The Globe & Mail
December 4, 1996

A real writer wouldn't be caught dead at this orgy

by Robert Fulford,

Metaphors need care and understanding. Treat them kindly and they will be your friends. Treat them badly and -- well, look at the opening of a piece by Michael Harris (the journalist, not the Ontario Premier) in the Toronto Sun, Nov. 24:

"For those who enjoy a dip in the acids of our national identity crisis, it was a refreshing week, an orgy of chutzpah and half-baked plans. You could pick out the omphalos worshippers by their Cheshire-cat smiles. For a glorious instant, we were back in the golden age of Big, Big Government, when Pierre was doing the Libyan two-step with Col. Gadhafi."
Did somebody tell that guy to make his writing more colourful? His first paragraph is the literary equivalent of a six-car pileup on the 401. It's impossible to know what he's saying, and the heading, Chequebook Apartheid, is no help. All we know is that he's angry.

What we have here is a case of metaphor abuse. Those 62 words contains 6 metaphors, by my count. for Vladimir Nabokov, that wouldn't be preposterously high. It's not necessarily too high for anyone, unless the metaphors are incomprehensible -- as several of these are. Metaphor, the life of language, can be the death of meaning. It should be used in moderation, like vodka. Writers drunk on metaphor can forget they are conveying information and ideas.

Harris's first paragraph requires as much footnoting as a passage in T.S. Eliot. Omphalos, for instance, used to mean a Greek stone at Delphi said to be the centre of the world; now it also means navel. So Harris must mean "navel-gazers", a metaphor in itself -- omphalos is a five-dollar luxury metaphor replacing the economy size. But if people are gazing down at their navels, how can we see their Chesire-cat smiles? And how can you recognize a Cheshire-cat smile? In England, cats living in Cheshire are said to smile, a never-explained notion that entered the language long before Lewis Carroll put it to use. Still, we don't know what their smiles look like.

For that matter, what's the Libyan two-step? Harris doesn't say. And what's Col. Gadhafi doing in a piece about Canada? Harris won't tell us, and in the rest of the piece (a full page long), neither the colonel nor the two-step, nor even Pierre, gets mentioned again.

A reader who gets to the middle of the second paragraph finally learns that Harris is condemning the report of the royal commission on aboriginals. His opening reminded me of Janet Malcolm's description, in The New Yorker, of art criticism. Writers on art, she said, are "utterly indifferent to the reader's contemptible little cries for help." In the same way, our contemptible little cries do not soften Harris's heart. It doesn't worry him that we are baffled -- he has bigger fish to fry and metaphors to bake, and he has the chutzpah to carry them off. In the end he says nothing, we have to admit that he says it with passion.

In recent times, metaphor has become a favourite resort of the pretentious. Gary Shandling recently pointed out in an interview that his program, The Larry Sanders Show, isn't just a satire of talk shows: it's actually universal in meaning. As he said, "I'm using talk shows as a metaphor for the duplicitous behaviour that we all have in our lives." Usually, people have to get a PhD before they say something that silly.

In the academic world, however, the line between metaphorical and no-metaphorical has blurred. No less a figure than Stanly N. Katz, Princeton historian and president of the American Council of Learned Societies, recently tripped over it. During a copyright struggle between the Learned Societies and Macmillan Inc. over a biographical dictionary, Katz told a New York Times reporter: "This is economic thuggery, literally." Of course he didn't mean that Macmillan editors were physically assaulting people from the Learned Societies. Nor did he mean Macmillan had recruited the assassins whose activities in 19th-century India brought the word thug into English from Hindi. What Katz should have said was, "This is economic thuggery, metaphorically." But he must have thought (if he thought) that the correct form would sound weaker.

Whatever trouble metaphors may cause us, we can't get around them. Our language is made from metaphors. As H.W. fowler says in Modern English Usage, words we imagine to be literal are actually dead metaphors; for instance, examine comes from a Latin word for part of a scale, because when we judge or examine something we weigh it. the arm of a chair, the foot of a hill -- these metaphors are built into the language. More obvious metaphors are almost equally necessary. Could we do without the hot temper and the cold stare, the dead duck and the slashed budget?

Still, there are writers who would be improved by a nearly total ban on metaphors. At the top of any such list I would place the anonymous authors of Your Heart: An Owner's Manual, published last year by the American Heart Association. This book may have some value, but its arteries are clogged with metaphors, all of them drawn from the same place, auto mechanics. The chapter titles include Right Off The Showroom Floor (referring to congenital heart problems), The Right Fuel For Your Tank (nutrition), Customizing Your Chassis (fitness), A Look Under The Hood (structure of the heart), and Hitting On All Cylinders, which means good health. I've never had to consult this book for personal reasons, thank heaven, but it's easy to imagine that many readers are in an agitated state before they read the first page. Is it fair to heighten their anxieties by flagrant metaphor abused?

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Copyright © 1996 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.