Metaphor

After a rough start, the summer here has blossomed into one of amazing richness. Hiking up a dappled alpine trail in the Babine Mountains, we came out into a small opening, the sun striking a cluster of arnica all turning their bright faces toward its light. Looking at those fragile stems emerging from the rocks that had themselves only weeks ago emerged from a long winter’s snow, my heart thumping from the climb, all sorts of vegetative metaphors took root in my oxygen-starved brain. The ways in which life expresses itself so vividly and abundantly in the most rugged environments is here made concrete, literal. The fragility of life and the random nature of death are enacted moment by moment when you can’t take a step without crushing something beautiful. The mosquitoes are, of course, Satan in paradise.

Metaphors enrich our concrete experience of the world. We unconsciously make connections between the present physical moment and our emotional responses to past events at almost every step (especially when we go into the zone induced by physical exertion). This trick we do is so embedded in the way we learn from each other and the way we try to share our experiences that language is rife with it. Rising to the occasion (we’re so used to this one, we don’t imagine, for example, a child rising to break the surface of the water clutching the dropped keys); seeing the light; we wake up but fall asleep; we smell victory, we feel rough.

Which is one of the metaphors used in a study published in Brain & Language. It found that literal descriptions (I feel sick) activate the language-processing parts of the brain; throw in a metaphor (I feel rough) and the sensory part of the brain, whether it’s touch, smell, sound, taste, or sight, is also engaged.

Writers know this. We use metaphor as a way of enriching readers’ experience of language itself, but also at deeper level where the characters, settings, and narrative arcs of our stories or poems create all sorts of possible interpretations for our readers – they create vivid ambiguity – which I suggest is not an oxymoron. It is always fun to hear a reader give a detailed interpretation of your work that has little to do with your intention, however conscious that intention was, but makes perfect sense.

People who don’t or can’t process metaphor are often impaired in some way – it can be an indicator of autism, schizophrenia, or dementia according to an article in The Humanist: “Mapping Metaphor: This is Your Brain on Figurative Language.” While people with dementia can still process the old standbys, they can’t find hide nor hair of sense in new ones. This, the author states, shows that “Figurative language is surely more than an intellectual extravagance. It is as much a fiber of our very being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains.”

This is, I suspect, what makes me so nervous about literal interpretations of the Bible. When celebrating a book so full of metaphor and parable, it makes little sense to deny that richness to its original author(s). Why else do we tell each other the old stories over and over again? It’s not for the history lesson. And that’s not why we write the new ones.

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