Throw me a metaphor
A rich conversation about the use of metaphor in writers group today got me thinking about how we got here *gestures broadly*. I’ve garnished this piece with quotes from it.
Going into the session, I thought metaphor was primarily useful for writers as a cloak:
Metaphor is a trojan horse, sneaking sedition past censorship
(Animal Farm or the curly kid, come to mind).
Before and after that battlepoint, however, totally aside from the “sneakiness”, metaphor is generative — metaphor is soil.
Metaphor allows us to elaborate our experience
Metaphor is our portal — the ladder we climb to infinity
“Home”, “tasted”, “hisses”, “elder”, “lessons”, Your English professor would drag these delights from the text, exclaiming, “metaphor!” What of “300m yrs” though? What about “continent”? What about “first”? and even, “the sun”? These too are metaphors that have been in use for just a bit longer, and thus have found rigid homes in the canon.
In this light, the binary of metaphorical/literal is yet another false one. All communication approximates.
EVERY COMMUNICATION IS METAPHOR.
Even the science. Scientists downplay metaphor. It’s wishy washy. But ask a scientist to explain their research to you without the use of metaphor and you’ll both soon be unstuck. Cackling, hopefully. Quantum electrodynamics talks of “spin”, like tennis balls, but an expert will tell you that “that kind of spin” is not at all what they mean. “Think of it like a clock”, one such physicist told me in a desperate traverse from the technical metaphor to a new simile. A theoretical neurologist will identify the “substrates” of thought and feeling, a metaphor borrowed from chemistry, giving legitimacy to problematic data pulled from fMRI machines which measure some of the radiation from a cordial drunk by people with headaches. And geneticists speak of “information”, like the chemical soup of our DNA and RNA were a wetware version of the latest Lenovo. One academic offered it some shade as “a metaphor in search of a theory.” Metaphors are every part of our communication, until they’re accepted. Then they are literal.
And from that discovery, we found something important:
The more real an experience is to us, the more metaphorical needs to be our description.
Did you connect with somebody in untold ways? Do you want to tell about it? I’m sorry, your dictionary was not compiled with that moment in mind. The romantic poets had a go, and you’ll have to have a go too. You’ll need a metaphor. You’ll have to dig deep. And here comes the paradox: as you do this, digging deeper into the language to say something truer about yourself, the skeptics will speak: “That’s just metaphorical!” is pejorative, diminishing, implying “that doesn’t exist”. How disappointing! The thing that is most meaningful to you, when you try to share it, becomes fodder for doubt. You’ve become a mere poet, not a scientist. “That’s beautiful darling. Now run along to school and get prepped for the real world.”
This explains much about how we’ve arrived in our current condition. If the big feelings can be dismissed as “mere metaphor”, but the profit/loss statement can be enumerated, digitized, and validated by the state, is it so surprising that we have become so disconnected from each other, and from our universe?
Embracing metaphor, not as “artistic” or “cute”, but as flesh and purpose, offers us a liberation. When we take our poets seriously, when we curtail the defence budget meeting in parliament and make room for poetry readings, our politics may come to reflect our personhoods.