I have been fascinated by metaphor since I was an undergraduate linguistics major, when one of my professors assigned parts of Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In that book, Lakoff and Johnson argue that, as human beings, we use metaphor to give structure to the world around us. They point out, for example, that we describe the process of having or making an argument the same way we describe war. As examples, they offer this list of expressions:
- Your claims are indefensible.
- He attacked every weak point in my argument.
- His criticisms are right on target.
- I demolished his argument.
Lakoff and Johnson don’t stop there, though. They go on to show that we don’t just talk about argument as if it were war; we actually experience it that way as well. Like wars, for example, arguments are won or lost; and the people on either side of an argument behave in some ways as if they are doing battle with each other, taking different lines of attack, or surrendering some points in the hopes of gaining others that will lead to victory. To illustrate by way of contrast, Lakoff and Johnson ask us to
imagine a culture where argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. (5)
Other examples abound. One of my favorite classroom exercises is to ask my students to list all the slang expressions they know for for getting drunk and/or high (the latter, of course, being a metaphor in itself). Here are some of the more common ones they come up with:
Inevitably, my students are surprised not just at how violent the list is, but at the way these expressions portray getting drunk or high as violence one does to oneself–a way of structuring what it means to alter one’s consciousness that is very different from cultures that use such substances in religious or other spiritual rituals.
The story from Golestan that I have chosen for this week’s Sa’di Says is about the structure of power in a monarchy, and I think the metaphors that Sa’di uses in telling this story are fascinating. Before you read it, you need to know that Hormuz was the son of King Nushirvan, whose name is synonymous with what it means to be a wise and just ruler. Hormuz, on the other hand, was cruel and tyrannical. Here is the story:
When he was asked what crime his father’s viziers had committed, Hormuz replied, “None. I put these men in jail because they feared my power without respecting it. I knew that to protect themselves from the capriciousness they saw in me and the harm they thought might come to them because of it, they might try to kill me. So I had no choice. I took the advice of the sages, who said:
The power to wipe out a hundred men
should not replace your fear of one who fears you.
Watch when a cat is fighting for its life;
it plucks the tiger’s eyes out with its claws.
To stop the stone the shepherd might throw down
to crush its head, the viper strikes, and lives.
Hormuz is unapologetic in his explanation, but you have to wonder just how aware he is of how much his metaphors reveal about him. Look closely at the metaphor in those last two lines. By having the king compare himself to a viper, while at the same time comparing his father’s viziers to a shepherd, Sa’di uses Hormuz’ self-justification to reveal not just the fear and weakness at the heart of any tyrannical rule, but also something about the nature of power itself. The shepherd’s authority to kill the viper comes from his role as protector of the flock, though he can choose not to use that power if he doesn’t have to. (Hence, “the stone the shepherd might throw down.”) The viper, on the other hand–and I am following here the logic of the metaphor, not commenting on the behavior of actual snakes–because of the poison that defines it and the threat it poses to those around it, cannot afford to wait for the shepherd to make that choice. It must assume that the shepherd has assumed that it will attack and so it has no alternative but to defend itself accordingly.
The viper’s power, in other words, is defined by its fear of the world, its sense that the world is arrayed against it, while the shepherd’s power is defined by the choice that is available to him. Not that the fact of this choice will make the shepherd a good and wise ruler by definition; but it does seem to me that awareness of the choice is a prerequisite for a wise and benevolent rule.
The cool thing about a metaphor is that no single reading will ever capture its entire meaning, and so I know the reading I have presented here is a partial one at best. I’d love to hear what you think.