Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) is a classic study of the way metaphor shapes our understanding of the world. Published in 1980, it dismisses the idea that metaphors are strictly a matter of language, the frosting on the cake of meaning, as argued by various competing philosophical and linguistic traditions. In what I usually read, the search for truth is conducted not by academics, but by a fictional detective, so some of this was heavy going. Where the authors dig into the language, their examples are fascinating.
Lakoff and Johnson are not generally talking about literary metaphors, but rather about the ones so thoroughly absorbed into the language that we no longer notice them as metaphors. One fundamental set of such metaphors reflects “orientation”: up-down, in-out, back-front, and so on. Although some metaphors in this set appear to be more or less universal across languages, others are more culturally determined. In Western culture, many common phrases reflect the metaphor “happy is up” and its opposite, “sad is down.” Examples are:
- That boosted my spirits.
- I’m depressed.
- It gave him a lift.
- My heart sank.
- Being up-beat.
Extending this pattern, health and life are up:
- It’s time to get up.
- He’s at the pinnacle of health.
- Lazarus rose from the dead.
- She sank into a coma.
More is up (this one, we even represent graphically):
- My income rose last year.
- The Dow reached a new high.
Having control is up:
- He’s at the height of his powers.
- She has control over the situation.
And so on. This metaphor is so pervasive, we don’t notice it. The other orientation pairs are embedded in the language in much the same way, and from the various concepts they signify, they form a coherent way of understanding our world.
Lakoff and Johnson also discuss how we depend on metaphor to help us structure inherently vague concepts, like emotions, in terms of more concrete things we may have directly experienced. Complex emotions, like love or anger, have inspired many overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) metaphors. For example:
- Love (vague) is a journey (concrete).
- Anger (vague) is hot (concrete).
The “love is a journey” metaphor underlies statements like: “We’re on the road to romance” (think Sinatra’s: “Nice ‘n’ Easy”); “It’s a rocky road to love.”; “We went in different directions.”; or “This relationship isn’t going anywhere.” The “anger is hot” metaphor leads to: “I was boiling mad”; “Cool it!”; and “in the heat of the moment.” (Icy cold anger is scary perhaps because it’s so counterintuitive.)
I’m trying to understand all this (which is the tip of the tip of the iceberg, you understand) in terms of writing. “We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor,” say Lakoff and Johnson. The orientation metaphors and their many variants perhaps explain why, a writer’s attempts to create a literary metaphor sometimes miss the mark. Perhaps they have violated this coherent, and implicit language system.
A linguistic exploration of the metaphors underlying emotion seems to me like an endorsement of the frequent dictum: “show, don’t tell.” Simply saying that a fictional character feels love or anger or happiness conveys little to the reader, because readers will have different ways—and many competing ways—of interpreting that emotion, depending on the metaphors through which they see the world. The metaphors underlying those feelings must be expressed—and in some fresh way that is consistent with the existing substrate (safer) or totally new, stretching both writer and reader.