Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Metaphorist in the Metaphorest

[The last paragraph of the original version of this post has been revised: The last paragraph has been split in two, and some hard-to-follow leaps of thought have been clarified (he said, confidently)]

The same mental predisposition that attracts us to the satisfying uncertainty of open-ended questions may explain the essential power of metaphor as a tool for expressing the balance and tension that characterizes experience. In another place, in answering the question “Is the Self an Illusion?” I suggested that metaphors are a way to clarify irreducibly complex ideas because metaphors combine resolution and ambiguity.

Metaphor is normally introduced in school in contrast to simile, which is “a comparison using like or as.” Metaphor then becomes a comparison that does not use like or as. This approach is so unhelpful since it underestimates the complexity of the difference. For one thing a simile advertises that it is a comparison and makes clear that what is being compared maintain separate identities. T. S. Eliot begins his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock,”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

And a little further on, he speaks of,

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

These comparisons (with their wonderful evocative language) make a clear distinction between the two things being compared and they communicate across the like. The sky and the patient share characteristics, perhaps a different one for each person: a sense of time suspended before some great event—night and an operation—a sense of blankness or clouds like the white hospital gown. The same is true of the image of the back streets and the tedious argument.

Later in the same poem are these lines:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

Purdue Cooperative Extension
Here is the comparison without like or as, and we are in the middle of the comparison before we even know it has started. Not until “sprawling on a pin” do we realize that we cannot take what is being said literally. Because there is no clear signal that a comparison is being made, the writer depends on the reader not only to interpret the comparison but even to know it is happening. So we can see the speaker as an insect, mounted and labeled in some collection, pinned in place while still alive, at the same as being subjected to the judgmental eyes of those attending a social gathering. The two parts of the comparison remain separate and blur together at the same time. The metaphor of the bug is then displaced by the metaphor of how talking at such an event involves people merely spitting out the conclusions they have drawn, a shift which brings us back to the social event. Each of the metaphors involved in the example requires at least two frames of reference present at the same time, frames of reference that must still coexist after the metaphor is deployed: the eyes fixing and the pin fixing.

This preservation of the frames of reference is the key to metaphor’s power. Deciding what to do within a frame of reference—which vegetable to plant first, which book to read next—involves comparing conventionally similar objects, but deciding whether to plant a vegetable or read a book requires a larger frame of reference so that planting and reading also become two instances of the same thing--two self-nurturing activities for example. Looking for a logical solution requires the platform of a single frame of reference. Because most complex and interesting problems do involve different frames of reference, that preliminary step means the subsequent solution is always simpler, flatter, than the formulation of the original problem.

Thus some complex problems will not be solvable in a single frame of reference. Thinking metaphorically may be the only way to understand such problems, since a metaphor creates a comparison in two frames of reference at once, a relationship that is both true and untrue at the same time: you are pinned to the wall and not pinned to the wall.