The power of a metaphor.
There is tradition, in western thinking at least, of trying to put ideas into categories. Just as donkeys are different from horses, knowing the difference is useful if you’re trying to work out how to pull a cart; similarly, working out false logic is useful in the search for truth. And truth helps us to decide what reality consists of – if I can be allowed an –ity in this case. In many ways this can be helpful, but is less so when we are dealing with more complex ideas. We also fall into errors of category; none more so when we are dealing with metaphors and legends, stories and narratives.
As a stage management tutor, I have been working with material metaphors all my working life. A teapot is a teapot, something to make a brew in. Put it on stage it takes on a life of its own, and whether it is brown earthenware, or ornate silver, or something for a dormouse to sleep in becomes more significant, because of what it says to the spectator. Shining blue light on someone can be taken as moonlight; or as proximity to a neon sign, or a warm summer day depending on context. Everything put on stage will be read as a message – and actor who can’t find their shoe will still go onstage on cue, and we will all try to work out the significance of the missing footwear – it becomes for many a metaphor of unpreparedness, which might be true for the actor, but was not intended for the character. At its best, theatrical metaphor can become a thing of real, sometimes unbearable beauty.
The point here is that the metaphor and the reality are there together – their categories are not an either/or, but a more/less relationship, much fuzzier than we might think. Theatre people talk of a suspension of disbelief, but it is more complex than that. As audience members we are asked to hold two incompatible truths in our minds together, and mostly we do. You are sat in a warm room watching skilled people pretending to be other people. Jack is climbing a beanstalk, while the actor climbs a rope ladder. And for the stage manager, I’m also aware of a series of other truths and realities which are also concurrent, while trying to empathise with what you are feeling and with what the actors are trying to do; knowing that a lighting change is about to happen; and that the bar staff need to know when to pour the interval drinks.
All of these are realities, but different ones. In everyday life the power of the metaphor, and of the sign, surrounds us, and pervades family life, social life, personal and professional relationships; and as importantly, our interior life. One of the benefits of the wisdom that age brings is the recognition that there is a difference, but it is not one of pure category. Father Christmas is pure metaphor; but a reality too, at least for the six-year-old. To love someone , and to tell them, involves layers of reality and metaphor; of association and reference; but also ambiguity and equivocation that has kept poets busy for centuries.
Where does this lead? I had an exchange with a Christian colleague recently where I said I could accept Christ and as a metaphor: her response was that for her Christ was experience. I’m aware that there is a difference. What I’m exploring here, I think, is that experience itself can be metaphor – a metaphor that gives life itself meaning, and can motivate people to undertake extraordinary journeys, to work in dangerous places and with the outcast. It becomes the only way to express its own truth. The mistake we often make, is not to recognise the metaphor.