Thursday, December 24, 2009

Danger! Metaphors!

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


Warning: Metaphors ahead!

Probably the single most important literary technique is metaphor. For the readers to identify with a fictional character, they must view it as representative of themselves. Odysseus’ ten-year struggle to return to Ithaca therefore can be symbolic of some personal struggle for the readers. The study of literature familiarizes the students with metaphor, and that’s highly important. In the wrong hands, metaphors can be dangerous.

No, I’m not being facetious. We all learned about metaphors in middle school. Metaphors and similes are two types of analogy. Similes have the word “like” or “as,” and metaphors don’t. Simile: “My love for you is like a rose.” Metaphor: “my love for you is a rose.” What’s the problem?

The problem is that all analogies are fundamentally wrong. Love is not literally a flower. I may recognize one aspect of it as similar to a rose. With a simile, everyone is conscious of the analogy. “Like” reminds everyone that it’s just a comparison. Metaphor doesn’t offer that help, so its meaning needs to be implicit. But sometimes its meaning becomes too implicit. If a metaphor becomes commonplace, people can easily forget that it is, in fact, a metaphor. Instead, it gets treated as a truth statement. Here lies the danger: people propose courses of action based on the analogy, rather than the facts at hand.

For example, in 1992, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan proposed that the US military should “protect the border” from illegal immigrants. Consider that for a second: how would the government have used the military? Would the government have deployed tanks against border crossers? Shelled northern Mexico? And how exactly would the US Air Force have figured in? Buchanan hadn’t entirely taken leave of his senses. For years, the illegal immigration problem was discussed in certain quarters with the language of invasion. The word invasion was metaphorical, but Buchanan proposed a course of action as if it were literal.

Another example: in 2002, during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac opposed the invasion on the grounds that the UN weapons inspectors should be given more time. In agreement with him were the governments of Germany, Russia, China, and the Vatican, among others. But in the US, there was great anger directed specifically at France. Why France and not the other countries? During the run-up to war, many people compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and the current crisis to World War II. And, of course, the US liberated France in World War II. It struck many US citizens as an act of betrayal that France didn’t support the US in this World War II. They confused the metaphor for reality. But Saddam Hussein was not literally Hitler, the Iraq invasion was not literally World War II, and in retrospect Jacques Chirac was absolutely right that the UN inspectors should have had more time to search for the (non-existent) WMD program.

If you pay attention to everyday discourse, there are many examples of people confusing common metaphors for reality. And I haven’t included the very tragic cases when demagogues defined another group of individuals as vermin or an infestation, and then the masses acted accordingly.

Here then is a societal benefit to the widespread study of literature. An informed citizenry, cognizant about literary techniques, might stand less of a chance of confusing metaphors with reality.

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