If Juliet is the Sun, What is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is more than just a literary device used by writers to add depth to written work, a metaphor is an intrinsic piece of language, culture, and thought which harkens back to the very first time man scribbled a symbol in the dirt to convey information. Words are nothing more than just symbols with which we try to convey as much information as possible. In grade school we learn that all words have denotations, specific and concrete definitions, and connotations, secondary or associate meanings, which tell us what they mean. However language is constantly evolving to our needs at any given time, so how do some words remain useful over time? It is not the word itself that is important, but the idea, or the metaphor, attached to it. A word can remain in popular vocabulary for long periods of time, but its metaphor changes so that it remains useful to us. Susan Sontag and Steven Pinker present two different stories of metaphors, how we use them, what they mean about us, and whether they are good or bad. So are metaphors just a way to convey information? Or are they intrinsic to our language? Does this make them good or bad or neither?
In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag takes a close look at the metaphors attached with illnesses, especially cancer. She starts out by saying that “illness is not a metaphor”(3) and continues to explain throughout her book that mixing metaphors and illness is more destructive than it is useful. The idea of usefulness is an important one, as Pinker will point is out as well. Sontag explains that by comparing everything that is awful to cancer, it makes the illness itself that much worse for the patient. A doctor may tell a patient that he has an abnormality that is making him ill, and, if he pursues treatment, he has a ninety percent chance of recovering. However, the second a doctor says the word cancer, the world turns black and all the patient can see is the horror of death. We have attached militaristic metaphors to the treatment of cancer: the body is “under attack”, cancer cells are “invasive” and “colonize”, “patients are 'bombarded' with toxic rays”( Sontag 64-65). “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust”(Sontag 74); politicians have the remedy for an ailing government, the corruption in the state was a tumor that slowly destroyed it, etc. Cancer's metaphors are never good, they are never hopeful, and even with large gains in medical treatment, the metaphors hold it back in a mystical, terrifying, primordial goo; the ultimate Black Spot, the ultimate mark of death. “With this illness, one that elicits so much guilt and shame, the effort to detach it from these meanings, these metaphors, seems particularly liberating, even consoling”(Sontag 182). In this case, I agree with Sontag's argument, metaphors are detrimental to the understanding of illness. Rather than helping us understand a complex idea or better relate information to us, these metaphors scare us, inhibit our understanding of what the illness really is and how we should treat it, and “it overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill”(Sontag 182). None of these things are useful to society.
Pinker takes another approach to metaphors, in particular, ones we use in everyday language, classic constructions you might call them. He goes so far to state that the use of metaphors is how we were able to develop abstract thinking and that it “would be visible in concrete metaphors, a kind of cognitive vestige”. And therefore “if all abstract thought is metaphorical, and all metaphors are assembled out of biologically basic concepts, then we would have an explanation for the evolution of human intelligence”(Pinker 242). This is a very big idea, too big for the purposes of this paper, but it a very interesting point that approaches metaphors from a perspective I had never thought of. Pinker not only explores the roots of evolutionary intelligence, he also introduces an idea called the Metaphor metaphor, introduced by a cognitive linguist named George Lakoff. The idea is that “since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience ( GOALS ARE DESTINATIONS, TIME IS A MOVING OBJECT, etc) rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. [ . . . ] The concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them”(Pinker 245-246). The world, and inherently the way we think and communicate, is not based on any truth.
Everything is relative, everything is just about which metaphor, or story, works best for the situation. However, this does not mean knowledge or truth are to be completely abandoned, “it may imply that metaphors can objectively and truthfully capture aspects of reality”(Pinker 247). Therefore metaphors can be used to convey what our reality is. For Romeo, JULIET WAS THE SUN, that was his reality. Unfortunately for many people, CANCER IS DEATH, that is their reality. LOVE IS A JOURNEY, BIG IS IMPORTANT, THE VISUAL FIELD IS A CONTAINER; all of these common metaphors help us understand the reality that we are physically experiencing. Metaphors also demonstrate the idea that it is the story that is important, not the truth. Because the stories can be swapped out for the truth that we want or that we need at any given time. It is in this way that metaphors are so useful to us. Metaphors, as Susan Sontag pointed out, may not be helpful in certain situations, like illness. However they do represent some form of reality, in some cases cancer is death, even when in many it is not. What we mist remember is that the metaphor can always be changed, and so meaning, reality, and life can be changed as well.
Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as Window into Human Nature. London. Penguin, 2008. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor ; And, AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Picador USA, 2001. Print.