Metaphor is a term that crops up time and time again. It is often that you will hear the term ‘metaphorically speaking’, if not in Jim Carry’s voice from The Mask, but what exactly is a metaphor, and what values, if any, do they have.
A metaphor is one of the most valuable tools that a creative has within their arsenal, as it can radically transform the intention of a piece of work. Take Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. There is nothing at all preventing you from enjoying the book from the view-point of its literal representation as a good story about a man who simply hates a whale. Everybody and their screws know that the story is about something more complex than that.
The concept of the metaphor is itself examined within the pages of Melville’s masterpiece, as each of the characters, and indeed the reader will look at the whale as symbolising something much more grander, and for Ahab, it is the reflection of all of his woes, pains and ambition to hunt down and tackle a dream that is consistently evasive and destructive. The tale itself depicts the full extent of human obsession and drive, and how often this sole driven aim is followed to the grave.
Metaphor is a way of explaining things for a more general understanding. If you look through history, you will find that as science has improved, so has our understanding of the world around us.
The best way to understand the complexities, is to link them to something that is completely opposite, and yet related to the subject of that which is being represented. It is therefore a form of analogy which can be seen throughout a number of fields.
Consider in Physics when you are a child, there is little doubt that when you were learning about the solar system, your teacher would bring out a series of balls, or other spherical objects ranging in different sizes. For me there were footballs, garden peas and clumps of putty. Now, there was no way that anybody could be expected to believe that Earth is a tennis ball and Jupiter is a football, but they allowed you to gage in terms that you understand, the true scale of the sizes of the planet, and how many of those smaller shapes could fit within a larger shape.
The common story of the Stalk which parents often tell their inquisitive infants who confront them with the age old question of ‘Where do babies come from?’
Now, you can’t just look down at your child at a tender age of innocence that they were produced by the penetration of an erect penis into the mother’s vagina, for a questionable standard of intercourse, followed by the ejaculation of semen which then inseminates their mother’s eggs. Following nine months (average) of pregnancy, the child emerges in and blood curdling way. No, they would be absolutely horrified if you told them that, and they would not be able to sleep for a month! No, the stalk is a useful and innocent metaphor which provides a child with information which is appropriate at the time.
This is also seen in a number of religious texts. The Holy Bible has often been argued to not be literal and should be viewed as a metaphor. Christianity for example, has often been described as being a metaphor for the movement of the stars, and the it is not literally true. The same can be said for the Ancient Egyptians who believed that the night was constantly at battle with the night, and that wide spread issues such as famine and disease were a product of the God’s which created the world. Due to the complexities of life and insufficient scientific endeavours which were seen is the illiterate regions of the world, simplistic examples were needed in order for life to continue. It is a mark of humanity’s first attempts at philosophy, however like Moby Dick, there are those who view the texts as literal truth.
Like the apparent stories told by Jesus, children are often read stories which have a moral within the stories which they are questioned on once the story is completed. The most common examples of these are Aesop’s Fables.
In the story of The Hare and The Tortoise, the Hare is seen to be showing off, and boasting that he is much faster than the other animals and challenging them to a race which the Tortoise accepts. This both surprises and amuses the Hare, who is obviously much more physically able to win any race. Before the race has even begun, the Hare speaks as though they have already won the race. During the race, the Hare is in the lead and keeps stopping to have a bit of a sleep, as there was no way that the tortoise would win. What resulted was that the Hare fell asleep which allowed the Tortoise to surpass them, and win the race.
This fable, like so many of Aesop’s are Matrix style loading areas for the development of children, who are able to work out what the meaning of these symbols mean in the grander scheme of life. The Hare and The Tortoise, is obviously about the nature of over-confidence to the point that you do not see things through till the end before announcing your results. It also comes with the message that ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ Which of course, is not always the case, but it calls for perseverance in the face of the seemingly impossible.
Metaphor is a truly enriching piece of rhetoric which serves a number of purposes, whether that is artistic in the form of painting, film, writing, or scientific, or philosophically. Although the direct and apparent object is not intended literally, they are to be taken seriously in their representation. The famous ending to Doctor Strange Love: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, shows the true madness of nuclear war in the form of a cow boy riding the bomb like a bucking bronco, hat in hand laughing all the way to destruction.