Symbolism originated in the revolt of certain French poets against the rigid conventions governing both technique and theme in traditional French poetry, as evidenced in the precise description of Parnassian poetry. The Symbolists wished to liberate poetry from its expository functions and its formalized oratory in order to describe instead the fleeting, immediate sensations of man’s inner life and experience. They attempted to evoke the ineffable intuitions and sense impressions of man’s inner life and to communicate the underlying mystery of existence through a free and highly personal use of metaphors and images that, though lacking in precise meaning, would nevertheless convey the state of the poet’s mind and hint at the “dark and confused unity” of an inexpressible reality.





But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.


‘In the mathematics of Aristotle’s poetics, the line is written:  


Juliet = sun.  


Here, Shakespeare gives the thing (Juliet) a name that belongs to something else (the sun). This is a textbook example of metaphor. Indeed, this line turns up in almost every academic treatment of the subject. In literary parlance, the “thing” is called the metaphor’s “target” and the “something else” from which it takes a name is called its “source.” The terminology fits well with the etymology of the word “metaphor” itself. Derived from the Greek roots meta (over, across, or beyond) and phor (to carry), the literal meaning of metaphor is “to carry across.” A metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target.’





Thou Art That



Let me begin by explaining the history of my impulse to place metaphor at the center of our exploration of Western spirituality.
When the first volume of my ‘Historical Atlas of World Mythology, The Way of the Animal Powers’


came out, the publishers sent me on a publicity tour. This is the worst kind of all possible tours because you move unwillingly to those disc jockeys and newspaper people, themselves unwilling to read the book they are supposed to talk to you about, in order to give it public visibility.


The first question I would be asked was always, “What is a myth?” That is a fine beginning for an intelligent conversation. In one city, however, I walked into a broadcasting station for a live half-hour program where the interviewer was a young, smart-looking man who immediately warned me, “I’m tough, I put it right to you. I’ve studied law.”


The red light went on and he began argumentatively, “The word ‘myth,’ means ‘a lie.’ Myth is a lie.”


So I replied with my definition of myth. “No, myth is not a lie. A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.”


“It’s a lie,” he countered.


“It’s a metaphor.”


‘It’s a lie.”


This went on for about twenty minutes. Around four or five minutes before the end of the program, I realized that this interviewer did not really know what a metaphor was. I decided to treat him as he was treating me.


“No,” I said, “I tell you it’s metaphorical. You give me an example of a metaphor.”


He replied, “You give me an example.”


I resisted, “No, I’m asking the question this time.” I had not taught school for thirty years for nothing. “And I want you to give me an example of a metaphor.”


The interviewer was utterly baffled and even went so far as to say, “Let’s get in touch with some school teacher.” Finally, with something like a minute and a half to go, he rose to the occasion and said, “I’ll try. My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor.”


As the last seconds of the interview ticked off, I replied, “That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a deer.”


He shot back, “That’s a lie.”


“No,” I said, “That is a metaphor.”


And the show ended. What does that incident suggest about our common understanding of metaphor?


It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.






If a metaphor is a way of connecting one thing to something related, but -across a distance- somehow different…

  • Think of something you care a great deal about, then consider things you associate with it. Or, things connected, in any way. Then, try making leaps to other solid stones in the lake it lives in.
  • Do any of these step-outs take toehold?
  • Think about perhaps, this thing, or another element, in a story you’re crafting. See the connections to whatever it is, a feeling, a character, an event, and how those relate to the other elements in your story. Think of the connections you have in place so far, feel them as they are there, living. And think of new ones, as you see the story as a pulsing, living thing. Be sure to think of all the senses, give your settings eyes, give your characters lungs, give your events emotions and tactile touch and sounds. Now, does John run LIKE a deer… Or IS he a Deer?


FROM: I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World  by James Geary  


Rhetoricians throughout history have recognized metaphors as linguistic hand-me-downs, meanings passed on from an old word to a new thing. In De Oratore, Cicero observed:  


When something that can scarcely be conveyed by the proper term¹⁶ is expressed metaphorically, the meaning we desire to convey is made clear by the resemblance of the thing that we have expressed by the word that does not belong. Consequently, the metaphors in which you take what you have got from somewhere else are a sort of borrowing.


 In his treatise on rhetoric, The Mysteries of Eloquence, Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani also described metaphor as a sort of borrowing. In fact, the Arabic word for metaphor is isti’ara, or “loan¹⁷.”

But when we lend a thing a name that belongs to something else, we lend it a complex pattern of relations and associations, too. We mix and match what we know about the metaphor’s source (in Shakespeare’s case, the sun) with what we know about its target (Juliet). A metaphor juxtaposes two different things and then skews our point of view so unexpected similarities emerge. Metaphorical thinking half discovers and half invents the likenesses it describes.

The “Juliet is the sun” metaphor allows us to understand Juliet much more vividly than if Shakespeare had taken a more literal approach, such as “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is Juliet, applying her luminous restorative night cream.”

Metaphor is, however, much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas. Metaphor is intensely yet inconspicuously present in everything from ordinary conversation and commercial messaging to news reports and political speeches. Metaphor is always breathing down our necks.

Look no further than the common expressions we use every day to convey our feelings. Whether you’re down in the dumps or riding high, on the straight and narrow or at a crossroads, cool as a cucumber or hot under the collar, you are fulfilling the classic Aristotelian definition of metaphor by giving the thing (your emotional state) a name that belongs to something else (waste storage facilities, well-paved thoroughfares, refrigerated vegetables).

Even the simplest, most unassuming words are capable of a bewildering variety of metaphorical mutations. Take “shoulder¹⁸,” for instance. You can give someone the cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or be constantly looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, stand shoulder to shoulder with your friends, or stand head and shoulders above the rest. Wherever you turn, you can’t help but rub shoulders with one of the word’s multitude of metaphorical meanings.

Metaphor is present in proverbs (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, Let sleeping dogs lie), in idioms (shoot the breeze, kick the bucket), in compound phrases (forbidden fruit, red herring), and in formulaic expressions (in the zone, the last straw).

Ordinary conversation is so rife with figurative phrases because metaphor is about more than just words. We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.

Visual metaphors abound in advertisements and other types of popular imagery, such as the lightbulb that appears above someone’s head to signify a bright idea. But metaphors are not merely symbolic; they have implications for—and impacts on—the “real” world. In one study, for instance, participants exposed to a bare illuminated lightbulb performed better at spatial, verbal, and mathematical problem¹⁹ solving than those exposed to shaded lightbulbs or fluorescent lighting. Brightness, it seems, facilitates insight.

A common metaphorical gesture is the “thumbs-up” sign, in which we indicate our state of general well-being by closing the fist and extending the thumb upward at a 90- degree angle. Visual metaphors like these also follow Aristotle’s definition. The only difference is that the thing is given an image or a gesture rather than a name that belongs to something else.

Metaphor is so essential that it is impossible to describe emotions, abstract concepts, complex ideas, or practically anything else without it, as art historian and connoisseur of metaphor Nelson Goodman wrote in Languages of Art:  

Metaphor permeates all discourse²⁰, ordinary and special, and we should have a hard time finding a purely literal paragraph anywhere. This incessant use of metaphor springs not merely from love of literary color but also from urgent need of economy. If we could not readily transfer schemata to make new sortings and orderings, we should have to burden ourselves with unmanageably many different schemata, either by adoption of a vast vocabulary of elementary terms or by prodigious elaboration of composite ones.

Shakespeare’s description of Juliet is a marvel of metaphorical economy. On the surface, Juliet is nothing like the sun. Nevertheless, she shines. Romeo is inexorably drawn by her gravitational pull. She is the center of his universe. She radiates heat. And her brightness can, of course, burn. In these particulars at least, she is indeed the sun. Shakespeare’s schematic transfer tells us everything we need to know about Juliet—and Romeo’s feelings for her—in just four simple words.

After hundreds of years of constant use, this comparison has become something of a cliché. But the metaphorical thinking that enabled the equation to be made in the first place is the essence of creativity in the sciences as well as the arts. Whenever we solve a problem, make a discovery, or devise an innovation, the same kind of metaphorical thinking takes place.

Scientists and inventors compare two things: what they know and what they don’t know. The only way to find out about the latter is to investigate the ways it might be like the former. And whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking, as in this comparison, another academic staple, from Scottish poet Robert Burns:  


My love is like a red, red rose²¹.  


By drawing our attention to the similarities between the object of his affections and a perennial flowering shrub of the Rosaceae family, Burns exquisitely—and economically— tells us about the unknown (his love) by comparing it with the known (a red, red rose). We can therefore be reasonably sure that the beauty of Burns’s beloved is flush and full (and fleeting), her perfume is sweet, and she can be very prickly. And we know all this without ever having laid eyes on her.

The paradox of metaphor is that it tells us so much about a person, place, or thing by telling us what that person, place, or thing is not. Understanding a metaphor (like reading a book about that process, in fact) is a seemingly random walk through a deep, dark forest of associations. The path is full of unexpected twists and turns, veering wildly off into the underbrush one minute and abruptly disappearing down a rabbit hole the next. Signposts spin like weather vanes. You can’t see the wood for the trees. Then, suddenly, somehow, you step into the clearing. A metaphor is both detour and destination, a digression that gets to the point.

Aristotle identified the mastery of metaphorical thinking as “a sign of genius²², since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” French mathematician Henri Poincaré found an ingenious metaphor for metaphorical thinking in the theories of one of Aristotle’s predecessors, Epicurus.

According to the Greeks, the world was made up of just two basic things: atoms and the void. “Atoms are unlimited in size and number²³,” wrote Democritus, the fourth-century B.C.E. philosopher who formulated ancient Greece’s version of atomic theory, “and they are borne along in the whole universe in a vortex, and thereby generate all composite things—fire, water, air, earth; for even these are conglomerations of given atoms.”

To the Greeks, the physical universe was, quite literally, an atomic shower, a steady downpour of tiny, indivisible particles falling through empty space. All the objects in the world—all the things we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste—were made up of atoms combining and recombining in every conceivable way.

In some of the wilder expositions of the theory, thinkers imagined a distant time when the body parts of every living thing tumbled through the void. The early universe was a cascade of arms and legs, feet and paws, fins and wings, hands and claws. Every limb connected randomly with every other until it met its corresponding shape and clicked into place. Through this process of trial and error, the world as we know it was made.

But Epicurus, who was born around 341 B.C.E., spotted a flaw in the theory. In order to meet its match, an atom could not simply fall through the void like rain. It must veer from the vertical path and waft its way down like a feather. Otherwise, he reasoned, it would never bump into any other atoms and thus never form the conglomerations Democritus described.

So Epicurus came up with the clinamen—the unpredictable moment during which each atom deviates from its course, creating the opportunity for a chance encounter with another atom. It was only through these “clinamactic” collisions, Epicurus believed, that change, surprise, and variety entered the world.

Like most ancient Greek philosophers, Epicurus left behind very few of his own words and even less about his own life. We know about the clinamen largely thanks to the first- century C.E. Roman poet Lucretius, whose epic poem On the Nature of the Universe is an encyclopedic exposition of Epicurean philosophy.

Not much is known about Lucretius, either, except that, according to Saint Jerome, he was driven insane by a love potion and killed himself at the age of forty-four. Whether his love resembled the sun, a red, red rose, or something else entirely, we do not know.

Still, for a love-crazed, suicidal poet, Lucretius summed up Epicurus’s ideas quite lucidly. Without the clinamen, he wrote, “No collision would take place²⁴ and no impact of atom upon atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.” Some 2,000 years after the composition of Lucretius’s poem, Poincaré used Epicurean atomic theory to explain the nature of mathematical discovery and, by extension, the nature of metaphorical thinking.

Born in Nancy, France, in 1854, Poincaré was a cross between a dandy and a distracted professor. He was “short and plump²⁵, carried an enormous head set off by a thick spade beard and splendid moustache, was myopic, stooped, distraught in speech, absent-minded and wore pince-nez glasses attached to a black silk ribbon.” He was also intensely interested in the sources of creativity.

In The Foundations of Science, Poincaré set out his general theory of ingenuity. Based on his own experience as well as his interrogations of other mathematicians, Poincaré concluded that great creative breakthroughs occur unexpectedly and unconsciously after an extended period of hard, conscious labor. He invoked an Epicurean analogy to explain this. Poincaré described ideas as being like Epicurus’s atoms, writing:  


During the complete repose of the mind²⁶, these atoms are motionless; they are, so to speak, hooked to the wall . . . During a period of apparent rest and unconscious work, certain of them are detached from the wall and put in motion. They flash in every direction through the space . . . as would, for example, a swarm of gnats . . . Their mutual impacts may produce new combinations. What is the role of the preliminary conscious work? It is evidently to mobilize certain of these atoms, to unhook them from the wall and put them in swing. After this shaking-up imposed upon them by our will, these atoms do not return to their primitive rest. They freely continue their dance.  


Poincaré’s atomic two-step is a deft analogy for how mathematical creativity—indeed, all creativity—lies in the dance of metaphorical thought, the tumultuous tango that ensues when idea rubs up against idea, when thought grapples with thought.

Metaphor is the mind’s great swerve. Creativity don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that clinamactic swing.

This same idea is contained in the three most famous words in all of Western philosophy, Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum.” This phrase is routinely translated as:  


I think, therefore I am.  


But there is a better translation. The Latin word cogito is derived from the prefix co (with or together) and the verb agitare (to shake). Agitare is the root of the English words “agitate” and “agitation.” Thus, the original meaning of cogito is “to shake together,” and the proper translation of “Cogito ergo sum” is:  


I shake things up, therefore I am.  


Metaphor shakes things up, producing everything from Shakespeare to scientific insight in the process.

The mind is a plastic snow dome: most beautiful, most interesting, and most itself when, as Elvis put it, it’s all shook up. And metaphor keeps the mind shaking, rattling, and rolling long after Elvis has left the building.

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