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On metaphor - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
On metaphor
I got into this a little bit in a post I locked earlier (too many specifics), but the the_gentleman's comment to my graphic novel post got me thinking about the subject again, basically because of the link between image and text, and the ability to go back and forth between them.

Bear with me, it's not a direct correlation; it just got me thinking. ;p

It's hard to get into this without mentioning the specifics of why I started thinking about this, so, hey, I'll use a little story. It fits the theme.

Once upon a time, a princess lived in a golden palace. She had fine goblets and cutlery, and many sorts of jewels. By anyone's estimation, she was rich.

Unfortunately, she was also starving.

Each morning, a local baker would come by with a full cart of bread, and the princess thought it smelled delicious. The baker would show it to her, and she would sigh wistfully and tell him how lucky he was to have all that bread, and how much she wished she had some. Then she would send him home, hoping that his wife would enjoy it as much as he appeared to.

Each evening, the village cook would come by with a fine stew. The princess's parents had once given this to her, but since they died, it no longer came. She would smile at the cook and tell her what a fine job she'd done, then she would go home, and the princess would dream of how lovely it was for her children to have such a delicious stew, when all she had was a pile of gold, which, try as she might, she couldn't eat.

One morning, the baker, a kindly man, begged her to take some bread to fill out her poor, ragged cheeks, but she said, "Oh, no... I couldn't take what was yours when I have nothing to give you in return!"

"My lady," he said, "it is customary to trade gold coins for it."

The princess frowned. "Gold? I don't understand. Gold isn't bread, and bread isn't gold. They aren't the same, and you can't eat gold. How could that be fair? No, my friend, go on your way, and enjoy your riches."

Each day, either the cook or the baker made this offer. The princess's counsellors and friends recommended it to her. But she couldn't see the connection.

One morning, the baker arrived, prepared to do anything to get the princess to eat, but she was not waiting in her throne, as was her usual practice. In fact, she was nowhere. The palace was empty, and there was nothing left to go on from it.


Suffice it to say, the metaphor issue that got me started was exactly as simple as the story. It was a plain inability to relate one thing to another thing... and not by someone whose mind was even slightly dull. This was a very sharp individual, who could have made the connection between having gold and obtaining bread--or between a road to go from one place to another, and the Great Road of Life.

I know, I know... so what, really? Who cares if a literary device isn't used much, or if some people aren't fond of it?

The problem isn't in missing any specific metaphor, but in the inability to make connections that leads to missing that metaphor. It's one thing, say, to look at the metaphor of a volcano and not make the metaphoric connection to a person's dormant anger--maybe it's not the way you experience dormant anger, and the connection doesn't make sense--but it's another thing entirely to have it explained and still not get the concept that it could be used that way by someone with a different experience of the emotion, and the latter is going to be absolutely crippling in any field of endeavor. How are you going to make scientific discoveries if you can't make intuitive leaps? How can you solve a crime if you can't connect a clue to the perpetrator? How can you make a legal argument if you can't apply an abstract law to a specific incident? The ability to see relationships between dissimilar things--to intuit--is a key part of complex thought. And that's not even getting into obvious literary interests, like poetry or satire or... any literary endeavor, really. I'd qualify that with "that's not a lab report," but honestly, even a lab report requires the ability to draw or refute conclusions from data.

So why aren't serious alarm bells going off when kids show signs of not being able to do this? And what can be done about it, pedagogically?
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Comments
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: December 29th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
....

Is it true that kids are--en masse--showing signs of not being able to do this? Surely that's a type of psychological issue, rather than an educational one? You're scaring me, because while I don't work with children myself, most kids I know/grew up with had no issues with this at all. (Though one of my friends has a father who is a little like this....)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 29th, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm hoping it's an issue with a particular clique, just a social thing, because one of the other girls tried to explain it to her... but no, this isn't a single case. It's not ubiquitous, but it's also not rare.
From: rosathome Date: December 30th, 2006 12:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Do you mind if I link to this on my blog? Metaphor is something I'm really interested in and I think lots of my readers would like your story.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 30th, 2006 01:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Sure, it's an open post. :)
From: rosathome Date: December 30th, 2006 12:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, and I meant to say, I think you're exactly right about people (I'd say not just kids) struggling to understand metaphors and wanting to only deal with flat, literal language. I think it's a post-enlightenment, give-us-hard-facts, kind of phenomenon. Somehow 'metaphorical' is equated with 'false' or 'less valuable' and so children aren't encouraged properly to think in those kind of ways. I spent most of last year studying the Song of Songs and was shocked at the number of commentators who think their job is simply to 'decode' the metaphors and similes without once reflecting on their emotional and other significance. You can say so much more with a metaphor - or at least, you can if your reader has ears to hear!
greyathena From: greyathena Date: December 30th, 2006 08:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is so completely OT, but it's driving me crazy and a browse through my library online catalogue isn't helping. Can you think of the title of a book about a boy who turns into a plant? I forget if it's for a science fair project or what, but he starts to grow little roots on his toes, and his grandfather waters him, and stuff? It was probably intended for ages 9-10, ish. I wanted to recommend it to a friend whose nephew said he wanted to be green, but I can't for the life of me remember the title. Ringing any bells?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 30th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
No, not even a little bell. I'd recommend calling the children's room at your public library. (My age group speciality is a little over the 9-10 range, so I don't have a great handle on those titles.)
matril From: matril Date: December 31st, 2006 11:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Are you still wondering about it? I believe that book is called Top Secret. He eats a lot of liver and changes his body's metabolism or something very odd like that.
greyathena From: greyathena Date: January 1st, 2007 01:10 am (UTC) (Link)
That's exactly it! Thanks so much, you are a genius.
matril From: matril Date: January 1st, 2007 01:45 am (UTC) (Link)
:) Glad to help.
verdenia From: verdenia Date: January 2nd, 2007 09:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Hah! I remember reading that book... ;P Good times...
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