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Monday, February 21, 2011

I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like

Rule number 8 in my "9 Rules" is pick a metaphor and stick with it.  In a list of "thou shalt nots," this is just about the only "thou shalt."

There’s nothing radical or revolutionary in this essay, but I hope it has information worth keeping in mind while writing. As a refresher for the sake of folks who slept through middle school language arts, metaphor is a direct comparison between two unlike things without using words such as “like” or “as.” For purposes of this essay, I’m going to use the word metaphor to include similes which are the same thing except they do use “like” or “as.”

Metaphors are probably the most basic element of creative verbal expression. It may well be that we can’t think without metaphor; try explaining the solar system or atomic structure without using comparisons to balls, marbles, or clouds. The sensory images which appear in our mindscape are metaphors of a sort – the light from my computer screen and the molecular vibrations from tapping the keys do not get any farther into my head than my eardrums and the backs of my eyeballs; these phenomena trigger electro-chemical responses in my neurons which my brain somehow uses to manufacture a representation of the outside world; this representation is what I perceive. The actual keyboard which exists somewhere out in space is unknowable to me as if it were on the other side of an impassable wall. (There’s a metaphor right there.)

Walker Percy in Message in the Bottle has a brilliant essay, “Metaphor as Mistake,” in which he opines that the essential quality of good metaphor is error – a misunderstanding of what we have seen or heard, and the mind’s struggle to reconcile this error is the source of delight we have in coming across a particularly striking figure of speech. Metaphors which don’t have some quality of being wrong – such as calling the posts that support a table “legs” – are so uninteresting, we scarcely register them as metaphors at all.

I won’t bother to recap what Percy says here, but let you go find the essay for yourself. Instead, we’re going to look at the function of two parts of metaphor: tenor – what the speaker is attempting to describe – and vehicle – what he compares it to. This little triangle of speaker, tenor, and vehicle can reveal a tremendous amount about all three. For instance Romeo packs a lot of information into just twenty syllables when he says,

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

In this metaphor, of course, the sun is our vehicle and Juliet our tenor. So what’s he saying? Obviously in many ways Juliet might be like the sun; her face is bright; her beauty is blinding, she makes the darkest night into day; as the sun rules the earth; she rules Romeo’s heart, yadda, yadda, yadda. What else does it tell us? It also tells us how Romeo feels about sunrise – it makes him happy. (Romeo’s been spending a lot of time cooped up in a dark room, remember.) Shakespeare’s line – even if it scanned – wouldn’t be nearly so effective if Romeo compared Juliet to something equally bright but not so pleasant,

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

An explosion at the gondola plant

And Juliet is the glowing fireball

Ascending to engulf the town in flames!

Metaphors can communicate emotion just as effectively even when the tenor isn’t important in itself. Vladimir Nabokov who is very dismissive of Freud – he calls him the Viennese Quack – clearly knows a great deal of Freudian psychology nevertheless. His antihero Humbert Humbert engages in something Freud calls projection, ascribing our own negative emotions to others. In the literary racket, we sometimes call this the pathetic fallacy, a metaphorical device in which the surroundings are personified to feel what the speaker feels. In this scene Humbert mixes drinks for himself and his wife, who has just learned he is sexually attracted to her daughter, and struggles to concoct a lie that the incriminating letter she found was just some notes for a novel in progress. Humbert is enraged that he will lose his nymphet morsel and incidentally face humiliation and disgrace; notice how everything around him shares his fury.

I set out two glasses… and opened the refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its heart. Rewrite. Let her read it again. She will not recall the details. Change, forge. Write a fragment and show it to her or leave it lying around. Why do faucets sometimes whine so horribly? A horrible situation, really. Those little pillow-shaped blocks of ice – pillows for polar teddy bear, Lo – emitted rasping, crackling, tortured sounds as the warm water loosened them in their cells. I bumped the glasses side by side. I poured in the whiskey and a dram of soda. She had tabooed my pin. Bark and bang went the icebox.

Homer throws in a couple of juicy metaphors in a row when Odysseus’ men pop the Cyclops’ eye with the white-hot trunk of an olive tree. Here’s the scene as translated by Richard Lattimore.

They seized the beam of olive, sharp at the end, and leaned on it

into the eye, while I from above leaning my weight on it

twirled it, like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into

a ship timber, and his men from underneath, grasping

the strap on either side whirl it, and it bites resolutely deeper.

So seizing the fire-point-hardened timber we twirled it

in his eye, and the blood boiled round the hot point, so that

the blast and scorch of the burning ball singed all his eyebrows

and eyelids, and the fire made the roots of his eye crackle.

As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges a screaming

great ax blade or plane into cold water, treating it

for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even

so Cyclops’ eye sizzled about that beam of olive.


First of all, notice that Homer does not reserve metaphors for just the fancy-shmancy parts where he’s talking about the gods or the proper way to treat guests you don’t intend to kill. In one of the goriest and most violent passages in an epic chock-full of violence and gore, Homer knows nothing else will do but to bring out the big gun – metaphor, and not once, but twice.

Here are the two metaphors:

pushing the tree trunk into the eye (tenor) = working a brace and bit (vehicle)

Cyclops’ eye bursting (tenor) = dropping white hot metal in water (vehicle)

Now first of all, and most obviously, these metaphors give powerful sensory images. I’ve never been present while blinding a Cyclops with a white-hot spear, so Homer lets me know how it’s done. It’s not enough to jab the eye, you have to twist the spike to make it go in, and it can’t be just any old olive trunk lying around in a Cyclops’ cave, you have to get it good and hot by sticking it in some hot coals for a while. I’ve never worked a brace and bit and am not even entirely sure what one is – more on this later – but Homer’s metaphor gives me a visceral sense of leaning my shoulder against the trunk as I help bore it down into a giant eye. I’ve never seen a blacksmith either, outside of craft fairs where they make soap at one tent and grind sugarcane at another– and where fear of lawsuits dictates the metal get only as hot as a white Taurus in July: hot, but not likely to make a tub of water scream and boil up around it.

Nevertheless, I have a clear – and deliciously repellant – image not only of the sound but the feeling of a white hot spear-point bursting a giant eye. No amount of other description – and Homer throws in plenty, scorching eyelids and the like – would put me in the moment as powerfully as those two metaphors.

And this is only part of what metaphors can do.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not readily familiar with blacksmiths and brace-and-bit work; that doesn’t matter. It’s enough for me that Homer is familiar with them, even more importantly, that Odysseus is. When I read these metaphors, the vehicles – what a wonderfully appropriate term that is –transport me into Odysseus’ world, his frame of reference, where blacksmiths, braces, and bits are common mental currency to describe things. Not only I am with those Greek sailors in a dark cave with a bellowing, mutilated Cyclops; in the back of my mind also I share an experience of standing in the hot Aegean sun, pressing my sweaty shoulder against a wooden brace, twisting it, and watching the bit gouge out wood, or impatiently waiting as a blacksmith finishes up the ax head I need, or hearing the screeching steam as I pass on my way to purchase a basket of figs. Of course, these impressions are much vaguer than I present here, subconscious really, and if Homer examined them, he would find them filled with scores of hilarious inaccuracies and anachronisms, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t really have to be in Odysseus’ world, I just have to feel I am.

So to recap, metaphors provide valuable sensory details about the tenor as description alone cannot do, details that also reflect an attitude toward the vehicle, and on the emotional and material setting of the speaker. It would be hard to overstress the implications for any writer who uses metaphor – and show me a writer who doesn’t. If I need to say a woman has very red lips, I have to keep in mind that while rose red, fire truck red, and blood red may all be similar hues, they have vastly different emotional connotations.

A frequently overlooked aspect of metaphors is how convincingly and economically they can establish the speaker’s milieu. Go back and reread Moby Dick if you have the time or Huck Finn if you don’t. You will be amazed at how the narrators of those stories think in metaphors appropriate to their worlds. The Pequod’s crew doesn’t say “married,” they say “spliced,” a nautical term, and Huck Finn doesn’t tell us Pap stumbles around in a dark room, but “navigates” and “takes soundings;” Twain the former steamboat captain putting riverboat argot to good use.

Just for fun, here’s one last metaphor. What else could tell us so much about a speaker’s setting and world-view than this heartfelt redneck pickup line?

“Honey, you look finer than a new set of snow tires.”

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