19 Oct 2016

James Geary: The Secret Lives of Metaphor

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 19 October 2016
James Geary

James Geary Photo: Ted.com

They are two peas in a pod, this is a recipe for disaster! Every six minutes, we use a metaphor. We use them without knowing it, and they are a key to how we think says James Geary. He is the former Europe editor of Time and deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

James Geary reveals how metaphors have the power to change our thinking in the hands of politicians and advertisers. He shares his insights on metaphor and aphorism in his book,  I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

We all use metaphors, some more famously than others. People are probably familiar with a lot of Shakespeare’s metaphors, but you draw a line between Shakespeare and Elvis. Can you give me some examples of how Elvis uses metaphor?

If you look at Elvis’s song ‘All Shook Up’, it is a great example of how whenever we try to describe something abstract, in this case our feelings, but it is also true whenever we try to describe ideas or concepts or thoughts or emotions, we can’t ever describe them directly because we literally have no words for them. So when Elvis is singing about how he is in love, he describes himself as all shook up. I think that is the feeling that many people have when they feel in love and the line from the song, “I’m in love, I’m all shook up”, that is a metaphorical… literally it is nonsense because if you are in love, you’re not shaken up, you’re just the same as you ever were, but your feelings inside are in turmoil. I think Elvis is a great example of how whenever we are describing intense emotions like that we have to use metaphors because there is no other way to convey what we are experiencing.

I think Elvis is a good example of the way a metaphor insinuates itself into daily life without us really noticing. We all use metaphors all the time, there are a couple of estimates that one in every 10-25 words is a metaphor and I think that really underestimates how many metaphors we use and I think we use many more, just in our daily speech.

And they’ve lost all of their meaning mostly. Often in written language it is a very ineffective form of writing because metaphor is really closely linked to cliché.

I think you are right. Clichés are a really dead way of writing and clichés are in fact dead metaphors. When you say two friends are two peas in a pod, if you think about that phrase and think about the first time someone said it or the first time someone heard it, it was a brilliant metaphor. It is a very original and surprising way to describe friendship. But it was so successful that everybody began using it and when everybody uses something over a long period of time, it becomes a cliché and then we become dead to the meaning, or insensitive to the original meaning of the metaphor. I think that is why clichés tend to result in lifeless writing, is because we stop thinking.

What fresh metaphor does is reanimate our imagination when we’re reading so we get a fresh image, a metaphor that casts a new light on something that we think we already know. For me, Elvis is a good example of that because everytime I hear ‘All Shook Up’, it makes my experience of that emotion more vivid.

Does mastery of political rhetoric require mastery of good metaphor?

Good metaphor, or bad metaphor, it depends what you are trying to achieve. I think political campaigns in New Zealand are probably very similar in that respect to political campaigns in the U.S. You just have to look at the current presidential campaign for very powerful examples of metaphor being used for specific political goals. If you take the recent accusations about sexual assault against Donald Trump, he described it as “locker room talk”. Locker room talk is a metaphor that in his case is meant to make it seem less serious than it is and it’s just something that you do in a frivolous, off-hand, not very serious way. That is a metaphor specifically chosen – whether he chose it consciously or unconsciously – to deflect the seriousness of the accusations and you see that all of the time in political discourse on both sides of the political divide in America.

But even if you’re talking about something like dead civilians, phrases like “collateral damage” is a metaphor that depersonalises the fact that someone killed innocent people and that is a way to diffuse the impact of something like that. Whenever you hear a government statement about (as it happens tragically in Syria these days) “collateral damage”, that’s a metaphor that is specifically chosen to make the gravity and the magnitude of what has happened feel less tragic, so I think whenever you are listening to a politician speak it is important to pay attention to their metaphors. By the selection of their metaphors, you can tell a lot about what a person is trying to achieve or what kind of feeling they are trying to evoke.