To talk about metaphor, I have to at least mention simile. As I understand it, a simile is simply a comparison: something is like something else. And usually, at least in literature, similes are used to link something concrete to something abstract, like a feeling or an idea. Although there’s a big difference between a rose and a feeling, a simile can suggest what the feeling is like by comparing it with the rose. For example: My love is like a red, red rose. Something of how we respond to roses, their beauty, their colour, gets linked to a feeling: love. And in that comparison we pass meaning to someone else, however fuzzy the translation may be.
Metaphor is different. It doesn’t develop a comparison, it establishes an identity. One thing is another thing. Consider what happens if I change the line we’re using to the following: My love is a red, red rose. The sentence says that the rose is his love, it’s identified with it. And that’s a different thing altogether. A simile, based in comparison, is logical enough for us. A metaphor, on the other hand, requires more since it makes the abstraction and the object a single reality. It’s not an objective correlative, an object used to suggest a feeling. It’s a fusion of the two.
Metaphor is more than simile because it creates an identity: one thing is another thing; thus it defies everyday logic, or at least makes us stretch it a bit. So instead of saying my love is like a red, red rose, saying my love is a red, red rose changes things. That’s not a comparison, implied or otherwise; it’s something quite different.
Symbols are metaphors, sort of silent powers that fuse the world of things with the world of ideas. Think of it this way: All roses are manifestations in time and space of “roseness,” an abstraction that is more real than any manifestation of it, i.e. the rose itself. Plato argues that the idea of something represents the reality and that the world of things is illusory. All things are simply manifestations of the reality, which lies outside time and space and thus is not transitory but eternal. The symbol is more powerful, more real, than the thing it appears to be. Yup! The manifestation is just an expression in time and space of the reality, the abstraction.
Metaphors affect our daily lives much more than we realize. I have distant cousins; she’s not up to seeing you just now; he’s feeling down today. These spatial expressions mean something quite different here than what up and down and distant usually mean. He’s a cold and distant man adds even more. Notice that these are not comparisons; they are identities: one thing is the other.
Some critics suggest that literature is entirely metaphoric, nothing more than a series of objects that are much more than they appear to be. I guess it’s easy to see in an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress and maybe a lot more difficult to see in something like William Golding’s Pincher Martin. But Golding does help us out a little by tearing up his metaphor as his story ends, at least I think that’s what he’s doing with his black lightning. Anyway, you can read it yourself and see what you think.
So the world around us is fertile ground for writers. They find everything they need there to make the human spirit visible to their readers. They can map the depths and heights of human imaginative power. There I go, using spatial metaphors again. It’s the metaphoric power of literature that gives it its universality, that allows it to speak to generation after generation. Even mysteries like mine have some of that.