Stalking Metaphors

by Brooks Riley

6a00d8341c7a9753ef015432aabd64970c-300wiIt is difficult to talk about metaphors without talking in metaphors: Metaphors are birds, around us all the time, but unnoticed unless we take the time to look at them. Or, metaphors are apples on the tree of life, the fruits of our search for meaning. You get the idea.

Here’s a riddle: What can a human being see that no other creature on earth can see? A metaphor. We and the creatures all see the same objects, in the literal sense. But humans are able to see those objects as providers of meaning, a tree as a symbol for family or immutability. a puddle as a small inconvenience on the path of life. A pothole? Life is full of them in the metaphoric sense.

What are metaphors anyway except a parallel way of looking at things—like stepping into a second life to explain the first one.

Some people are happy just to beat a dead metaphor: ‘Life is a bowl of cherries’, ‘All the world’s a stage’, ‘No man is an island’ (not true!) or Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s exquisite ‘. . . life is a dream, and the dreams are dreams.La vida es sueño, y los sueños, sueños son. Others look for unexpected analogous connections in unusual places or events.

Some metaphors are so parasitic, they kill the host–so deeply imbedded into the language of certain events that they have lost their role as metaphor. In America we don’t ‘stand’ for office, we ‘run a race’ for it, hence the image of two candidates at the starting line, Obama in his track suit, Romney in a body stocking, in the distance a tiny White House. When you pry the metaphor out of the electoral process, there are not enough words to describe it.

For reasons having nothing to do with literary endeavor, I have been searching for metaphors. Unlike Brad Leithauser’s metaphor (in his recent, lovely piece in the New Yorker ‘Meet my metaphor’), which simply came to him while he waited in an airport, mine are the result of an active search.

It began a few years ago when the following, crude metaphor came to me: Death is an 18-wheeler hurtling straight at us in slow motion. Not a pretty picture, but then neither is death. Soon after, I began to see the metaphors all around me.

Science is a surprisingly good source: Reading about global warming, I seized on ‘Pacific decadal oscillation’ (a kind of long-term version of El Niño and La Niña) as a perfect metaphor for different phases in my life—the warm and cold waters cyclically trading places between the ocean’s surface and its depths. Even El Niño and La Niña could stand as metaphors for the yin and yang of my personality, sometimes Niño, sometimes his sister.

Then there’s the double helix: As it applies to me, the one part of the spiral is disaster just as the other is success, the two simultaneously and intrinsically wound around each other—a paradoxical, but elegantly visual metaphor.

Photosynthesis is a promising metaphor, if somewhat simplistic. No doubt I could find a metaphoric use for the Higgs Boson, but a certain fear of fundamentals keeps me from going there. And a boson would offend the fragility of every metaphor—it’s ability to be challenged by a better one.

As a child, I was fascinated—and perhaps also indoctrinated—by the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. In spite of the dire message, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be the grasshopper. As I’ve gotten older, the fable has taken on new dimensions: It’s not just about who prepares for winter and who does not. It’s far more about the life one chooses. I see the grasshopper as the dilletante, like me, who follows its curiosity. It goes places, learns new things, embraces the world, piles experience upon experience, hopping about over a wide range of interests. The ant sticks close to home, works hard to prepare for hard times, eschews any self-interest or extracurricular activity. The diametric message here is that the ant will spend the winter in his cosy anthill, while the grasshopper will freeze to death. But who’s had the better life? You can’t take life with you, and comfort and security are deceptive when the end is nigh. Sooner or later the ant, too, will meet his fate.

As I cast my net far and wide, it’s not surprising that my dreams have been enlisted in the search for metaphors. What are dreams anyway, but a subconscious metaphoric explanation for events in the waking life? Freud knew it. So did Jung.

Time was when my dreams involved complicated familial interractions or unlikely scenarios involving cities I’ve never visited and people I don’t know and don’t want to know. Lately, I’ve been dreaming in abstractions. No night goes by when I don’t solve an insoluble scientific conundrum. My dreams involve graphs, charts, scales, geometry, impossible physics and unlikely mathematical and material connections. There are no beings, human or otherwise, in these nightly perambulations. Nobody’s home in my nocturnal environment.

In one recent dream, I wrestled with a problem which now eludes me, and came up with this formula:

Smoothness = repetition.

As usual, by the time I sat down to breakfast, the absurdity of my discovery hit home, as it always does if I’m lucky enough to remember the dream’s Eureka moment. Why did something that made so much sense while I slept turn out to be so hopelessly stupid? Or was it?

A piece of cloth is made smooth through the repetition of like threads. A GIF played over and over again takes on a kind of smoothness. The repetition of equal wavelengths creates a smooth trajectory from the source to the receiver. And the rhythm underlying a piece of music provides a smooth surface over which the notes may dance as they please.

I still haven’t figured out how this one applies to me, but does it matter? If I have to go through life with baggage, let it be a small carry-on with my own bespoke collection of analogical treasures. You can keep your bowl of cherries.