Metaphor What For

Harry Drabik

An unwanted thing often happens when I’m introduced to someone by a friend who casually drops into the intro that I have taught English. Once out in the open that history turns into a conversation and socializing killer when someone nervously says “I better watch my grammar” or any similar expression I’ve heard over the years. It makes me cringe because the sentiment voiced only gets in the way and more importantly the caution voiced unnecessary. Unneeded is perhaps most crucial to remember because nearly everyone is a highly capable language machine. Distinction that matter are confidence and amount of past practice, but being comfortable with your own ability is probably what people lack most.  

Unnecessary doubt and needless holding back are more damaging to useful communication than are grammatical fine points. In Western culture you have to search rather widely in the general public to find people not familiar with and able to make meaningful use of metaphor. A way to understand metaphor might go like this. Think of it as a symbol representing much larger and more complex set of meanings than the symbol itself. Take communion as example. In Western tradition a broad meaning of communion is well understood and appreciated by groups outside Christianity where the metaphoric meaning is rooted in Body and Blood. Start asking around and you’ll discover that while not all grasp the meaning there are very few who’ll think it a call to cannibalism. Said another way, it is a minority, indeed, who don’t see the meaning as non-literal. They might not get (or need to) the theological fine points, but they are damn well confident communion doesn’t rely on human sacrifice of flesh and blood to form its body; spiritual or political.  

Not all language and culture systems are equal in how they deal with broad, symbolic, or metaphorical meaning. Some want nothing to do with it and call it heresy or blasphemy to suggest anything but pure literal readings. Others heavily base meaning on cultural tradition and precedent; if the ancestors say a thing is sacred then sacred it is. It appears that when literal wins over or replaces metaphorical meaning we have issues. Take the far removed example of the Aztec world. They had a sufficiently advanced culture and long standing belief system.

The problem arises in literal following of requirements to feed their universe with human lives. We know they had excellent mathematicians and astronomers, but by placing literal above symbolic meaning. Blood sacrifice (and apparently lots of it) was the literal way to serve the Gods who could as easily (and better) be served by human sacrifice in the forms of devotion, love, dedication, or other things more constructive and less deadly than feeding the Gods in human hearts.  

A problem that arises in clash of literal over metaphorical is that the literal view is not only the narrow perspective, but it tends toward destroying symbolic interpretations as incorrect deviations. That is a problem. It is more than difficult for a broad view to be heard if it’s not being tolerated on the grounds of deviation from the accepted truth. An interesting recent example of literalism in play comes from a national organization determining the hand sign for OK as a form of hate used by supremacists. If any of us thinks such an approach is constructive and will stops after making its point I suggest further thought and an investigation of the fun side of zealotry. There is none. Literalists, zealots, and purists live to enact godly dreams. Reason or fact does not enter in.

The one time the OK sign is used by someone on the zealot bad list is enough to ban it all the nine hundred ninety nine times it was only used to mean fine or OK. When literalism gains acceptance and is not challenged it will set out to wipe the slate clear of subtlety. I exaggerate (by how much is the question) saying that if supremacist dangers are to be addressed by fixing expression to set manners of acceptability it won’t be that long before white bread has to be relabeled a baked food product.

The empowered literalist will tell you if a breakfast table can have both Cheerios and Special K at the same time. And it will be of grave public interests to follow the panels, commissions, and special inquiries needed to handle serious concern over black olives. Does placing them in cans suggest a color bias not present when olives can be clearly seen in glass jars? The pimento issue is a whole nuther thing, but be sure the climate for such things will guarantee a sufficient supply of zealots; same variety as call up new genders quicker than all the gods combined could dream of.  

Now if you let me I’ll step back to the Western tradition of accepting metaphor and mixed meaning by referring to another sometimes overlooked metaphor; the crucifixion. Belief aside, crucifixion is a way to look at the literal versus metaphorical clash. What happens to attempts at nailing down meaning? It does not stay fixed. Meaning does not remain nailed to its cross where its opponents want it to stay. It breaks free. It escapes. Repeated attempts to re-order or restrict meaning won’t work other than set off more and more efforts to defy the natural process of how humans think. Literalism tries to make thought inside the box a permanent condition.  

Can’t get beyond last week without making a pass at current events. After three years of passing the peach around the thing is bruised. I’m more than ready for the final squeeze. Get on with it. I despised the Clinton impeachment show and I suspect this will be equal or even superior in merit. The one good thing I can say of no holds barred politics is its ability to accustom us to new ways. Over the years I’ve lived under governments I didn’t vote for or support Was toleration wrong? Is truth found in holding what I disapprove of to be wrong? I’ve yet to work out how reconciliation or understanding work into requiring submission, but give it time.