Metaphor and the Quality of Experience


The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.

Aristotle from the Poetics


During a rare reunion, an old girlfriend tells me I have chronic foot pain because I’m going in the wrong direction, elevating figurative thought to the same plane as medical diagnosis.

Durable truths are couched in myth and metaphor, not science.

Eve’s so-called choice when she chooses to bite into the apple captures the paradoxical experience of free will and determinism better than anything in the thousands of years that have passed since that story was first told.

So much of the language we use is metaphorical, it’s easy to forget by how much or how pervasive it is.

Some of our most cherished beliefs are metaphorical (rebirth, the idea that in marriage which two organisms become one, a person with many gifts)

The quality of the metaphors we use affects the quality of what we experience (life itself really).

Metaphor and figurative speech are the go-to “tools” for poets and writers to broach transcendental topics including God.


If ever I break up with a woman, I will call up my college sweetheart to ask her if she’s still dating that guy. When she says “yes” I am elated because Gene’s the one guy I wouldn’t dare trample over trying to get her back. Gene is her chosen one because he’s just that lucky and deserving.

Leigh and I have had a face-to-face reunion once since we dated in college. It transpired in Chicago outside a favorite bar, the “Hideout”, where all the cool alternative music acts come to play. Robbie Fulks, a comically embittered singer/songwriter refugee from Nashville and a native of North Carolina, is my favorite. Neko Case used to tend bar there.

Back then in the summer of 2013, I was vexed with chronic neuropathy and foot pain. That’s when Leigh made an out-of-the-box remark that it was a sign that I was going in the wrong direction. I was struck by the brilliance of elevating figurative thought to the same plane as medical diagnosis. Nobody had ever once suggested to me anything like it. The shame of it was I was already calling myself a writer.

In the years following Leigh’s pronouncement, my awe for the figurative imagination has—let’s just say—blossomed. I have learned that the most durable truths are couched in myth and metaphor, not science. I have learned that gospel truth—the truth that emerges from gospel—has very little if anything to do with historic events and is instead rooted in stories that allude to transcendental themes.

You will not acquire better insight into the nature of free will than you can by contemplating the image of Eve chomping down on that apple. I mean that whole thing in the garden and the serpent looks totally like a setup. How much of a choice did Eve really have when she “chose” to take the first bite? It’s a paradox, perfectly articulated, and nobody in the thousands of years since that story was first told, though many philosophers have tried, has advanced the debate on free will versus determinism.

At the start of Cratylus, a dialogue written by Plato, which seeks to discover how words signify, i.e., accrue and acquire meaning, a thesis is presented that words are tools in the manner of awls and anvils. It is pleasant to think that just as awls and anvils are used to create halters and horseshoes, words create meaning.

But it is also clear that Plato—feeling compelled to use metaphor to get at how words work and perform their magic —has flung us so to speak headlong into the thicket.

r/oddlysatisfying - This Infinity Spiral Staircase That Goes Nowhere

It doesn’t take us long to sidle up to the suspicion that we are trapped in metaphor and get queasy about feeling caught in a trap. It is a little too much like an Escherian staircase.

Maybe already we’re starting to think that the quality of the metaphor colors the quality of experience. Or let’s just say, life itself.

The prosaic, secularist way we describe a moment with profound transformative potential is a “midlife crisis”. But if words are tools and all we have to work with is this pallid phrase “midlife crisis”, woe-betide our forlorn souls. I mean, damn-it. How does that help a person to cope?

The concept of liminal space gives us something slightly more useful than midlife crisis to reckon with. Moreover, it is faintly metaphoric.

Dante’s dark forest (selva oscura) is the metaphor par excellence of a midlife crisis. We see the figure of Dante, the pilgrim, paralyzed by terror and fear in the very first canto as he is thrust back twice by allegorical beasts in his approach to the gate to hell until Virgil, his spiritual and poetic mentor, comes to his rescue. In the 1st canto, Dante already has us immersed in metaphor: sleep, hell, dark forests, mentors, and above all a “journey”, the metaphor supreme for spiritual growth.

well, hi.

Rebirth, replete with spiritual and religious connotation, trumps midlife crisis for utility. You can picture it. You can go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and, on any given day, see unborn chicks under the plastic dome of a huge incubator trying to crack through their shells[1]. You can see with your own eyes the struggle to survive begin at the very instant of birth. The rebirth metaphor comes with pictures. It’s very easy to understand what it’s all about[2]. Try coming anywhere near as close with “midlife crisis”. Who invents such phrases? Milquetoast sociologists?

A legend exists that the protean mind of Goethe was so vast and domineering that it sent many a would-be poet scurrying to seek refuge of as philosophers in the halls of academia. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, so saturated intellectual thought with doubt that, by the time Kant came along, it was fashionable to doubt the existence of God. When Kant promoted the distinction of the palpable world and a world beyond sense, which he designated the phenomena and noumena, it was hypothesized that the noumena was radically unknowable and by corollary God. Then for decades, guys who might have made decent poets dashed their brains out trying to invent a logic that could punch a hole through the invisible wall between the noumena from the phenomena just to rescue the idea of God and prove that He exists. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer built a career out of mocking these attempts, knocking them down like a Stanley Cup goalie knocks down pucks.

But any half-baked, warmed-over Calvinist could tell you that we are too puny and insignificant to apprehend anything so luminous as God. And the poet William Carlos Williams would exude “No ideas but in things.”

So, the only way to approach transcendent objects is with transcendent tools and the go-to transcendental tool of poets and writers is metaphor. This is why fundamentalists are so fundamentally frustrating because they insist on the historicity of things and nothing that the imagination can produce.

From the Greek, the word metaphor breaks down into the components: “meta”, meaning near to and “phorein” meaning to carry.

Iconic ampora cup

The iconic New York City coffee cup, the amphora cup, is so named because it has a picture of an amphora on it, the Greek name for a two handled vase. In Greek an amphora means literally something that is carried with two hands. The “phor” suffix is the same as in metaphor. It too derives from the root “phorein” to carry.

I like to imagine that metaphor is like an amphora, or James Bond’s briefcase, or the so-called football in which are carried the nuclear codes. Only the codes are all forgotten. What’s inside is unknowable (the noumena in Kant’s nomenclature) and the only evidence we have of it is by the case we carry it in (the phenomena). Whereas science constantly frustrates itself trying to get closer to the root of all things, poetry takes a different tack and says this is close as you can get. It is ironically far more practical when it comes to spiritual truth.

A good metaphor is the airplane rule, the one where people remind you to put your mask on yourself first. How many lives have been improved by this metaphor? And what is it really other than an apt retelling of the old admonition to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

When I went to the doctor for a checkup some months ago and we were discussing the obstinate nature of the injuries to my left foot, she turned to me and pointed, “this foot is a metaphor you know.” My doctor was schooled in the Western tradition and though she is less occidental by the day, I smiled. Inside though, I was laughing my head off.

  1. Watch Baby Chick Hatching at the Museum of Science and Industry

  2. More daunting still is the New Testament imperative “Ye must be born again.”


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