Metaphor as friend and enemy
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, May 28, 2002)

Canadian book publishers have endured trial by fire, James Laxer of York University wrote in The Globe and Mail last Wednesday. Ottawa caused it by giving a green light to the Chapters chain stores, whose failure hurt publishing. Eventually, "the Chapters bloodbath was stanched, but many publishers were left in a state of anemia." Now the crunch has come, though the federal government tried to bridge the gap because it feared General Publishing was a domino that could take others down with it. Our publishers compete with a richer American industry, which was founded on stealing British copyrights -- although "No one is suggesting that Canada head down this piratical road."

Fire, pirates, flowing blood, bridges, traffic lights, dominoes -- Laxer crammed all those images into just 762 words, a stunning achievement in its way. There's a special technique for reaching such a high density of metaphors. You spray them on. You stand well back from your computer and point a can of Metaphex at the screen. A few squirts coat the article with an oily substance resembling English. When you get to the end, one final squirt produces a sentence as satisfying as the closing of Laxer's piece: "The Liberal government cannot now bury its head in the sand." The editor may then add a metaphorical heading, as the Globe did: "Turn the page on publishing."

A professor of political science, Laxer revealed himself as that familiar and pathetic literary figure, the Metaphor Victim. He illustrated once more the dangers of this essential but treacherous device. We all love metaphors, but we should all fear them. Without them we are struck dumb, but if we mishandle them we look dumb.

Metaphors make writing and talking possible. Even the most ordinary term, like "arm of the chair," contains a metaphor. In everyday speech and writing, we couldn't express ourselves if we didn't have food for thought, the pendulum swing of opinion, the rainy day that we put something away for. Political talk would die without landslide victories, swing votes, horse races.

And we still sometimes borrow from Greek mythology the ultimate image of political corruption, the Augean stables that Hercules cleaned. In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal sprang to life when President Richard Nixon's special counsel called it "a cancer growing on the presidency."

Without metaphor we couldn't begin to handle major scientific ideas. We who skipped biology can understand a little about DNA only because the scientists helpfully borrowed all those terms from the library; most of us now imagine the language of genes as an alphabet and think of DNA sequencing as the encyclopedia of living forms, a dictionary, an instruction manual for recreating life, etc.

It helps us, and maybe does more. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, says a metaphor not only communicates an idea but stimulates thought. "If you push novelty of language and metaphor far enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing. That in itself then becomes a contribution to science."

Aristotle, who said everything first and best, decided that metaphors work because they set an idea vividly before the eyes of readers or listeners. Wallace Stevens wrote, "By metaphor you paint/A thing." A metaphor also encapsulates crucial aspects of life. Give something a name that belongs to something else and (with luck and imagination) you create a kind of wisdom. A great metaphor moves us toward insight: Plato's cave dwellers, who see nothing but their shadows, or Hamlet's eternal sleep, or the stones Jesus advises us not to throw.

Sometimes a writer's momentary inspiration installs itself in the language as metaphor. In 1944, Raymond Chandler, writing an essay about the stoic nobility of fictional private detectives, recalled an expression from his British childhood and composed (perhaps off-handedly) what became his most famous sentence: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Originally, that phrase meant banal, bland streets, without character, but Chandler made "mean streets" a metaphor evoking urban violence and menace.

He didn't substitute one thing for another, as we do with the Augean stables, but he raised a mental picture of crime-breeding slums: Narrow houses with broken windows standing side by side, neglected children playing in the cold rain. Critics picked it up, and so did fellow novelists, like Ross Macdonald. In 1973, Martin Scorsese made a terrific movie called Mean Streets. Eventually, journalists applied Chandler's words to anything urban and repellent.

That kind of term, used with care, enriches thought and makes reading pleasurable. In an article such as Laxer's, the buzz of over-familiar metaphors distracts the reader, destroys prose and eliminates thought. H.W. Fowler (1858-1933), a great writer on usage, warned against over-indulgence in commonplace metaphor. It's all right to cry aloud for something, drop the curtain on something else, issue a note of warning, or pave the way. One or two of those is fine, but in a cluster they become noisy. They may be the first terms that come to mind, but we should think again. "We may read a newspaper through without coming upon a single metaphor of this kind that is at all offensive in itself," Fowler wrote. "It is in the aggregate that they offend."

Metaphors also function as weapons, notably in big institutions. At the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation they are now reinventing the radio service (again!), which means reinventing the way they talk about it. They speak constantly about the "architecture of the system," which is a lot more satisfying than boring old words like "schedule" or "programs." In the attempt to connect their many shows, so that broadcasters and ideas can be exchanged, they have put in play a negative metaphor that's new to most of the staff: silo. A silo is a program that doesn't communicate or interact with other programs, just does its own thing. That describes most good broadcasting of past and present, but CBC managers have decided not to work that way any more. One day (if things go as the current managers hope) there will be no more silos in the CBC -- and probably not many good programs either. Sometimes a rogue metaphor races through an institution like a bad case of food poisoning.

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