There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Weekend Quote (2): At Home in the Metaphor

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere . Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. ...

It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.

 -- Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry"

I came across this quote a few weeks ago while reading a discussion on the historic Adventist suspicion of fiction. It was mentioned because sometimes Christians reject metaphors that seem foreign to us. Fairytales, stories with “magic”, “false theology”, or "rebelliousness" (such as that early reviewers saw in Jane Eyre). This Christian problem with the metaphor is ironic, of course, since the Bible is replete with metaphors. Indeed, those Adventists who condemn all fiction forget that in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus tells a parable that doesn't get the state of the dead right. I think it's also arguable that it's this lack of being at home in the metaphor that causes Christians to misinterpret the Bible in hateful or even violent ways. Truly, it's not “safe” to be unfamiliar with the metaphor, for you will encounter it everywhere.

I've also recently read George Orwell's essay “Politics and the English Language”. This essay is a Must Read, not only for writers, but also for all who listen to rhetoric - whether from the pulpit or the presidential desk. In it Orwell speaks of how pretentious, unclear speech is so frequently used because it is easier. “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Jargon, Orwell implies, is used to mask underlying deceptions; fresh, concrete metaphors reveal truth. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Such mind-numbing phrases can “only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.” We must learn to “choose – not merely accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning.”

That's what I want to do every day with a new project I've started: writing something every day. I want to feel it's okay to raid the cupboards of Metaphor whenever I feel hungry for words. I want to flop down on a bed of metaphor at night, knowing I'll get up to a substantial breakfast of metaphor in the Bible and the classics. I want to know that later in the day I'll knead, stir, scrub, and send-to-compost a few metaphors of my own.

Beautiful writing, Orwell implies, is concise. Truth does not need to hide. It can come out in all its nakedness, without the shroud of complex idioms and jargon, and therefore concise, beautiful writing is truthful. I've seen this lately in the blogs I've been reading by young Christians exploring their faith, examining the good and the bad in (evangelical) Christian culture. Addie Zeirman, for example, scrapes at the surface jargon of Evangelicalism to restore the beauty of Christianity as it was first painted by one who was the Word Made Flesh, full of grace and truth... and beauty.

This is why I'm going to make an effort each day to become more at home in the metaphor, through reading, writing, and thinking. I know it won't be easy. (Orwell says so.) Already, in planning this post, I've thought of so many more clear thoughts and more creative metaphors. Most of those have disappeared like bubbles, the only traces remaining are little scabs of white, without the translucent shine of the originals. Maybe next year I'll find myself writing something similar, and then it will be a little more self-aware and a little more free from jargon.

This writing project is a journey, toiling on an upward ascent in search of beauty. But loneliness and hard work, after all, are how we come to feel “at home” in a place. My family has moved many times. The first night is always a strange combination of excitement and homesickness for where I was last “at home”. The first time I'm alone in the new home, I may become strangely melancholy. But before I know it, that's the place I'm longing to be when I'm afraid, lonely, or stressed. Because there's no place like home.

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