There is something magical about saying a thing is something that it obviously is not. Children know this instinctively. Calling a shoebox a castle, or a pencil a scepter, can elicit momentary raptures of delight in a child: not primarily for the functional reason that it allows him to immerse himself in an imaginary story, and certainly not because he thinks the shoebox is a castle, or the pencil is a scepter, but chiefly because it’s a thrill to think of something in a different way by calling it by another name.
Later, let’s say in preadolescence, he will discover the addictive pleasures of assigning inapposite words to people and things he wishes to injure or control. He calls his brother a rat, his school an asylum, his math teacher a cow. Not great instances of wit, to be sure, but in calling people and things by the wrong signifiers—by turning them into metaphors—he in some way transforms them.
Which is why metaphors are everywhere. Sometimes they clarify; more often they confuse. Sports commentators speak almost exclusively in metaphors. “Romero needs to step up. . . . After the injury last week, Rodgers is a huge question mark. . . . The Seahawks aren’t yet a dynasty.” I sometimes think the popular but widely hated phrase “it is what it is” was invented simply to provide a bit of relief from all these metaphors.
Some of the fiercest arguments in our politics revolve around metaphors: debt ceilings, glass ceilings, cooling effects, reset buttons, political footballs. Massive and largely deleterious governmental interventions have been carried out under the guise of metaphorical appellations: the War on Poverty, Head Start, No Child Left Behind, and many others. Indeed, it’s almost a safe assumption that any time you hear politicians or bureaucrats using a metaphor to describe what they want to do, they’re up to no good. The 2009 stimulus bill, remember, was supposed to “jump-start the economy.”
Good metaphors force you to think about the things they reference in fresh ways. There aren’t very many good ones, though. They’re mostly concocted for the purpose of coercing you into changing your opinion. They annoy and distract rather than illuminate.
Denis Donoghue takes a far more sanguine view of them. In Metaphor—a loose, at times digressive series of essays on a literary device that’s almost impossible to define with precision—he consistently downplays metaphors’ power to confuse. He includes a chapter on writers who’ve expressed apprehensions about the use of metaphors—Hannah Arendt, for instance, ridiculed the way psychoanalysis depends on the metaphor “peak of the iceberg” to conceptualize consciousness—but Donoghue backs away from any serious criticism of metaphors and the uses to which they’re put. He can only think of one metaphor that effectively deceived: President Clinton’s use of the phrase “move on.”
Donoghue’s tolerant view of metaphor robs this book, to my mind, of some of its power. Why, after all, have poets and novelists struggled to find the right metaphor, treating the device almost as a dangerous thing, if it doesn’t even have the power to mislead?
Donoghue’s definition is a disarmingly simple one: A metaphor is “the transfer of a word from its proper or ordinary position in a sentence or a phrase to a position alien to that or distant from it.” A number of critics have all but equated metaphor and simile—John Middleton Murry thought a metaphor was just a “compressed simile.” Donoghue rightly disagrees. Similes ask only that you observe likenesses; metaphors ask you to imagine.
Metaphors go wrong more easily than similes do: You can always say that two things bear some similarities and sound plausible; saying one thing is the other thing while still sounding plausible is far trickier. Yet a well-placed metaphor can grab your attention far more effectively than even the most powerful simile.
“In a simile,” writes Donoghue, “the things compared are not altered by the comparison,” whereas metaphors somehow change the things they reference. Drawing on I. A. Richards’s terms “tenor” (the thing or action needing explication) and “vehicle” (the thing or action whose qualities are borrowed), Donoghue suggests that “the minimal requirement in a metaphor is that the tenor is changed by the vehicle; not replaced by it or superseded but changed in quality or character by the new company it is made to keep.”