The Power of Metaphor

A metaphor is supposed to be a word that is associated with what it represents because of some similarity between what the word refers to and what the word is taken to represent. Love is like a madness because it can come up suddenly, becomes an obsession and can’t easily be explained. So a metaphor can consider and evoke other characteristics of the object to be explained than the ones that are its essential characteristics, whatever might be those essential characteristics. That is why a metaphor is so liberating: it gives associations rather than a denotative definition that allows classifying objects always or nearly always accurately. But love is also supposed to be like a red, red rose. There are similarities here too in that a rose is beautiful and delicate, which is often said of one’s beloved, as is the fact that a lover can be thorny. So a person can go very far afield or be very creative when constructing a metaphor, and so the metaphor is more in the mind of its author than in the object represented. Anything can turn into a metaphor, which means that a metaphor is really a symbol, which means that it is arbitrarily or conventionally associated with its object. A recent Nova broadcast was eerie in its account of the inner planets because it treated Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars as if they were human in that these masses of rocks had their moments in the sun, literally, in that they had water oceans before the ever greater heat of the sun robbed them of their atmospheres and their water and made them “dead” planets, even though, of course, planets are not people. The power of metaphor is an important way of understanding the meaning of texts and also prompts consideration of how writers limit the power of metaphor in the service of creating truth rather than opinion.

Whether to use metaphor or not to use metaphor; that is the key question in understanding many authors. Shakespeare has a genius for metaphor that stretches back to his earliest plays. His characters have metaphors at their disposal to explain themselves and their circumstances. This ability to construct ways of understanding the world suggests that it is a general human facility and thereby betokens the internality of human beings in that they can each take a stance, find a meaning, find a description of the world around them or for themselves. Macbeth says 

“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well

It were done quickly: if the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice

To our own lips.”. 

That statement is hardly something to be expected of a brutal tribal chieftain but it is to be forgiven as part of the literary license of the author because it allows the character to explain himself and his view of the world better than anyone else possibly could. Metaphor is an entrance into a distinct mind. Amidst the presentation of reasons and of observations about how an assasination is best done, there are metaphors concerning time, the idea of an “inventor” of a plot, the image of “a poison’d chalice”. 

On the other hand, Jane Austen, another literary genius, by and large avoids metaphor, whether in the language of her characters or in the narrator’s description of situations. Rather, she prefers people analyzing one another’s motives and interests and expressing their feelings for one another in accurate descriptions, through the vocabulary of emotions, invoking love, respect, disdain, and so on, rather than through inspired and inspiring conceits, and yet these people do seem to have the full range of human emotions without the use of metaphor. They are therefore less heroic than Shakespearean characters in that they are simply trying to manage their lives, emotions and all, with whatever powers of observation and analysis they may command. Charlotte knows why she is marrying Mr. Collins. It is not for romance, which would mean wanting to be as much as possible in the company of your mate. She has carved out a life for herself within the relationship and she confides as much to her friend, Elizabeth Bennett, without using metaphors, only by pointing to a room where she spends her time, which means out of sight of her husband, just as Elizabeth’s father has carved out through his study a place where he can remove himself from his family. Her own room is not a metaphor; it is one aspect of her life standing in for all the other ways she has to maintain a life of her own.

There is a tyranny whereby metaphor displaces other forms of discourse. That is because it is so easily resorted to without having to lay out a logical or historical explanation. The metaphor is enough to prove the case because it feels right. So Ronald Reagan campaigned against welfare queens without supplying any information about how many creatures of this description there really were and so whether they constituted a threat to the integrity of the welfare system or the evils of the class of welfare recipients. The image of one was enough to make people feel there must be lots of people who fit what was now a stereotype of what welfare was like. Liberals play the same game when they point to dirty children incarcerated at detention centers as “proof” of the mistreatment of children, which it is, rather than point to statistics about numbers of people trying to cross the border illegally as a prod to immigration reform. The atrocity is a substitute for the problem. In general, images and other metaphors carry emotional content and therefore conviction without wading through the drudgery of facts and explanations. The strategy of metaphor, however, is acceptable in literature, where Atticus Finch is a sort of hero because he sort of opposes the segregationist South, even if he is a fictional character, just as is Murphy Brown who was used by Dan Quale to characterize people who supported childbearing outside of wedlock. Richard III similarly shows that kings can be deranged and Henry V that young men can grow into their responsibilities. We need the anchor of particular images to sustain most of our perceptions about the world, however we may gloss that with statistics about welfare or histories that tell us the real history of Richard II. Shakespeare gets seen and historians don’t get read.

By and large, social philosophy comes a cropper when it indulges in metaphor or what is the same thing, which is an image, which is a picture that stands in place of another thing or concept as when Norman Rockwell pictures stand in place of the Four Freedoms by illustrating them, or when the Statue of Liberty stands in place for an immigration policy. Hobbes probably misnamed his book “Leviathan”, which is a giant Biblical fish that is meant to suggest that government is like that, all encompassing and dangerous, when in fact what Hobbes produces is a way of understanding how relationships in society are the necessary product of trying to deal rationally with the individual needs of people as those are created by their natures. John Rawls goes even deeper into the weeds when he posits a description of a pre-existing condition for people, which is to take a metaphor very seriously indeed. People in that pre-existent “life”, which occurs before they are assigned their stations in life, deliberate about what the best sort of government would be for the world they are about to enter, as if it were possible to imagine such an assemblage of spirits who had neither bodies nor interests nor emotions to defend or to compromise during their deliberations. An assembly without voices; a meeting in nowhere. Clearly a metaphor that has gone wrong because it eliminates all the things that make an assembly of people possible and so creates a paradox where there is none and so is one that can be settled rather arbitrarily by whatever principle the author already embraces. 

Leibnitz does the same thing in his image of Balaam’s ass as a metaphor or image of human choice. The ass cannot figure out whether to go to the right or the left for a bale of hay because the forces directing him to one or the other are equal and so the ass starves. But people everyday make choices without sufficient reason other than whim. Some days I shave my lip before my cheeks and some days it is the other way around. There is no particular reason for doing it one way rather than the other. I may get into the habit of doing it usually one way rather than the other but even that habit is easily enough broken, again on a whim. So what the metaphor makes hard is in fact quite easy were it not for the metaphor of choice getting in the way.

The great claim of social science when it emerged in the Eighteenth Century was not in that it was scientific in that it had systematic theories that were tested out against evidence, though it was that too. The great claim was that it engaged in denotative definitions so that it was clear whether an object was in one category rather than another and that you could draw deductions about the nature of an item because of the characteristics of the category to which it belonged and of those characteristics alone, not invoking other associations or metaphors.  So an ethnic group is defined as a set of people with a putatively shared ancestry because that explains its other characteristics, such as a sense of solidarity, or a common regard by others not in the ethnic group, or a cuisine shared by many in the group because they learned that way of cooking in their mothers’ kitchens. Putative common ancestry also explains the position its members have in the social structure because of the conditions that were common to the people in the ethnic group when they immigrated to this country, such as having come over as slaves rather than as people with a few dollars in their pockets. Other issues, such as whether the ethnic group has a common set of biological characteristics, are excluded as not part of the definition because the defining characteristics are not whether the putative ancestry is real, only that it is imagined. Jews are Jews even if their ancestors came from Central Asia rather than from ancient Israel. 

These geometric deductions do not rely on metaphors even as there are also images and metaphors applied to ethnic groups. That is what makes social science scientific. It is dispassionate because it is not inclined to metaphor but must pay strict attention to what is included and what is included out, while literary people and others are allowed to identify an ethnic group with its cultural tastes, on the one hand, or, alternatively, with what all ethnic groups have in common, their humanity, in spite of their differences in custom. Elia Kazan makes the Greek immigrant an Everyman. Don’t trust metaphors. They are as likely to make you think of immigrants as rapists rather than as saints.