Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how metaphors have the power to "fuse fact and fancy."
The word metaphor comes from the Greek metapherein, "carry over"; transfer is a synonym with Latin roots. All writing may be called metaphor, because writing transfers life into word. Once we agree that life may be fairly described with words — house, horse, walking, talking — we can use words as metaphors of reality to convey our experience to others.
If we call every word a metaphor, however, we reduce metaphor to a label. And if all we could do was to put these metaphors in fact-by-fact sequence, our writing would be stymied by its labeling limit, and its descriptions of the world would remain as flat as the paper it's printed on.
Instead, writing leaps the labeling limit by applying the power of metaphor to itself. If metaphor can make words equivalent to facts, metaphor can make words, which are facts, equivalent to each other. For example, the immortal metaphor Shakespeare gives to Romeo:
Juliet is the sun.
This sentence is inaccurate labeling. If honest John rewrote it, he'd write, "Betty is a woman." Tricky Shakespeare, in contrast, uses the freedom to switch labels that comes with labeling and challenges us to contemplate a fascinating riddle:
WOMAN = SUN
We read the sentence, hear the resonances of both words, and try to equate them. If we agree with Romeo — yes, a woman can be the sun to her lover — Shakespeare has successfully carried the resonance of one word over into the resonance of another. That is metaphor more precisely defined: the power to transfer resonance word-to-word by equating different words in a sentence.
Metaphors pop up everywhere in writing. Similes are metaphors qualified by "like" or "as." Raymond Chandler often writes a simile per sentence:
The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. —The Big Sleep
Proverbs are metaphors that convey good ideas in graphic images: "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." Parables are extended similes that let us glimpse great truths in homespun words:
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches. —St. Matthew 13; 31-2
Fairy tales and fables use metaphor's magic to change frogs into princes and pumpkins into golden carriages. Allegory, metaphor's most complex form, combines fable's fanciful transfers with parable's moral power. John Bunyan interweaves countless metaphors in his great allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, creating a dreamlike landscape of Delectable Mountains and Doubting Castles, populated by virtues and vices in human shapes. His magnificent fiend, Apollyon, is a patchwork quilt of similes:
Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales like a fish (and they were his pride); he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.
In all its forms metaphor works the same way: equating two words equates two points of view on life. Multiple metaphors like Bunyan's present a dizzying number of viewpoints, but unadorned classics like "Juliet is the sun" show the two-way effect plainly. Since any two words may be equated, metaphor allows a writer to make freeform connections between disparate experiences. "Talking to John," Betty could be "sitting on top of the world" or "down in the dumps," "as excited as a kid on Christmas morning" or "as lonely as a woman lost in a crowd." In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte uses metaphor to put human forms on the heavens —
She broke forth as never moon had yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon but a white human form shone forth in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward.
— and to put animal forms on humans:
I compared him with Mr. Rochester... the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon: between a meek sheep and the rough-coated keen-eyed dog, its guardian.
Metaphor's many viewpoints boil down to two: fact and fancy. One side of the equation labels experience correctly; the other side switches the label to describe the same experience as sensed by the imagination. In one pan of metaphor's scale Juliet is the woman herself; in the other, she is the sun Romeo sees in his mind's eye. Which is she more truly, woman or sun? Metaphor balances the two and declares she is truly both.
This ability to fuse fact and fancy makes metaphor a principal technique we can use to recreate three-dimensional life on two dimensional paper. Metaphor acts as writing's parallax, the two-sided vision of our eyes which, when resolved by the brain, creates our picture of the spacious world. As a navigator can triangulate the position of a ship far at sea by viewing it from two separate points along the shore, a writer can use the twin perspectives of metaphor to triangulate life. The factual view complements the fanciful with the firmness of logic, the fanciful complements the factual with the flexibility of imagination. Together, the two give us the ability to render life word-by-word on a flat surface and at the same time convey its incalculable depths. Or, as Bunyan writes in yet another metaphor:
My dark and cloudy words they do but hold
The truth, as cabinets inclose the gold.