Drowning in the wrong metaphor

St Ives in January 2016

I do lot of reading – you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader – and occasionally I come across a truly daft example of letting a metaphor run away to the point where you can only ask WTF? On one occasion during the formal prayers in church, one of my colleagues who always prepared immaculately, was working up a long metaphorical improvisation on the spiritual power that can inspire creativity and, thinking to finish with a flourish, entreated us to “all fertilize one another”. A request that the congregation, mostly over sixty, chose not to follow up. After a bit of merciless teasing he conceded that he could have chosen his words more carefully!

I don’t retell this story because I disliked him, in fact he was my most trusted friend and something of a surrogate father to me. I tell it because, as I think (I think from memory) Paul Ricoeur once said, “we live in a story shaped universe”; and the stories we tell, the metaphors we use and the pictures we paint actually shape the world we live in and so we have a huge duty of care when we employ them.

Here’s an example from Thomas Berry’s “Dream of the earth”, which I’m re-reading at the moment. I greatly enjoy his writing and in the current climate it’s a book that – if you’re at all interested in any kind of green spirituality – you should read. However here’s an absolute zinger of a metaphor that’s overextended so far it must have ruptured its achilles tendon: “…… without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.” (Chapter 5 – The ecological age.)

Try as I will, I can’t get my head around the idea that human attraction is related in some material way to our mass. Would I become even more fatally attractive if I gained fifty pounds? It’s just the overextended metaphor escaping and taking on a life of its own. Would we be far less attractive in the low gravity environment of the moon? Ah well, a better editor would have put a blue pencil through that one.

Politicians, of course, love a good metaphor because they understand that in this story shaped universe a well turned phrase can influence behaviour far more powerfully than a 20,000 word policy statement. “Fighting them on the beaches” and “finest hour” convey more emotional content for a useful group of older voters in a couple of words than almost any other phrase in British politics. The fact that they were both coined in times of defeat and failure makes no difference whatever.

So why all this pondering? Well it comes from a long and enjoyable reading of Charles Massy’s book “Call of the reed warbler” in which he frequently blames the “mechanical mind” for much of the critical damage we’ve done to the environment over the past two and a half centuries. I understand, just for the sake of clarity, that we humans started impacting nature as many as ten thousand years ago but we lacked the technological power to put the earth beyond repair. I know exactly what he means by the phrase; especially when it’s opposed to the “ancient organic mind” of our so-called primitive ancestors. He blames the enlightenment for the changing mindset that regards the earth as no more or less than an endless resource that is entirely at our disposal.

What I’m interested in is why? How, culturally, did we change from being stewards to environmental tyrants and how, given the urgency of the crisis, can we build a new culture? Somewhere within the answer there has to be a serious look at which forces most influence our core beliefs and behavior. There’s no point in criticising farmers without examining the agrochemical industry , the industrial food market, media and the marketing and advertising industry. Then we must examine our own role in sustaining these dangerous industries by buying and using their products. This week alone I’ve received three so-called objective reports praising the safety of glyphosate from different organisations which nowhere mention Monsanto or Bayer or indeed Syngenta but cite only evidence that was commissioned and paid for by the industry.

If we live in a story shaped universe then as westerners we need to understand the biblical story about humans being given dominion over all the earth and consider whether we should reject it. We need to understand how and why we talk about endless growth as a settled and universal constant; how and why we tell ourselves that all problems are soluble by technology; how and why our democracy fails to to represent the poor and marginalized – especially those in developing countries but here as well. We need to understand what form of cognitive dissonance allows us to follow a path that day by day which so clearly leads us deeper into trouble.

So thinking about the power of words, pictures and representations is a key task for those of us who want to pursue a different path and perhaps this will turn out to be a golden age for new and powerful stories that undermine the way we do things round here – always my favourite definition of culture.

We need stories that explain how caring for our loved ones can be a fulfilling joy, not a candidate for outsourcing to an underpaid and overworked carer. We need stories that show how non mechanised organic gardening and farming are not drudgery and that there’s more to cooking, eating together and building up our communities than grabbing a solitary coffee and a sandwich. We’ve got nowhere after years of explaining so why not steal the devil’s best tunes and do for the age of technology what Charles Dickens did for the cotton mills and bottle factories. We need to mock the false claims and laugh in the faces of the high priesthood of PR teams and their focus groups. We need to celebrate – in the words of a tremendous poster/poem by Thalassa Ting – all kinds of love. We need to stop looking for redemption through introspection and self hatred and find it on our everyday pilgrimages among strangers. We need to practice the kind of incontinent generosity that shames the ambitious and greedy into dipping a toe into these entirely new waters and we need to work up new opportunities for gathering and expressing thanks for all that we have, rather than shouting and throwing things at those who don’t yet get it. We need to become the hardest of targets; wily coyotes, sly foxes and punch and judy professors who appear and disappear leaving stories that can’t be suppressed but spread like benign wildfires leaving flowers in their wake.

Meanwhile I shall be reading Paul Ricoeur ( The rule of metaphore”) and Jacques Ellul (“The technological society”)who will hopefully break through the crust of the “mechanical Mind” metaphor at the cost of a good deal of head scratching I fear. Being French, and both what we call continental philosophers I had them smuggled through customs in a consignment of newly printed passports – but there it is. At least I’ll be looking at the Irish Sea again.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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