Anatomy of a Metaphor

An update

Three days after my last post, it was announced the school would close. We are sending students home. Last week’s heartbreak is compounded. On Wednesday, we celebrated an early Graduation for the second-years. Each day since then, our numbers have been whittling. There are some students who cannot go home. Borders open up and close like awful mouths. Flights are canceled hours after booking. Some countries are not safe right now. Some students’ home situations are not safe. In this state of flux, we start classes up again tomorrow, online, students strewn five continents apart.

These are days too of unparalleled community. The coming together that I see, within my family, within this school now even as we go–these are the blessings we must not take lightly at this time, that we must cultivate in as many ways as we are able. The emotions reel. It must be okay.

Goodbyes too soon.

Lessons in Metaphor

I am reading Barry Lopez’s 1986 Arctic Dreams, a gorgeous and fascinating tour through the North American Arctic, and I know more than I ever knew there was to know about muskoxen, narwhals, polar bears, and the apparently myriad varieties of sea-ice.

Lopez’s nature writing is perceptive, and periodically he will back away, to philosophize and reflect. The following quotation sparked me. It’s the inspiration for this post:

Of the sciences today, quantum physics alone seems to have found its way back to an equitable relationship with metaphors, those fundamental tools of the imagination. The other sciences are occasionally so bound by rational analysis, or so wary of metaphor, that they recognize and denounce anthropomorphism as a kind of intellectual cancer, instead of employing it as a tool of comparative inquiry, which is perhaps the only way the mind works, that parallelism we finally call narrative.

Metaphor is so at the center of our work as writers that we must seek to understand its function, its power, as well as its dangers as we can. What too often gets cast aside as the esoteric domain of poets is, I believe, foundational for human beings.

In this post, I’ll offer today a few reflections on metaphor, catalyzed by the Lopez quotation above. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to do full justice to it all, but perhaps a bit more thinking. Perhaps we can penetrate a bit further there together.

Anatomy of a metaphor

In western literary study, we identify a metaphor as a direct comparison between two unlike things. It is speaking about one entity through the language of another, thereby establishing a cognitive connection between two things previously separate.

Research for this post brought me to the blog Fogbanking, whose anonymous author describes metaphor in terms of two core components:

  • The metaphier, something the reader already understands. The metaphier possesses particular qualities or connotations, called paraphiers, that will be transferred in the comparison. Other theorists have used the terms “vehicle,” “figure,” or “source” for the metaphier.
  • The metaphrand, the less-understood element to which the metaphier is compared. By comparing the metaphier and metaphrand, the paraphiers are transferred and become connotations or qualities of the metaphrand, and we can call them paraphrands. The metaphrand has been otherwise referred to as the “tenor,” “target,” and “ground.”

A metaphor is, then, an attempt to move from something already understood well to something less understood, or understood in a way differently from what the writer hopes to convey. This shift in understanding happens by transferring the connotations from the well-understood entity to the other.

Dangerous metaphors

Can a metaphor be bad? Can it mislead us? What was Lopez referring to that could make science treat metaphor as “intellectual cancer”?

We know that metaphor has a powerful ability to shape our understanding of the world. If, as some have argued, metaphor forms the basis for all conceptual understanding, beginning with the symbolism of language, then surely this power can be used for good or ill.

It was Lopez’s mention of anthropomorphism that first arrested me. I think I have vaguely held the scientific attitude towards anthropomorphic metaphor, its denunciation, for a long time. I was surprised to see Lopez recast it in the light of the essential and positive.

From the Greek anthrōpos (human being) and morphē (form), anthropomorphism is the humanizing of the nonhuman, clearly overlapping with the literary personification. We anthropomorphize animals frequently, ascribing human characteristics to our pets, to cartoon characters, and in the brilliant online world of anthropomorphic memes.

I can see danger here in the potential for anthropomorphism, and indeed all metaphor to, instead of elucidating the unknown, distort what it attempts to explain. When we describe an animal’s behavior in anthropomorphic, human terms, we perhaps close ourselves off to more nuanced understandings that take into account the animal’s real circumstances and characteristics. When we, for example, humorously chide a pet for jealousy, we may be partly right, yet we may also be bypassing the careful shades of its feeling or condition that might in fact be available to us if we studied more closely. The metaphor thus makes us think we understand, when our understanding is only the beginning of the truth. At its worst, we get not simply an incomplete understanding, but a fully wrong one. A hasty metaphor can thus mire us in error.

On a walk yesterday afternoon, beneath this gloom, these sheep were out. It’s the first time we’ve seen them yet since winter. What are you thinking, sheep? It’s easy to anthropomorphize them. It is comforting to do so.

Perhaps science, in cleaving to what objectivity is possible, is right to be skeptical of metaphor. But it is sadly too a casting out of that baby with its bathwater. I see metaphor often relegated to tools for education only, for the young, for the novice in a field. While metaphor is undoubtedly essential in these cases, is it too unwieldy to be of use in real furthering of knowledge? Albert Einstein famously praised imagination. Knowledge alone, he said, cuts us off from potential future understanding.

We must use our metaphors well. We must consider their implications and not mistake the tool for the world itself, the shadow for the form, the vehicle for the destination. Or perhaps I am wrong.

Narrative as metaphor

In her introduction to the novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin describes fiction in these terms:

Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

It is metaphor’s subtle hand that reveals to us the deeper strands of the truth. LeGuin’s “pack of lies” points inwards to the hearts of things and teases out the truth from the mass of the world in ways it might not be available to us otherwise. Indeed, narrative itself, even at its most concrete, must always be a kind of metaphor, this idea I love with which Lopez ends the quotation that begins this post. Everything we write is metaphor–this is beautifully empowering, if metaphor is a building up of understanding of something otherwise unknown. Our stories are metaphors that spur the imagination to think of the world in new ways, layering on new connotations, accretions of symbols.

I am journaling in a great fury. I am trying to collect as much of these days for memory as I can, and I imagine too for future writing. The metaphors that crowd the pages spill out of me because what other way is there to say it all? This is the magical part. It’s part of us right now, has always been, and at certain times it gets revealed

With love,

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