If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.
For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage. Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.
Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.
Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.
When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.
I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.
It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’
There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.
And prepositions were everywhere.
I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.
It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?
Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)
The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.
*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.