May 24, 2006

Go Figure--Literally?

Last night at the family table I observed that I was grateful for having been able to "make an appearance" at a distant courthouse by telephone, thus avoiding Southern California's notorious freeway traffic.

The ever-vigilant Nancy asked if I had transmitted a video image.

When I allowed as how I hadn't, she said "Then you didn't appear." I pondered this animadversion and concurred that I had an audience, but hadn't made an appearance.

The conversation went on from there. It brought to mind my children, told, at age four or so to "Get in the car," informing me "It's not a car, it's a van."

At my chorus rehearsal, by some strange coincidence, this allergy to metaphor continued. When asked to move "down" the row, I replied, "I can't, but I'll move left."

What was in the water yesterday, I can't say, but these vignettes call to mind the linguist George Lakoff, lately faddishly popular in Dem circles for his idea of "reframing" issues to make them evoke more favorable associations (substitute, say, "economic refugee" for "illegal alien" to focus on need instead of transgression). If you "comprehend" (grasp) this, go to the "head" of the class. If you don't "get" what I'm saying, you are probably "dumb" or a "dimwit." Und so weiter ("and so further").

Whatever one thinks of George's politics (not much, in my case), Lakoff's work on metaphor in daily life makes a lot more sense. The concepts that permeate our speech are mostly metaphors, often about the body. From the "rise and fall" of empires to the "firm footing" upon which our economic (from Greek oikos) policy rests, to my "recalling" last night's conversation, our speech is rife with bodily metaphor.

As my father used to point out, "literally" means "figuratively": "She was so angry, she literally exploded." "Literally" means to the letter. "Figuratively" doesn't mean "to the number," but "in the manner of an image."

Although we use the metaphors in our vocabulary automatically, they are not completely "dead." Even used unthinkingly, they retain a certain strange force. In a certain way, we do think of a political campaign as a "race" and a lawsuit as a war in which can end in "victory" or "defeat." We do think of marriage as bondage ("tying the knot," "ball and chain") or a merger of identities ("one flesh"), our lifetimes as a day ("in the late afternoon of my life," "rage, rage against the dying of the light"), and our experiences as journeys ("Yea, though I walk through the valley of death," "wandering away from the subject").

This derivation of our speech and thought from bodily experience, and its expansion beyond the body to intellectual life in general, once we notice it, illustrates how deeply we are both carnal and spiritual creatures. We can't really speak or think without reference to our bodily experience, but we constantly go beyond the merely corporeal to a wider world of concepts loosed from their bodily moorings.

This ubiquity of metaphor is important in the interpretation of texts. Their literal meaning is often only the start of the analysis. Is the story of Job a true one, or the setting for a dialogue on good, evil and theodicy, climaxing in a poetic evocation of the power and incomprehensibility of God? When Jesus says he brings not peace but a sword, he does not physically hand a sword to his followers, nor can we be certain that he is advocating killing or warfare in the literal sense. Rather than physical bloodletting, more likely He is referring to some kind of radical separation between those who choose one path and another.

The ease of some kind of interpretation, and the difficulty of choosing one, is no doubt one reason for the multiplicity of Protestant sects. One alternative to free interpretation is reliance upon a tradition of interpretation, which then takes on an importance equal to that of the text itself. That is the view of Eastern Orthodoxy in the Christian world, and of rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis, indeed, tell the story that there was an oral revelation at Sinai that was not commited to writing, passed on by generations of its custodians, that explains how the written text is to be interpreted and applied.

Even supposed constitutional originalists like Justice Scalia pay close attention to over 200 years of constitutional interpretation. Although, for example, it is not at all obvious that one should derive constitutional doctrines, like the application of parts of the Bill of Rights to the states, from the literal text of the Fourteenth Amendment, it's equally unlikely that even nine originalists on the Supreme Court would return to the pure text and start the analysis over.

Meanwhile, when the Mother Superior sings "Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream," I won't be responding by asking her for a set of pitons and a topographic map.

NOTE: Sorry guys, no hyperlinks today. Maybe I'll add some later. Remember, you can Google anything!

UPDATE: The reference to Greek oikos as the origin of "economy" would be sheer pedantic preening, but for the omitted fact that "oikos" means "house." "Economics" is then something like "the laws of maintaining a [farm]house."

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