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The Materiality of Metaphor: On Words and Things

In this extract from his recent book, A History of Religion in 5½ Objects, S. Brent Plate discusses the grounding of language and meaning, especially metaphor, in bodily experience.

Adapted from:
Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

 

Studies in material religion often chart a distinction between word-based religious analysis (a doctrinal- and sacred text-heavy Protestant hangover) and the spaces, activities, and objects of human bodies ritualizing and symbolizing in the physical world. The old model is (rightly) problematized for overemphasis on ancient dead languages and the comprehension of abstract philosophical ideas, when a majority of religious practitioners don’t spend much time reading books or thinking about doctrine. But sometimes, material methods throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by suggesting verbal-based approaches, and possibly words in general, are themselves suspect.
One way to rethink this relation is to investigate the material basis of language. It’s not that things can be pitted against words — or sometimes what happens is that, by extension, the material is set in opposition to the immaterial — but that we are never apart from the material. In other work (see here and here) I’ve looked at the ways sacred language and texts are part of a visual/material construction: sacred texts are carried, heard, kissed, and touched as much as they are read for interpretation. Meanwhile, interpretation itself may be dependent on things like typeface, layout, paper quality, and bindings.
The other way to rethink the word-thing relation is to look at the material roots of metaphorical language, and metaphor stands at the heart of all useful, meaningful descriptive language. The Greek linguistic roots of the term metaphor denote a “carrying across.” Just as physical bridges are built over rivers, there are verbal viaducts that carry us across the physical experiences of our lives. We use language to bring us to some farther shore, to help make sense of events and experiences. The metaphor of “metaphor” is that it is based on physical, spatial activity.
Among others, the contemporary philosopher Mark Johnson argues that metaphors are most often manifestations of basic bodily, sensual encounters with the physical world. He has discussed the idea of “primary metaphors” that grow from our bodily perceptions and interaction with our environment as we grow up and try to make sense of things. Our bodily experience and engagement with physical reality is so permanent, so all-pervasive, that our language can only come back to these most elemental interactions. Thus, ideas are grasped or they go right over our heads; good friends are close, but sometimes even our partner feels far away and we drift apart; some days we wake up feeling up and other days we are down, even though our height hasn’t changed. The physical basis of our existence aids communication, letting others know how we feel through the use of metaphor. This allows connection between people and collectively enables us to reach for higher, more abstract ways of thinking.[i] To come back to the bridging metaphor: the river is made up of the primary physical experiences of our sensual body, and the bridge is the language that we use to build upon these experiences and make them intelligible to others, and to ourselves. Without the bridge we are just swimming in the current. With only the bridge, we are forgetful, disconnected creatures.
Metaphors are not just flowery words or decorative flourishes for our speech and writing. Instead, as James Geary’s recent book on metaphor suggests: “Metaphorical thinking–our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another–shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover and invent.”[ii] Metaphor is our bridge of understanding, carrying our communications to a farther shore we could not otherwise reach. Metaphor is imaginative, allowing us to travel, feel, and comprehend the places, experiences, and knowledge that we do not have immediate access to. This is true technologically and theologically, but also ethically. Novelist Cynthia Ozick explains how metaphors are “one of the chief agents of our moral nature, and that the more serious we are in life, the less we can do without it. . . . Those who have no pain can imagine those who suffer. The strong can imagine the weak. . . . We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers.”[iii] We rely on the known to understand what is unknown. One thing suggests another: the familiar, already experienced, carries us to the strange, as-yet-unexperienced, other shore.
To think up and put up bridges across rivers, to engineer our protection from nature’s rages and diseases, abstract thinking is necessary. Our most lofty, abstract language about angels and afterlives, gods and demons, heavens and hells, use metaphorical crossings to carry us to the unknown. It is, for example, humanly impossible to comprehend a Creator God who can establish the entire universe, so devout monotheists have referred to this god metaphorically, calling Him Father, King, Judge, Protector, Provider. The gendered “Him” is also a metaphor. But even the down-to-earth dimensions of religious discourse are based on our physical-sensual environment: Evangelical Christians gather to discuss their “walk with God”; the most basic prayer in Judaism begins with the sensual injunction, “Hear O Israel…”; Quakers seek an “inner light”; the name Quran means “recitation” and invokes the first words the angel Jibrail spoke to Muhammed on Mt Hira: Iqra!, meaning, “Recite!”; and Buddhist sutras and sayings constantly evoke the imagery of the mind as a clear mirror.
To experience metaphor in its full sense is both to bask in the comfort of walking dryly across the bridge, while simultaneously appreciating the potentially hazardous crossing that is taking place. Too often we forget the forging it once took to make that crossing. Scholarly histories of religion, as well as many self-help spirituality books, are filled with such forgetful language, turning the realities of religious life into disembodied, detached verbal constructions. Meanwhile, the best of poetry and prose can simultaneously bring us to the dizzying heights of metaphor, just as they remind us of the engineered scaffolding that has brought us there. Without the comprehension of why the bridge is there in the first place, the power of it is lost. Thus also, to understand religions from places around the world and times through history, we have to approach them metaphorically, which is to say between words and things, sensually and verbally.

Notes and References

  • [i] See Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
  • [ii] James Geary, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (New York: Harper, 2011), 3.
  • [iii] Cynthia Ozick, “Metaphor and Memory,” from the book of the same name (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989), 270, 283.

 

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