of an important word comes from our sense for ourselves as upright, standing beings. For years I've been trying to sort out this one root, and here's a bit of what I've come up with:

It is at least as old as the Sphinx’s riddle:


What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?

Man, Oedipus answered, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age. [Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 2 (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 10.]


We call ourselves wise (homo sapiens) and argue that our language differentiates us from other species of animals. But even more substantially, we define ourselves by our ancestors’ revolutionary achievement of a standing posture (homo erectus). We became human, in one sense, because we stood up. In another sense, we are who we are because of what that physical act has been made to stand for. Reflecting the substantial nature of that original erection, our languages and cultures constantly, insistently, even obstinately establish superstitions and understandings related to the constituative circumstances of our existence by systematic reference to our station and stature as standing beings, as static and ecstatic beings whose destiny is to cause things to stand. As these words based on the *stā root illustrate, metaphors of standing determine our conceptions of time and space; they shape our understanding of existence and ecstacy; they are the tools and the subject of philosophy and painting, poetry and fiction, sculpture and law, history and psychology, anthropology and linguistics, archaelogy and teleology.  Wherever, in short, humans have payed scientific or artistic attention to our status as human beings, we have done so through metaphors of standing.

And what is reflected and/or established in language is equally the case visually. Take this ancient Greek statue of a powerfully standing woman/goddess, her erect strength heightened by wings:

Or think about depictions of the crucifixion of Christ, which emphasize the destruction of his ability to stand (and about pictures of the resurrection, which show him upright again, no longer tied to the earth; the German word for resurrection, "Auferstehung," means "standing up again).

Or smile at Niki de St. Phalle's sculpture, with it's evocation of paradoxical lightness.

Homo erectus, indeed. In fact and metaphorically. Imagine our vocabulary if we were four-legged beings.


michael morrow said...

That piece is informative, smooth, and really interesting. thanks

Will said...

I too always try to go back to some reconstructed proto-IE root, and then follow its layers of abstraction in my attempt to get something approximating a grip on our mercurial languages.

The image of standing is compelling. Have you looked at its associations with living (or not being dead) throughout its historical layers? In addition to life, its image also seems to evoke power - the last thing you want in a fight is to be the first off your feet.

I'll have to come visit you again to discuss the possible overlap of images. Weren't you publishing something on this when I was still in Utah. Do you have something I can read?