Welcome to the World of Metaphor

Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I tire of one, I spend the night with the other.

—Anton Chekhov

In this famous metaphor, Anton Chekhov—a practicing physician as well as a creative writer—found a creative way of describing how he juggled two very demanding professions.

Describing one thing by relating it to another thing is the essence of what is known as metaphorical thinking. It's what Chekhov was doing when he described medicine as a wife and literature as a mistress. It's what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote "All the world's a stage." And it is what countless writers, poets, and orators have done when they've made a connection between two things that, at first glance, don't appear to have much in common with each other.

All metaphors are violations of logic in the sense that they assert that two different things—often two extremely different things—are the same. To say the world is a stage is like saying A is B. Technically, we know that A is not B, but when people say such things, they are usually doing it for for dramatic effect. In the world of human discourse, we make allowances for such flights of fancy by calling such statements figuratively true. Like leaps of faith in religion, when people believe things which cannot be proven, people who use metaphors make leaps of logic. They assert that something is true, even when it is literally untrue or logically false. Love, for example, is most accurately described as an emotion. But it can be captured far more compellingly when it is called something else:

It happens routinely in intellectual history:

Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke.

—Lynda Barry

A metaphor is a kind of magical mental changing room, where one thing, for a moment, becomes another. In that magical moment, we see a familiar thing in a whole new way. In her 1994 book The Anatomy of Freedom, Robin Morgan put it this way: "Metaphor is the energy charge that leaps between images, revealing their connections."

Some metaphors, as is the case with Barry's love observation, are obvious. We can easily visualize a love relationship—pursued with vigor—exploding in our face. Some other metaphors are less obvious:

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

—Pablo Picasso

If you examine Picasso's observation, you will notice that an A is B assertion is not explicitly stated. But it is clearly suggested—art is a cleansing liquid. The observation also provides a nice illustratration of the difference between literal and figurative truth. In real life, art cannot wash anything; only water and other liquids have such a cleansing property. And a soul doesn't literally accumulate dust in the way that real objects do. But by imbuing art with the cleansing properties of water, and by giving the soul the properties of a tangible object, Picasso creates a memorable metaphor—and he offers one of the most powerful observations ever made on the important role that art can play in our lives.

Throughout history, certain individuals have demonstrated a special ability to creatively—and sometimes ingeniously—find a relationship between things that initially seem quite alien to each other. The talent was recognized nearly 2,500 years ago by Aristotle, who observed in his famous treatise on Poetics:

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

While I would disagree that a command of metaphor cannot be imparted by a talented teacher, I agree that there is a certain talent—even a kind of genius—involved in finding something in common between very different domains of life. One contemporary master of metaphor, Robert Frost said it well:

An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.

A keen eye for resemblance, to use Aristotle's lovely phrase, is a rare gift, but it is also an essential skill for a person who is trying to express a powerful idea in an original way. Metaphorical thinking is one of the oldest activities of humankind, and one of the most impressive when done skillfully. Some observations are so spectacular they've taken up permanent residence in my mind:

A bikini is like a barbed-wire fence. It protects the property without disturbing the view.

—Joey Adams

Sports is the toy department of life.

—Howard Cosell

A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.

—Barnett Cocks

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

—P. J. O'Rourke

Rock and roll is the hamburger that ate the world.

—Peter York