Judith and I were talking on the way home from an event the other
evening, and she asked, in a rhetorical kind of way, if I thought everybody
had a thin veneer of persona that they present to the world, but that beneath
the veneer was a baby, a helpless and mixed-up little kid. I agreed, although
I didn’t follow up by asking her the most obvious next question, where her
question had come from, what train of thought had concluded with such a
picture. Instead, I followed the image in my own mind, exploring its shape and
Judith and I were talking on the way home from an event the other evening, and she asked, in a rhetorical kind of way, if I thought everybody had a thin veneer of persona that they present to the world, but that beneath the veneer was a baby, a helpless and mixed-up little kid. I agreed, although I didn’t follow up by asking her the most obvious next question, where her question had come from, what train of thought had concluded with such a picture. Instead, I followed the image in my own mind, exploring its shape and consistency.
The gift of metaphor allows us to study many aspects of our world. Beyond providing us with a way to communicate by pointing out similarities between concepts, metaphors give us templates to explore things in our experience when we don’t have ready-made maps. From her question, I pictured a kind of gourd with a hard shell and a soft, gelatinous interior. Pierce the shell with some event or weapon, and the “real” person is revealed, shapeless and messy. It seems true that we humans spend a lot of our energy firming up and decorating our outsides so that nobody will know how weak and ugly we “really are.” Not a new metaphor, certainly.
A metaphor becomes an analog when it is carried further in our thinking. For example, the word distance is sometimes used to suggest how we feel about another person in our acquaintance: they seem distant from us, difficult to know, unapproachable. “She seems distant.” I cannot feel close to her somehow. I don’t know what she is thinking (about me, typically). To turn the metaphor into an analogue, I might speak of her seeming “miles away” or psychologically moving away from me in her affections, and generate an image of physical space between us, she becoming smaller with distance or—perhaps more to the point of my feelings—I becoming smaller in the picture from her point of view. “Smaller” is another metaphor for “less important.” The analogy becomes a template, a separate thing that I look at and describe. It may or may not fit accurately what it is I’m trying to understand, and to the extent that it does not, I risk misunderstanding the real issues involved.
So here I am, driving home at night, thinking about gourds and amorphous insides (a revealing image in itself), trying out the analogy between physical objects and personalities, while my wife is thinking about something much more personal, perhaps an interaction between herself and a friend, trying to understand what happened. (Note to myself: ask her what she was really thinking about.)
My gourd—and I probably voiced some of this thinking as it occurred—might have a thicker or thinner shell; it might be more or less attractive to others; it might resemble more or less the interior. Inside, the substance might be more or less structured. Ideally, I thought, it would progress from its quivering core through a continuously firming articulation to a consistency just beneath the surface not unlike what is presented to the world, and not completely distinguishable from the outside. The shell would be thin and permeable, easily pierced so that the inside is accessible and knowable by others. Perhaps, to inject another metaphor, like a well-made custard with just the slightest membrane of a surface to keep its shape. (Moving the image into an analogue, I wondered about the taste of the custard, whether a tough skin affects it or merely makes it more difficult to know, and thought about how well the template might match what we find inside a person whose persona we manage to pierce.)
No, the custard does not work very far in my analogue.
I’m still working with my ideal person, whose degree of integrity,
accessibility and attractiveness all fit into some kind of picture that I can
trace with words.
December 24, 2003