Metaphor and modernity

September 17, 2023

The roots and implications of metaphor in Urdu literature

Metaphor and modernity


iterary criticism is a field between the reflective and the creative arts. It can be termed as a bridge that transmits ideas developed in other fields of knowledge into the different genres of literature. By doing so, literary criticism enriches literary discourse and cultural conversation. In the context of Pakistan, the paucity of intellectual discourse and the deterioration of cultural conversation can be ascribed to the marginal role of humanities, including literary criticism. The root word kreik means to sieve, discriminate and distinguish. Therefore, a critic has the faculty of judging merit, discerning and discriminating and distinguishing the value of people or things. Owing partly to the cultural ethos of the society and partly to a reductionist approach of our literati, literary criticism is treated as an adjunct to literature and not as an independent domain. For this reason, criticism is perceived as a negative faculty in the common social imaginary in general and the semiotic universe of the intellectual domain in particular.

Dr Nasir Abbas Nayyar is among the few contemporary literary critics who have introduced new ideas and intellectual discourses in Urdu literature and thought.

Dr Nayyar has recently penned an interesting note on Prose, Poetry, Nietzsche and Nayyar Masood. He compares the way the idea of a metaphor has been dealt with Urdu writer Nayyar Masood and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He points out that in Nietzsche’s writing prose aspires to be distinct by distancing itself from poetry. What is it makes prose distinct from poetry? It is the thought that informs its distinct meaning and identity. According to Dr Nayyar, despite having a deep understanding of poetry, Nayyar Masood is aware of the prose’s natural urge to be poetic. Here, Masood seems to be on the same page as Nietzsche. At the same time, it is precisely the point where Masood and Nietzsche’s concepts of metaphor diverge. The former is fearful of metaphor and evades it, whereas in the latter’s work, metaphor forms the bedrock for his ideas about meaning and truth. Masood states, “The power of prose lies in the fact that it employs less poetry. If I feel that poetry is infiltrating my diction, I expunge it. For example, you will probably never find a metaphor in my writings.” This statement clearly shows the reason why Masood shuns metaphor.

By highlighting this purge of metaphor in the writings of Nayyar Masood, Dr Nasir Nayyar opens up a new vista in Urdu literature. This attitude of shunning metaphors is not a personal trait of Nayyar Masood’s. The anti-metaphor approach stems from the broader intellectual ambience of early modernity in Urdu literature, in which the fear of metaphor was predominant. To understand the treatment of metaphor in modern Urdu literature, it is imperative to dig deep into the collective unconscious of modern literary tradition.

As a distinct field, literary criticism in Urdu started with the onset of modernity in the later half of the Nineteenth Century. Maulana Muhammed Hussain Azad, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and Allama Shibli Noumani are the founding fathers of literary criticism in Urdu. Theirs was the age when Indians became colonial subjects of the British Empire. The power of the empire did not stem solely from the barrel of a gun. It also came from the pen. Living under the shadow of the Empire, the founding fathers of Urdu literary criticism internalised the epistemic postures that dominated the intellectual and literary scene in the empire. At its worst, the fear of modernity results in the rejection of modern knowledge. At its best, it forces one to accept its episteme. The apologetic modernity in the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent stems from their uncritical engagement and acceptance of epistemic imperatives and postulates of modernity.

Unlike the classical empires of feudal and agrarian ages, the British Empire was driven by the Industrial Revolution on one hand and the epistemic violence of modernity on the other. The rationalisation of the state and society led to the demagnification of the traditional worldview. The prologue to the demagnification of the world by the positivist élan of modernity stripped the language of its charm that had kept the mind spellbound for centuries. Among English philosophers, Thomas Hobbes broke the spell of language with his positivist approach. He called metaphor as an embellishment of the language. He urged that metaphor be shunned because it degenerated and thereby corrupted reality. The rejection of metaphor remained a dominant attitude in modern English philosophy. It was under the spell of the disenchanted rationality of positivism that Maulana Hali tried to subjugate metaphor under the rationalist imperative. Hali attributed the decline of Urdu poetry to the excessive use of metaphor. He believed that if a metaphor became unintelligible it lost its poetic attributes. It can be safely said that Hali instilled the fear of metaphor in Urdu literature.

The excess of experience and its ineffability in available vocabulary causes the language to burst at the seams. A metaphor comes into being at the limits of language. 

It seems that Hali was unaware of the criticism of the positivist attitude towards metaphor in modern Western philosophy. Nietzsche, a cotemporary of Hali, criticised the Hobbesian notion of metaphor as a corrupting device. While agreeing with Hobbes on the process of degeneration of the metaphor, he rejected Hobbes’ claim that reality could only be grasped through non-metaphorical thought. Metaphors are thus instrumental in our understanding of Nietzsche who declares the creation of metaphor as an instinctive, and not reflective, action.

According to Nietzsche, the metaphoric instinct provides the base upon which the whole edifice of truth is constructed with the material of language, concepts and perceptions. “What then is truth?” Nietzsche asks. He responds that “It is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” To Nietzsche, man is a metaphorical animal. Stripped of metaphors, humans become closer to animals than fallen angels, for animals live a non-metaphoric, instinctual life. In modern times, Paul Ricœur employs metaphor in terms of linguistic philosophy, which has vast and universal meaning. Ricœur claims that metaphor has the potential to define the world anew. It is through a metaphor that linguistic imagination creates polysemy.

One of the hallmarks of a great society is that it explores the implications of ideas put forward by the dominant thesis or its anti-thesis. Its critically-engaged thinkers help explore its impact on human thought. In Urdu thought and literature, the ramifications of the rejection of metaphor by the founding fathers of modern literary criticism have yet to be explored. The role and place of metaphor in Urdu literature is one of the least discussed issues in Urdu literary research. Muhammed Hassan Askari is an exception in this regard. He has explored the theme of the fear of metaphor in his magisterial essay Iste’ar k khauf. Unlike Hali, Askari was well aware of the traditional and emerging debates about metaphor in the literature and philosophy of the East and the West. This helped him provide a deep insight into the fear of metaphor informing the collective unconsciousness of the modern Urdu mind.

The history of ideas shows that societies equipped with new meanings and metaphors get to break new knowledge grounds. Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, is a metaphor for a people whose vision is chained to darkness and who refuse to turn towards the light. The allegory has remained a wellspring of philosophical and metaphysical ideas about reality and falsehood. As Dr Nasir Nayyar has mentioned, the Hegelian dialectics is a metaphor for understanding the processes that drive history. Karl Marx took the Greek myth of Prometheus and turned it into a revolutionary metaphor. In psychology, Sigmund Freud introduced the mythical terms of Oedipus and Electra, Eros and Thanatos, as metaphors for the ailments afflicting the modern mind. The parable of madman and superman in Nietzsche is a potent metaphor for the looming nihilism of modernity and its cure.

Abdul Karim Al-Jili’s Insan-ul Kamil metaphor stands for the human who embodies cosmic and divine perfection in his microcosm. Ibne Khaldun’s asabiya is a metaphor for the spirit that keeps group solidarity alive. The timeless appeal of the poetry and thought of Maulana Jalal-ud Din Rumi stem from their rich metaphors. Love is an archetypical metaphor for life that infuses and informs every entity under the sun. Its absence is death. Hence, Rumi exclaims, “Without your lip, I am a frozen and silent reed; what melodies I play the moment you breathe on my reed!” Rumi’s poetry is a treasure trove of metaphors for the seekers of meaning in life. A study about the figurative language of Rumi has shown that the most used (43.24 per cent) figure of speech in his poetry is metaphor.

A metaphor sprouts from the creative tension wherein experience exceeds the available language. The excess of experience and its ineffability in available vocabulary cause the language to burst at the seams. A metaphor comes into being at the language’s limit. By pushing the limits of language and concepts, metaphor makes room for new imagination and gives birth to a new meaning. Because of this process, the meaning of metaphor always exceeds its origin. That exceeding meaning can be attained through intellectual engagement with the metaphor. An aversion to imagining things anew causes a loss of the capacity to create new metaphors and access exceeding meanings. It leads to a poverty of meaning. A lack of eyes among people to look into an abyss makes their spirituality sound hollow. Afraid of a cosmic void, they seek refuge in bad faith that manifests in the shape of conspiracy theories, the creation of imaginary enemies and an antipathy to thinking.

The exercise of reimagining provides a fertile soil for the gemination of metaphor. An unthinking attachment to religion results in un-thought behaviours. It is only by getting rid of the fear of thinking and metaphor, that people can extricate themselves from the prison of un-thought.

The writer is a social scientist with an interest in the history of ideas. Email:

Metaphor and modernity