Miss Stevenson, my grade 11 English teacher, was quite the marvel. She somehow kept us engaged as we plodded thru’ Great Expectations, struggled with ‘that Scottish play’, and drafted précis after précis as she prepared us to distill lecture content into succinct points that wouldn’t produce writer’s cramp in the first ten minutes. But her real achievement was to instill a lifelong love affair (well, at least for some of us) with grammar. The marvelous structure on which (diminishingly, in our world of Twitter) our ability to communicate is built. Parsing sentences, identifying parts of speech, regretting the dangling participle, eschewing the one-sentence paragraph. While the synecdoche’s and the oxymoron’s have largely slid off my radar, metaphor has remained.
Humbly, by definition: a ‘figure of speech wherein a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it does not literally apply’. What I’ve come to realize and appreciate over the years, however, is that metaphor is not just some esoteric figure of speech used by authors and abused by sports analysts. It’s a tool crucial to our understanding of circumstance and process, when the content is often too complex or abstract or unfamiliar to enable us to grasp a concept. A well-turned and appropriate metaphor makes accessible to an untutored mind the wonders of the quantum physics on which our universe is thought to depend, the nuance of symphonic music, the workings of a disordered mind — all without a whiff of an idea of calculus, harmony, or psychopathology. It brings things ‘down to our level’, at once simplifying and elaborating in accessible and understandable terms.
Therein lies both its utility and its risk. In short, use of metaphor should perhaps be a ‘protected act’. (It’s OK — two sentences.)
Consider, if you will, the content of the world’s best selling volume — right behind Fifty Shades of Gray. That would be the Bible. Metaphor all. Little did the authors, millennia ago, conceive for one minute that a) anybody would actually assemble these writings into a semi-coherent whole, b) use them as a basis for two of the world’s great religions, or c) and this is the big one — take it as literal truth. Sadly, not at least until the recent writings of Marcus Borg or John Spong, did it occur to an unsuspecting public that 7 days, 40 years, virgin birthing, burning bushes, angels, heaven, hell, and everything in between were ‘phrases applied to objects and actions to which they are not literally applicable‘. No waiver on the flyleaf; centuries of abuse and literal interpretation to follow.
And then there’s the poorly conceived metaphor. I had occasion to read a transcript of a lecture given recently wherein the church is compared to a parent, its sheep (oops, there goes another one) to children. Seemingly all a-OK as we conjure up the wisdom, experience, guidance, morality, teaching points, and generally just good stuff to live by — associating these with the parent and its propagating institutions; the rebelliousness, experimentation, challenging, mistake-prone, impulsive behavior — attaching to the child. The intention of the ‘implied comparison’, of course, is to portray the institution as patient and tolerant; the sheep, as it were, as wayward and misguided, but soon to come to its senses and ‘return to the fold’.
Sadly, again, metaphor, once ‘let out of the barn’, has the annoying capacity to be carried by those on the receiving end to a more extended and, in this case, unanticipated conclusion. After all, the intent is to make a relationship fully understood and ‘manageable’ for the audience. Right? Ah, but the child does not simply wake up one morning, post-adolescence, and ‘realize’ its mistakes; and come groveling back to a forgiving parent. The child is, in fact, ‘paid’ to individuate, to develop its own ideas, and to continue to foster a completely independent identity that — wait for it — is intended to change and evolve and extend the ideas of the parent; not simply to parrot what mummy and daddy have so fondly hoped would become the mantra of said child. In fact, it is the psychologically unhealthy (or at least, incomplete) child that returns, chastened, to the corral.
And so what begins as a half-baked metaphor, emerges from the oven, fully risen and ready to convey the very opposite of that which its designer had in mind. We’re in it this far. Let’s just give it a tug and see where the metaphoric thread, when pulled, might lead us — as we watch the intended sweater unravel and resolve into a pile of tangled yarn on the floor. Could it possibly be — praise be — prophetic, not pathetic? Could the lecture have been intended to float the concept of the need for complete revision, the dissolution of such anachronistic institutions; to be not merely redesigned or redecorated, but wholly supplanted by an emerging spirituality of the individual — capable (not unlike our maturing child) of thinking for himself, without benefit of an intermediary to ‘interpret those really tough bits’; tired of caring for the aging, demented parent with its rants and entitlements. Hmm? Or is it just another case of playing with a loaded metaphor and shooting oneself in the foot?