Metaphor is what we use to imagine our lives

Metaphor is what we use to imagine our lives
                        

“Education is not the filling of a pail,” reads the sign above my colleague’s desk, “but the lighting of a fire.”

These lines — often attributed to the poet W.B. Yeats — happen to articulate my own beliefs about teaching as well, but that’s not why I love them or why I mention them to you.

I love that this sentence, ostensibly about education, also is an argument between metaphors, a search for the best comparison to help us understand, to grasp not just what learning is, but also what it is like. Whether Yeats himself actually said it is a different argument.

For the record, Yeats (or whoever) is wrong, at least literally. As we know, education in the strictest sense is neither a filling nor a lighting. The Oxford English Dictionary supplies several definitions — “culture and development,” “systemic instruction” and one obscure mention of the “rearing of silkworms” — but nothing about buckets or arson.

These definitions offer the letter but not the spirit of education. For that we need the figurative language of metaphor: as when Robert Pierce compares knowing a poem to knowing a city or when Mark Twain says the right word is to the almost right word what the lightning is to the lightning bug.

Metaphor helps us see whatever we look at by making us imagine it as something else. Consider the shape-shifting metaphors of Margaret Atwood’s tiny masterpiece, “You Fit Into Me:"

you fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye

A few millimeters of blank space change our whole notion of this relationship. The barbed hook of the simile gets under the skin and won’t come out.

The 18th-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa performs a similar bait and switch in this quicksilver haiku, translated by Robert Hass:

The snow is melting

and the village is flooded

with children.

The flood of meltwater becomes the rush of joyous children; our sense of the village becomes in a glance as new as their own.

In each poem we glimpse a vision of the world, only for the angle to change, revealing that all along we’ve been looking at something else.

The lens of metaphor clarifies even as it distorts. We become familiar with what is strange by speaking of the strange in terms of the familiar. Or as the poet Beth Ann Fennelly writes, “You are closest to something / when naming what it’s not.”

That paradox captures the urgency of metaphor — for poetry, yes, but also for language itself, for our experience of daily life. Metaphor is not merely a useful way to think; it is essential to the way we think.

In their 1980 study, "Metaphors We Live By," the scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought in action. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world and how we relate to other people. The way we think, what we experience and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

Lakoff and Johnson show us that we cannot imagine our lives without metaphor. Not in the way we “can’t imagine” life without a smart phone or rear backup camera, but that we cannot imagine our lives without metaphor because metaphor is what we use to imagine our lives.

Metaphor lends physical shape to a life of abstracts: We get over someone or put the past behind us. We rise to the occasion, but we fall in line, and asleep, and in love. Even that current favorite — “it is what it is” — engages metaphor by refusing it.

Metaphor also makes possible what I have called the “strange alchemy” of poetry. By this I mean the metamorphosis of marks on the page or sounds in the air into something else: the illusion of personal encounter we experience when we read or hear a poem, the feeling we are being addressed across the room or across the centuries.

The old alchemists sought to change one thing into another, to transmute lead into gold. They wanted to do with metal what metaphor does with words.

The word itself — metaphor, derived from the Greek — means “to carry or bear,” “across or beyond;” its Latin cousin is the word translate, which means roughly the same. So metaphor translates our experience by rendering one thing in terms of another.

At its most basic, as Aristotle writes in the "Poetics," metaphor is simply the “application of a noun which properly applies to something else.” “Simply,” I say, and yet to me this is the essential and profound mystery of poetic language: that we can say one thing, mean another and somehow be understood as doing both at once.

War is hell.

Time is money.

Love is a battlefield.

Aristotle, meet Pat Benetar.

The paradox of metaphor is that by putting a mask on mere reality we unmask a more profound reality.

The miracle happens when language and metaphor allow us to see ourselves in the other, and vice versa. The figurative language of poetry offers us that illusion of encounter with another, with the other.

I am skeptical of the idea that literature makes us “better people,” but if it can, metaphor is the vehicle. Metaphor is the only way I know to achieve the sort of empathy in which we exchange “I” for “Thou,” to experience the other as oneself.

One noun substituted for another, as Aristotle would say. But the difference between poetics and ethics happens when we consider how to behave toward those odd proper nouns all around us, each of them an “I” in their own right, each wondering how to behave toward us.

Only metaphor allows us to suppose what it is like to be them. If only for the instant of the metaphor, “I” becomes “Thou” and vice versa. You may remember Walt Whitman’s line: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

We see this alchemy at work in the Gospels too. The same Jesus who teaches in parables offers his disciples a more profound metaphor. "When did we clothe thee?" the righteous ask. "When did we take thee in?" Christ answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me” (Matthew 25:37-40).

This is a lot to ask of poetry, more than the filling of a pail or even the lighting of a fire.

And yet, ever since the storied confusion of the tongues, language has been both the chasm between us and the metaphorical bridge across that distance.


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