Metaphor Philosophy: A Contrarian View of Metaphor

A contrarian is an individual so dissatisfied with his current reality that he creates another more suited to his liking.

My proposed version of reality is that all reality is derived from metaphor—be it physical, as represented in the material world, or ideational, as in the form of mental constructs.

Anything capable of being held in the mind—be it the mind that is nature or in the mind of humans –is a metaphor, and all metaphors are based on survival drive, the urge to discover and merge with affinities–in other words, to recreate itself and survive.  Thus a negative particle seeks its sister; a positive electron seeks a negative, a cell divides into another self, genes absorb traits from both parents to build a composite, and so it goes—on and on, hopefully forever.

The thing that makes a metaphor work is comparison, and it matters not a whit whether the comparisons are positive or negative, attractive or repulsive, asexual or sexual.  Metaphors rely on discovered affinities, be they negative or positive—be they likenesses or differences.  A negatively charged electron is attracted to a positive electron, not to a negative one.  And, reverting to syntax, an active verb “recognizes” and seeks out its object in some form of noun.

Examples of metaphors in nature are limitless as stars, but it is metaphor as used in literature—specifically my novel, White in the Moon, that is of primary interest here.  Every letter in every word represents a sound, every word is a metaphor created from the assembly of letters—though what it is that’s being compared may be long forgotten—and every sentence is metaphor with words ordered and structured by the grammarian’s version of survival drive, syntax.

Defined as a literary device, metaphor is said to infer that one thing is another, and, interestingly, bits of matter (elementary particles) say the same.  But, in the way of illustration, let us turn to Noyes’ construction in his famous litany to a highwayman.  The poem is rife with metaphors (as it is with rhymes and rhythm), but the one selected for discussion here goes as follows: “The road was a ribbon of moonlight….”

Now everyone recognizes that the road is not literally a ribbon and that no ribbon can actually be made of moonlight.  Wherefore, then, the feeling we get of pleasure, of satisfaction, of completeness?  The metaphor captures something that rings “true” in the mind, in the picture it conveys.  This “truth” is conveyed by means of comparison, and it doesn’t even matter if the metaphor is true or false, only if it is effective.  The very concepts being argued for here, it should be pointed out,  are themselves metaphors.

road as metaphorMetaphor is always “layered” in this fashion—the road, a literal thing that furthers commerce and trysting, is compared to a ribbon, a slightly less literal thing with connotations of decoration and seduction, that is saturated in a bath of moonlight—the essence of romance and trysting-times par excellence.  Lurking disguised and unnoticed at the root of the romantic metaphor is coition and the ultimate act of human survival.

In the interests of completeness, I propose the existence of three kinds of metaphor, one reflexive, one hylozoic, and  the other synthetic.

The first type, reflexive, is demonstrated by automatic reactions, by responses  like flinching at the approach of a projectile or a swinging bat.  It is engrained in the system and requires no conscious ideation.  A crude mechanism, it—like all metaphors—is dedicated, to survival, but in this case strictly to the survival of the genome. Although other more complex versions have evolved, its influence is still apparent in primitive responses (for instance) to skin color, sexual identities, and physical violence.

The second type metaphor, hylozoic, is dedicated to the manipulation of materials for physical survival.  It is represented in the designing of tools and implements and extends all the way to swinging bridges and sky scrapers. It is a metaphorical consequence of the first, but its realm of issue is survival of the physical self through the conscious creation of objects that make survival easier.  Charging people for our expertise is, of course, a means to physical survival.  When the ego gets involved, hylozoic metaphors tend to shade into the synthetic.

The third type of metaphor, synthetic, represents a significant advance over the other two in that the metaphorical slots occupied by physical constructs are here replaced by ideational concepts.  It is through this development that the issue of survival of the psychological self—a nonphysical construct designed to give humans the illusion of control in the realm of ego—has come to dominate modern civilization—including religion, the arts, and textbooks.

Growing out of this evolution was human consciousness and the knowledge that death, the antithesis of survival, is our ultimate destiny.  This knowledge has led to many artifices of self-survival, ranging from rationalization, to mind blank, from cryogenics to heavenly refuges.

Synthetic metaphors include the arts, the social sciences, and philosophy, including religions.   It is a transmutation easily understood, given the metaphorical nature of metaphor, but it is not one easily taken under consideration when ego is involved.

Feuds start here, departmental rivalries fester, and wars are undertaken—all in the interest of ego preservation.  It is also the realm of Rembrandt and Beethoven, Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible.

Now, mind you, there is much more to this business of metaphor than prettification.  At the risk of repetition, let it be said again:  The concept of survival is itself metaphor—in my mind, the first metaphor.  One atom (molecule, particle, what not) discovers affinity in another and WHAM-MO! we have a marriage.

That blending, that becoming as one, is “recognized” as a comparison found and completed, a eureka moment recognized in the “brain” as survival.  Thus began the Linking-Log construction that is nature.  I call it metaphor by extension. The same metaphor is involved in “me hungry now; me eat.”

This brings me to another characteristic of metaphor:  No metaphor is right or wrong, just efficient or not.  Noyes’ metaphor is efficient because it is effective—it compares two objects not conventionally seen as similar and makes them the same.  This moment of affirmation is perceived in the mind as pleasing, as “true” and, by extension, as conducive to survival.

airplane as metaphorThe connection Mestral found between cockle burrs and Velcro, Blake’s perception of beauty in the rose, Wright’s architectural dream of the Kaufman House—all are the same sorts of thing, as was the discovery of penicillin, the polio vaccine, and the Wright brothers’ accomplishment of flight.  Nothing known or yet to be discovered exists but through the medium of metaphor.

If it is true that the only freedom possible is mental (and I believe that to be the case), then mankind must perfect the art of the conscious metaphor.  White In The Moon aims to be that kind of thing.

Like those nesting Russian dolls, metaphors have metaphors built inside of metaphors, and the more complex the metaphor the more layers it will have.  White In The Moon  aims to be a many-layered, conscious metaphor.

philosophical novelFor instance, the title is taken from a line in a poem by A.E. Housman that reads: “White in the moon the long road lies/That leads me from my love.”  I would like the reader to see the “long road” as my life and the “love” as my search for truth.  The line is itself metaphor, and the title also has textual relevance, another metaphorical application.  My son’s cover-painting portrays a moon reflected in water, still another metaphor.

As each character in the novel is a metaphor consciously created to achieve an artistic function, so do the characters live their lives on the basis of their metaphors, reflexive, hylozoic, and synthetic.  In the same way, the consequences of their metaphors speak to the author’s underlying theme(s), so that metaphor becomes a metaphor of metaphor, so on and so on, ad infinitum.

Furthermore, as the characters use conscious metaphors, actually going so far as to define them, the reader is expected to expand their meaning beyond what even their speakers are aware of.

The novel seeks to illustrate metaphor by its use of metaphor—thus the inclusion of poems, a play, a diary, and letters, each with metaphorical meanings of their own but with implications, also, for the underlying theme of the novel.  The description of paintings and music is an attempt to incorporate these metaphors as well, as is the use of allusions, literary tropes, and other devices.  The novel itself, the reader is reminded, is a metaphor.

It is believed the novel illustrates, as well, the function of survival in metaphor.  The characters live their lives driven by survival metaphors, reflexive, hylozoic, and synthetic.  Mossy Pond, its occupants and neighbors, is a metaphor of one kind of survival, as are the many sexual motifs and the exploration of the causes and consequences of racism.  And, needless to say, the author himself hopes to survive his demise by the significance of his statements.

All the world is metaphor, and the end of metaphor is life.