Think about this: what exactly is the “mind”? Thoughts, we’ll say. We still might ask what thoughts are. The technical answer is that they happen when signals run along nerves in the brain, connecting one neuron to another or several others, and probably they connect to still others. We can even describe a good bit about this process, how a nerve signal involves ion concentrations moving in or out of the cell, how at the end of the nerve the signal has to cross a short space by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters—and you know what? Does this even sort of sound like a description of thoughts to you?
Hell no. Scientists could tell us atom by atom what is happening in the transmission of a collection of nerve signals, and that knowledge wouldn’t add anything to a real understanding of the mind. As an explanation for why I smile when I think about lying in an inner tube on a lake, telling me “the goddess Aphrodite sends you this thought” makes at least as much sense as talking about the movement of sodium ions through ion channels.
I use the idea of the mind just as one example of how complicated and incomprehensible much of the world is. Practically from birth, and all of our lives, we encounter things we don’t understand. What are the things those people are wearing on their heads? What is this device that makes noise and then people’s voices come out of it? Why are people moving like that?
One of the ways our mind—whatever that is—tries to make sense of the world, at least enough to let us function, is by searching the mental database to see what we know that is similar. Do we already know something that has at least some resemblance to this new thing? Comparing the two might help a little.
That act of comparison is the process behind metaphors, a basic process for how we understand the world. Our mental processes will find their way into language, and with the use of the word “metaphor” we discuss the comparison as a language phenomenon. If you get into a discussion of rhetorical terms (and let’s don’t), a variety of subtle linguistic distinctions are made, such as the difference between a metaphor (which says Michelle is a bag of wind—they are exactly the same thing) and a simile (Michelle is like a bag of wind—recognizing that it’s just a comparison). I tend to think of this with a broader umbrella, though, and call it all a metaphor.
So the mind, which is so mysterious, may be like a book, and if it is, we can read it. Or it might be a container, and you can be in or out of the container. I have known people who, in regards to the mind, were out of the container.
Once we became aware of the metaphor as a figure of speech, arising naturally out of our thoughts, we then realized we could deliberately make up metaphors, as a way to make our speech and writing more interesting or compelling. Some of our earliest literature does this, showing that the creative use of metaphor is an early human activity. The epics of Homer (which we have to recall were orally created, then written down later) are so full of metaphors that this abundance is even recognized as one of the characteristics of the poems. One of the more famous describes Dawn, a goddess of morning, as “rosy-fingered”.
The use of metaphors in literature varies greatly with the writer. No writer entirely avoids them, because it is almost literally impossible to do so, but we really notice when the writer is consciously trying to create new metaphors. If the writer does a good job, the comparison that is suggested allows us to see a comparison that can sometimes charm and delight us with its cleverness and new way of seeing the world. A writer who really impressed me with metaphors was Pat Conroy in the novel The Prince of Tides (and think about that title).
If we hear a metaphor often enough we forget about the comparison and just begin to take that word or phrase as having a new meaning, so the metaphor gets lost or buried. As an example of a metaphor that isn’t exactly gone, but isn’t very noticeable, take the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo says “Hark, what light through yonder window breaks.” Does light break? That word seems to be a reference to the sudden disruption (maybe, in fact, the way our eyes experience it) in going from darkness to light. We have this metaphor buried in the word “daybreak”.
Words that began as metaphors in other languages before coming into English may be completely invisible, unless you can trace the etymology. A nice example, I think, takes me back to hot anxious nights when a visiting preacher was in town and our Baptist church held a revival. The purpose at the end of each night of preaching (every night for a week, imagine the delight) was to convert whoever could possibly have been in that environment unconverted already. The verb “convert” comes from Latin, using the prefix con (meaning “with”) and the root vert (meaning “turn”). The preacher wanted to metaphorically “turn” people.
I love metaphors. I think they’re fascinating as an indication of how the mind works, and properly used in literature they can be like flowers blooming unexpectedly as you walk.
Here are some metaphors I used in writing this blog, but metaphors are so ubiquitous in language that surely there are others:
- reading my mind (the mind is a book)
- signals run along a nerve (signals have feet)
- mental database (the mind is a computer)
- Michelle is a windbag (actually, she is a windbag, that’s not a metaphor)
- think with a broader umbrella (collections of thoughts are a cover)