We can’t help but think and speak in metaphors. A hot temperature is the “high” for the day and a cold temperature is the “low.” The future is “ahead” and the past “behind.”
As James Geary says in I Is an Other, virtually the only way to understand something new is in reference to the old. When the theory of plate tectonics was first used to explain continental drift in the 1960s, the earth was compared to rice pudding–hard on the surface but pliable and liquid underneath (pp. 174-75). And electromagnetic fields were compared to two absolutely still corks floating separately in a bowl of water. Push one and the other moves. Not a perfect analogy, but helpful.
Yet not every metaphor works. Greary gives several examples. Here’s a headline from the Tulsa World:
Step up to the Plate and Fish or Cut Bait
Or a sentence from Our Town, N.Y.:
The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe.
Or this one from a high school English paper:
She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
Or this one:
He was deeply
in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up (p. 144).
The humor in failed metaphors comes because we see both appropriate connections (hearing bells as a sign of infatuation) and inappropriate connections (comparing a girl friend to something oversized, full of smelly refuse, going in the wrong direction, with a prominent back end).
A metaphor works when it combines the familiar (rice pudding/corks in water) with the novel (plate tectonics/electromagnetism). As physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “We cannot, coming into something new, deal with it except on the basis of the familiar and the old-fashioned” (p. 176).
A good metaphor gratifies the mind like a good detective story. Both are puzzles where the solution is not obvious but plausible (p. 163). And figuring out the mystery before the author unveils the answers is like children climbing a tree, delighting to spot their father a block away as he rounds the corner to come home.
Next Installment: I Is an Other (5): Metaphors at Work
2 thoughts on “I Is an Other (4): When Metaphors Strike Out”
There is a Star Trek Episode with Jean Luc Picard and a Alien on a planet, where they learn to communicate by means of historical and literary metaphors. Utterly fascinating.
That Star Trek episode is a great example. Metaphors work if we understand the referent. If we don’t, we get lost. But usually people catch on and good, original metaphors are both enjoyable and enlightening.
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