categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Metaphor is the elemental condition of language. English teachers forever have been saying, “A simile is a comparison using like or as, and a metaphor is a comparison not using like or as.” That’s simple and plain, but it’s not quite right. I’ll buy the old definition for a simile, but a metaphor—wow!—a metaphor is something enormously greater than allowed for by Mr. Bottomlifter back in ninth grade. First of all, a simile is just a kind of metaphor. A symbol is a kind of metaphor (and curiously, something more as well: the thing itself). An analogy is a kind of metaphor.
Metaphor is big, and gets bigger the more you think about it. Metaphor, in fact, is the source of all meaning.
Yes, metaphor is a comparison. But that’s saying a lot, given that comparison is the basic gesture of the human mind: closer, farther; lighter, darker; bigger, smaller; safe, dangerous; then, now. The extension of such elemental, dichotomous comparisons is the foundation of language, which in turn is the foundation of thought.
And the soul of clichés.
A steel trap is one of those devices used in cartoons to capture Elmer Fudd and in life to capture fur-bearing animals. A steel trap is a pair of tempered-steel crescents joined by a powerful spring triggered by a round plate of steel. When an animal steps on this plate—wham—his leg is caught, often broken, awful. The trap is staked to the ground at the end of a stout chain so a captured animal can’t wander off.
Okay. A mind like a steel trap. What’s the metaphor here? Let’s see. You’re so smart you hold on to an idea while it thrashes around and finally chews its leg off to escape, leaving you with only the leg of an idea and a bloody legacy of brutality? Or, as the comedian Steven Wright says, “I’ve got a mind like a steel trap: rusty and illegal in thirty-seven states.”
It’s fun to extend the comparison—the metaphor—as far as you can, to the very absurd edges of correlation. If your mind is like a steel trap, what is the spring? What is the steel plate that triggers the release mechanism? If animals are ideas and minds are traps, do minds destroy ideas? Do ideas have lives separate from minds? Do ideas roam the wilderness? What are the furs of ideas? And tell me this: Who is the trapper running the trap line? What’s the chain? What’s the stake?
Here’s a little Wallace Stevens.
I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Consider those troublesome analogies on the SAT test. You know, x is to y as xx is to yy. Here, let’s do one. Fill in the blank: train is to track as airplane is to _____.
Most would say sky.
Each element of an analogy is called an analog. In the above example, train is the analog for airplane, track is the analog for sky. All are comparisons not using like or as, by the way, and certainly metaphorical. And in this example (as in most), seriously magical. Think of it: our minds easily and completely accept the idea that dense, heavy bars of extruded steel manufactured by humans are similar to—analogous to—the sky. Which is air.
Kenneth Burke, in his challenging book A Grammar of Motives, says that metaphor “brings out the thisness of a that.” Aristotle speaks of the way metaphor helps us understand the unknown or slightly known by comparing it to what’s known.
Stop signs are metaphors in that they are symbols. Symbols are objects, generally, and are themselves, but also stand in for something, mean something else, something greater than themselves and not always inherent in themselves. We’ve come to agree that a red octagon (my father claims they used to be yellow) with the following white shapes on it—S, T, O, P—will mean something particular. In practical terms, it means law-abiding types will put right feet on brake pedals till the motion of their vehicles is entirely arrested. The sign is a command to make your vehicle’s status an analog for a word meaning, a meaning that is itself an analog for a condition in nature—stoppedness. But the sign is also something real: a piece of metal or wood on a stick or on the wall in a college dorm room. (Put it back, dudes!) It’s a non-literary symbol in that it is precise, stands for one thing only: stop.
The Nike swoosh is a symbol in the same way. The swoosh isn’t the company. The swoosh isn’t a sneaker. The swoosh merely invites us to consider the company, to compare the swoosh to what we know of the company. Swoosh does not equal Nike; swoosh only represents Nike, and this representation is a form of metaphorical comparison. But the swoosh is not as much of a thing as a stop sign or a duck is. I mean, yes, it does have reality in that sometimes it’s a grouping of threads, or a thin layer of ink, or a gathering of pixels on TV. But that’s not much reality, less than you and I have even on our worst days. Still, it’s a symbol, moving toward the literary, as it can mean more than Nike, can stand for a life devoted to sport, for example, or for the money exchanged in an endorsement deal.
Most words are symbols, most language metaphorical. (Or, actually, if you believe Jacques Derrida, all words are metaphorical. It would take a PhD in English to explain, and I happen to have one right here—Jennifer Cognard-Black, who was a graduate student at Ohio State when I was there, and is now an assistant professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland: “Give me an instance of language that isn’t a representation. Even articles are metaphorical—although they don’t stand in for a real-world thing or action, they do stand in for an idea or concept; a, an, the, and conjunctions—and, but, for—have no meaning in and of themselves”)
These letters—T, R, E, E—aren’t a tree, though they make me think of one. And my thinking of a tree (I can see one clearly in my head, right now) isn’t a tree, either (Buddhists would say that even the tree isn’t a tree, that it is an illusion). I’ve a conception in my mind that I compare to the great plants outside my window and both of which I compare to those four letters above and to a sound I can make with my lips. The sound isn’t the plant or the letters or the conception, but yet another point along the tree continuum. When I use the word to invoke a particular oak tree in, say, in a scene that includes the tree, a scene that is about my father’s strength, as well, the word means both the tree itself, but also refers to my father, and to his strength, but not in a precise way: some readers may think of the rigidity of oak wood, its tendency to break in high wind, others may think of the way dead oak leaves hang on through whole winters before letting go, giving way to the new. This oak tree is a fully literary symbol.
If, while writing, I point to the comparison, saying, “My dad is like that oak tree,” I’m making our symbol into a simile, not quite trusting the reader to make the leap himself. And while readers should always get your trust, writers, they do seem to need help here and there, and if the comparison is important to your purposes, it’s often best to make it overt. Subtlety isn’t overrated, but it can leave certain readers behind. How many do you want to keep? Not all readers are metaphorical thinkers, not at all.
And literal thinkers can drive you crazy.
If I say, “That oak tree is my dad,” a literalist could put me on the stand, point a finger, and accurately accuse me of lying.
But your honor! I didn’t mean it literally! I’m making a simple metaphor, the boldest kind of comparison. And metaphor is a figurative kind of honesty. And it’s what we mean when we talk about emotional honesty, isn’t it? That by making associations, comparison, contrasts, I am explaining how I feel about a person, place, or thing.
I’m not lying after all.
How complicated is the truth!
My father is a tree.
The sky is steel.
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[Adapted from Writing Life Stories (Tenth Anniversary Edition): Story Press, 2008]