The Metaphorical Animal in His Natural Habitat

Metaphors are more than a way to talk about an experience. Metaphors are our experience. They set the filters through which we perceive and make sense out of the world. Because of this fact, metaphors serve as powerful levers capable of shifting perception and experience. __ Metaphor as Therapy

Most people think of metaphors as literary devices. Al Fin first learned about metaphors in creative writing class, along with similes, analogies, symbols, synecdoche, and other devices. But when Al Fin studied the hypnotic techniques of Milton Erickson, he discovered an entire new aspect to metaphor.

Therapeutic Metaphor

Therapeutic Metaphor

Therapeutic metaphors allow one person to alter the world view of another person at a level below conscious awareness. Such tools are being used to heal psychic wounds and to control entire populations — by mass media, cinematographers, authors, political speechwriters, academics, and savvy intellectuals of all stripes.

Most of the explicit public conversation about metaphor continues to refer to metaphor as a figure of speech, or a literary device. Overt and obvious metaphors sometimes encounter resistance.

A metaphor incurs resistance from our sense of absurdity and is indifferent to shame. __Denis Donoghue quoted in an Irish Times Book Review of his book, “Metaphor.”

We are most familiar with “verbal metaphors,” words that are used to stand in for other words for the purpose of explanation, of enrichment, of variety, of revealing hidden meanings, or for the sake of sheer startlement in creative prose and poetry. But metaphors can come in all flavours and varieties, from visual to auditory to emotional . . .

2001 Starchild  Stanley Kubrick

2001 Starchild Stanley Kubrick

The “Starchild” image from 2001 A Space Odyssey, is a thought-provoking non-verbal metaphor. Another non-verbal metaphor from motion pictures is the scene from “Being There,” where Chauncey Gardner attempts to eliminate an annoying black homeboy using his television remote control.

We build our thoughts and actions upon metaphors to the point that we say that a metaphor is “dead” when we no longer realise that it truly is a metaphor. In fact we treat our dead metaphors as stone foundations upon which to build new sets of metaphors, which then promptly die . . . and so on. Or do they die?

“There are no dead metaphors,” Donoghue persuasively says, “only sleeping ones”, wittily conjuring up a tribe of such snoozers: the heart of the matter, in the fullness of time, the leg of the table, the heel of the hunt, comfort zone, brass tacks, the leaf of the book, picture of health, a wild goose chase, presence of mind, creature of habit, towering oaks, wolf in sheep’s clothing, Freudian slip, no-win situation, toxic assets, push comes to shove. __

The foundations of metaphor actually go much deeper than, deeper than words.

Where is metaphor grounded? Not in logic, nor literary theory. There is no purely literal language in terms of which metaphor may be evaluated and objectively assessed. Along a broad front in cognitive psychology and social anthropology, metaphor is currently subject to extensive analysis, but the findings can only be partial, and relative to the discipline involved. What is becoming clearer is that metaphor — like linguistic theory and theories of speech acts — is rooted in the beliefs, practices and intentions … __

Scholars of metaphor tend to get bogged down in the muddled frontiers between the verbal and the pre-verbal. To most modern intellectuals, language is the beginning and the end of thought and meaning. In truth they could not be more wrong.

Because children often have difficulty deciphering clever adult metaphors, intellectuals sometimes assume that metaphors are for grownups. But children could never move into position to comprehend sophisticated metaphor if not for their innate abilities to build metaphor upon metaphor, starting with the pre-verbal and widening their metaphorical senses to include an ever wider span of verbal, visual, musical, and other forms of metaphor.

The universality of metaphor between cultures and languages can be striking, underlining the innateness of the metaphorical mode of thought and learning.

UCSD’s Robert Hecht-Nielsen lays out a theory of the mechanism of thought — Confabulation Theory — which provides intriguing hints as to how metaphors may come into being — beginning with metaphors of muscle movement and the tactile senses, then progressing to metaphors of emotion and pre-verbal cognition. In this progression of metaphor, language metaphors are “Johnnies come lately.”

It is virtually impossible to remember having assembled the pre-verbal scaffolding of one’s own thought processes, just as it is difficult to remember verbatim conversations between doctors, nurses, and parents in the delivery room on the day of one’s birth. Some memories have no simple retrieval mechanisms.

In some theories of the cosmos, the universe is built upon an infinite stack of turtles, turtles without end. There is simply no need to ask for any other explanation for why things are or how they came to be. But in modern western cultures, we demand more verifiability for our world views. How odd then to be forced to say that our worlds are built upon an infinite stack of metaphors, “metaphors without end.”

As American journalist, novelist, and historian Henry Adams said: “No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” __ Source

In fact, words are unimaginably slippery, built as they are on hidden meanings which are often inexpressible.

Humans are metaphorical animals, at home in a universe of their own creation. Creations with only the vaguest of beginnings, and poorly defined ends.

One of the greatest challenges is avoiding being hoodwinked into living in someone else’s universe according to someone else’s metaphorical rules. Living in someone else’s dream as part of the supporting cast, as it were. That is something that Dangerous Children would never do, although they do not spend time blaming others for falling into that common trap.

So work on those metaphors. Make them your own. Perhaps you will not see the universe as it is, but you will have a much better vantage point.

More: Mark Johnson collaborated with George Lakoff to provide an interesting dissection of metaphor in cultural and personal memes

Johnson went on to collaborate with Lakoff in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind, which pursues the essence of mind into the body, expanding some of the ideas in “Metaphors We Live By.”

Lakoff went on to take a high dive into an empty pool, abandoning the scientific approach in favour of bare-knuckled partisan polemics disguised as science. It happens to the best of true believers, and there is nothing to be done about it. Lakoff lost much of his subsequent credibility as a result.

Mark Johnson, on the other hand, went on to apply some of his earlier science-based ideas to morality and aesthetics.

I mention these works to provide a glimpse of how linguistic science sometimes looks at metaphor.

As for the hands-on use of metaphor in the therapeutic setting, Milton Erickson is the best place to start.

For budding poets and creative fiction and non-fiction writers, a metaphors dictionary or similar reference book might prove helpful right alongside one’s dictionary, thesaurus, and writer’s block-breaking brain porn-popcorn.

What is “brain porn-popcorn?” We’ll talk about that later.

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