Paul Johnson

The angry Megalosaurus coming fast up Holborn Hill

The angry Megalosaurus coming fast up Holborn Hill

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When the new year is young I always have the impulse to do something sensationally novel in writing. But what? Is there anything which has not been done before? I answer: yes — coin a new metaphor. We take metaphors for granted and use them without thinking, mix them too, and abuse them constantly — whenever we say ‘literally’ we almost always mean metaphorically (e.g., ‘Chirac and the Chinese President literally fell upon each other’s necks’, the New York Times). In fact it was a genius who invented the metaphor, long before Homer (about 2000 bc in Egypt, which raised problems for those who carved the hieroglyphs, its syntax making no provision for metaphors; the priest-carvers took refuge in abbreviations, cf. Sir Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, p. 411, para. 506). For metaphors allow us to escape from the restrictions of space, time and reality and range freely across the whole of creation — and fantasy — bringing incompatibles together and turning incongruities into vivid expressions of our meaning. Coleridge wrote, ‘A man ...without reflection is but a metaphorical phrase for the instinct of a beast’ (Aids to Reflection, 1825). He might have added, ‘A man without metaphors, still more a woman (women use metaphors twice as often as men), is a person imprisoned in brutal facts.’ Metaphor illuminates and eases thought, shining an inward lamp into the mind and greasing its cogwheels, a point made neatly by Dean Swift in his verses ‘To a Lady in Heroic Style’:

Metaphoric meat and drink

Is to understand and think.

I have a feeling that metaphor is essentially demotic and comes, like language itself, from the bottom up in a way the educated elites cannot ultimately prevent. That is one reason the hieroglyphs could not cope with it, though the cursive demotic of Ancient Egypt of, say, 1000 bc found no such difficulty. Slang, the lyric form of demotic speech, is a series of metaphors. As G.K. Chesterton, in his Defence of Slang, put it, ‘All slang is metaphor and all metaphor is poetry.’ But it should not be thought that metaphor is principally the domain of poets. It is as essential, if not more so, to the scientist. Michael Faraday used metaphor all the time, not just in his marvellous Christmas lectures to children at the Royal Society, but in his notebooks and inner debates with himself, for metaphors not only convey meaning more clearly than abstract expressions; they actually permit inchoate thoughts to articulate themselves. Newton and Einstein would have been lost without metaphor. The educational psychologist William James spent much of his life demonstrating the centrality of metaphor in the way the mind works, and in making it work better. In The Principles of Psychology he invented his famous metaphor of ‘the stream of consciousness’, soon to be plagiarised by Proust and James Joyce. ‘The brain is essentially a place of currents which run in organised paths,’ he wrote, a good example of a mixed metaphor which does not grate. James chose his words with exquisite care and wrote gracefully — he was not Henry’s brother for nothing — and in his Principles (i, 243), there is a beautiful passage describing the different paces at which the mind works:

[Our mental life], like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flight and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period. The resting places are usually occupied by sensorial imagination ... held before the mind for an indefinable time; ...the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, ...between the matters contemplated and the periods of comparative rest.

The point is expressed in a valuable essay by Jeffrey Osowski, ‘Ensembles of Metaphor in the Psychology of William James’, in D.W. Wallace (ed.), Creative People at Work; he points out that whereas the mean number of metaphors in articles by most run-of-the-mill psychologists is only three, a typical James essay, ‘The Experience of Metaphor’, used 29. Freud, too, was a powerful metaphor man. The truth is, as Thomas Kuhn, the greatest living authority on how scientists work, has argued that with a metaphor a scientist can manipulate the joints or relationships between concepts, thus creating new organisations of knowledge.

Metaphors vivify, too — the reason why they are so important in literature. Take a simple example, which also illustrates the demotic nature of metaphor: Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. She communicates chiefly in metaphors, just as Ronald Reagan governed America, very well, chiefly by metaphorical one-liners (an example being ‘I’m not worried about the Deficit: it’s big enough to take care of itself’). Mrs Gamp sees the entire universe as a vale of tears or what she calls ‘a wale’; a life is ‘this Piljian’s Projiss of a mortal wale’. She lives in a rich world of figurative concepts which gives her speech a rhetoric of its own: ‘Rich folk may ride on camels but it ain’t so easy for ’em to see out of a needle’s eye. That’s my comfort and I ’opes I knows it.’ ‘I wish it was in Jonadge’s belly, I do.’ ‘“Sairey,” says Mrs Harris, “You are gold as has passed the furnage.”’ ‘The torters of the Imposition shouldn’t make me own I did.’ ‘The words [Betsey Prig] spoke ...lambs could not forgive ... nor worms forget.’ ‘A pleasant evening though warm, which...we must expect when cowcumbers is three for twopence.’

A great imaginative writer lives in metaphors. Almost (though not quite) literally, Victor Hugo was so surrounded, impregnated and oxygenised by metaphor that it’s no wonder his grasp on reality (except money, where he was as tenuous as a miser) was so slight. Dickens was a walking metaphor, acting roles and objects, like snowflakes, soot and gunpowder, while he wrote, ‘muttering to himself, pulling his beard and making dreadful faces’. His daughter Mamie, convalescing from an illness, was allowed to remain in his study, ‘quiet as a tiny mouse’, while he wrote. Unconscious of her, ‘my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflexions of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was renewed, and then turning towards, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice.’ He called his writing ‘streaky, well-cured bacon’, the streaks being the mixture of comic and tragic scenes he loved to alternate. He admonished himself in his diary not to paint scenes but just to describe them in simple English. But his metaphors took control, once that face-pulling began, and in a week or so, describing the fog at the beginning of Bleak House (itself a central metaphor in the book) and the mud in the streets, he wrote, ‘It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, 40 feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard, up Holborn Hill.’ When I worked in Holborn, for 15 long years, trumpeting the doctrines of Utopia from Great Turnstile, I often hoped to see that Megalosaurus lumbering up and terrifying the barristers of Lincoln’s Inn and the clerks of the Prudential. Long live metaphors, say I!