3 | Metaphorize!

»Ah, but a man's speech should exceed his grammar. Or what's a metaphor?«


As an artist and educator of over 16 years, I have noticed a growing tendency of people more and more losing the ability to abstract creative thinking and feeling.

Naturally, people, as well as our youngsters, are not any more stupid (intelligence is not at issue here) or uneducated than 20 years ago (well, eventually, though unfortunately sometimes they are), but the influences (particularly the media) in today’s fast-paced societies pay tribute to this declining ability.

Endangered minds

Our minds are bombarded daily by real-life photos, moving images, videos and the happenings around the globe. And we are exposed to those very images today more than ever before.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, you name them – the immediate realtime communication of the moment became the everyday obsession of the 21st century – while we all happily tune in and share our food and cat pics or smartphone selfies in front of the bathroom mirror.

Considering that already 25 years ago, psychologists and educational researchers warned of the endangered minds of our children and future generations, I do not think that we are any safer today. Today’s children and teenagers develop different habits of mind which bear the danger of actually changing their brains for the worse.

»It is imagination that first taught man the moral meaning of color, of contour, of sound, and of scent. In the beginning of the world it created analogy and metaphor.«

—Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)


So, you may ask, what does all this have to do with an essay titled: Metaphorize!

For me personally, the ability to metaphorize has become a measure of the scope of a person’s creative thinking abilities!

After all … Life is one giant metaphor. 
Which is of course – I’m sure you caught that one – already a metaphor in itself. 

Good old William Shakespeare knew it long ago that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players …” (As You Like It). And even older Aristotle wonderfully described metaphor as “the intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar” (De Poetica).


A Different Perception of Reality

For most artists, metaphor is the primary vehicle of translating meaning. Therefore it is far more than a mere figure of speech. It’s a way of thinking and – in it’s ultimate form – a way of experiencing the world. A different perception of reality. 

I notice that more and more people haven’t learned to see or haven’t learned to listen. I am mentioning this, as it’s a tendency I observe: to confuse the process of transcending reality in its search for meaning with ignoring it, based on its given circumstances and facts. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to say, it means ignoring reality. Quite the opposite, as reality can’t be ignored – and even if we tried, it’ll strike back, turning into a roaring lion.

It means to develop a different focus in our experience and perception of this very reality, going beyond (meta) the purely obvious and visible, to find a deeper truth, a deeper meaning and purpose. It is a process that philosophy, religion and art in their very essence have in common. 

However, as already stated earlier, and based on my subjective, personal observations, it is an ability that unfortunately gets lost all too often in today’s world. People are flooded with photos, television or the internet 24/7. A world of images that are blank, brutally direct and so often naked and empty. Not to mention sick phenomenas like so called “Reality TV”, where lies about reality are purposely produced. I am not sure, if people today either lost or never developed this form of metaphorical mindset. I am equally not sure, if it’s a lack of education in general and in the fine arts in particular in its human dimension (these forms of statistics are not my field of expertise), but I do feel something is lacking. 

So, I guess, if this little speech tries to be anything, it is a plea for the metaphor. Life is so much richer, so much more fun and so much deeper with it. So, metaphorize, people, metaphorize! 

»The earth has music for those who listen.«

—George Santayana (1863–1952)


Providing a Name for Everything

All art, music and poetry is constantly pregnant with metaphor.

The metaphor of shape.
The metaphor of color.
The metaphor of words.
The metaphor of melody and sound. 
The metaphor of tastes and scents. 

In his Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian writes about metaphor that it finally succeeds in the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything.

I love this quote! And as an artist, I always felt this to be one of the most fundamental functions of art, all art, in this world. 

Artists (of any genre) are translators and agents of what John Keats called The Poetry of Earth, therefore the poetry of creation and all that is connected to it. Translators, whose duty it is to show what can’t be seen, name what can’t be told and record what’s invisible and silent, trying to bridge the gap between the heavens and earth. Or rather: make us aware of how we carry them all inside of us. 

Art has the unique ability to shed light on what otherwise might stay uncovered in the darkness. And metaphor grows our wings, builds our concrete and enlightens our projector. While we equally have to acknowledge that no word or metaphor can ever describe the actual matter itself. 

»I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and dimension all its own.«

—Chaim Potok (1929–2002)


The moral-ethical value of a metaphor

Let’s listen to Quintilian once more:

“… If it (metaphor) be but rightly managed, it can never be either vulgar, mean, or disagreeable. It increases the copiousness of a language by allowing it to borrow what it does not naturally possess; and, what is its greatest achievement, it prevents an appellation from being wanting for anything whatever. A noun or a verb is accordingly transferred, as it were, from that place in the language to which it properly belongs, to one in which there is either no proper word, or in which the metaphorical word is preferable to the proper. This change we make, either because it is necessary, or because it adds to significance, or, as I said, because it is more ornamental. Where the transference produces no one of these effects, it will be vicious.”

What a remarkable thought! 
“Where it produces none of these effects, it will be vicious.”
The ethical, moral and aesthetic value of metaphor!

This reminds me of a wonderful lecture I once heard by Dr. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a respected physician and rabbi of our time, on Judaism’s view on the meaning and power of speech. 

In the course of this lecture he raised the question of what an absolute definition of good is. Now, in religious terms we have our own view of looking at it, but if you were a natural scientist and have to come up with a definition of what good is in natural terms, what would that be? 

A natural definition of goodness would be to use a tool for that for which it was designed. And using a tool for that for which is was NOT designed would be evil. If you take a tool and use it for what it was designed for, the tool does its job and remains perfect. 

And this brings me back to Quintilian and Baudelaire: Where art in its metaphorical character helps to illuminate our existence through the appropriate and designated usage of its artistic means, it will become what it’s meant to be: a moral (sometimes ethical, sometimes political) vehicle destined to make us and the world better – and more human. 

Where it’s lacking any of the above, it can only stay vicious – and has no reason to exist. 

I will never stop striving for the first. 
As an artist. 
As a Jew. 
As a human being. 

»Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?« 

—Robert Browning (1821–1889)

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