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Only a Loose Stevens Connection

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not playing with a full deck—mine’s missing the eight of clubs and the queen of diamonds, though besides that intact, but for the crease-mark which is a dead giveaway—I mean in the Wild West you’d have been d-e-a-d—on the backside of the club of nines. Yes, you heard me right, the club of nines—that flagrant violation of the anatomy of logic was fully intended to throw you out of the metaphor, toss you out you precisely like a bouncer might toss your numb-dumb self after you tried to show the young lady at the bar that tattoo removal wasn’t nearly as involved as it’s made out to be so long as one has a sharp object on hand, like a what…a Gurkha? A toenail clipper? A cheddar? You tried to skin off a chick’s tattoo with a block of cheese that you’d been carrying around in the inner seam of your coat for? A year? What brought the bouncer round, the mold or your mouth?

I’m veering back and forth here, slaloming amidst metaphors and figures of speech which are then extended as though they are literal descriptions, all of this purposefully, I hope. What I want to get at is Robert Sapolsky’s really cool and thought-provoking argument in his New York Times Opinionator column of the other day, “This is Your Brain on Metaphors.”

Sapolsky is among other things a neuroscientist, and so part of a cause to which I’m sympathetic and to which I want to devote some space, the idea that findings about the brain can illuminate key aspects of literature without reducing everything to “just the brain.” You should read Sapolsky’s article for yourself—he does an admirable job of bringing together a bunch of different findings and drawing out conclusions from them. But while you’re still here, I’ll sum up some of the studies he pulls from:

-when people handle a hot or a cold beverage before reading a description of someone, they tend to rate the person as warmer or colder based on the temperature of the beverage.

-when people handle a clipboard of a certain weight before meeting someone, they tend to accord more or less gravitas to the person they are meeting, correlating with the heft they were given.

-people tend to want to wash more urgently after thinking about their past indiscretions.

-the insula, a part of the brain, seems to respond, or be active, to disgusting stimuli, whether physically repugnant or morally so.

One conclusion to draw would be that at your next job interview, the best thing to do might be to bring your interviewer a coffee and use superheavy bond (maybe with a kevlar watermark?) paper for your resume. Also, if your significant other and you are having some trust issues, perhaps circumnavigating a bog isn’t the best forum in which to have that conversation.

But lest this start to sound like an advice column, what I am really interested in here are the implications for metaphor-makers and –hunters and –voyeurs and -hoarders (and often enough, -abjurers), i.e. writers. Sapolsky essentially goes on to argue that as far as the brain is concerned, the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical and figurative is null and void. If this is true, well, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall looks like you breaking down your tent after a weekend of camping in your backyard—we’re talking about the dissolution of one of the most fundamental distinctions in intellectual history, and certainly in literature, even if a distinction that has been problematized again and again by folks like Wallace Stevens (mandatory Stevens-week reference), Paul Ricoeur, and practically every literary critic worth their salt.

Indeed, has ever a literal object been so symbolic?

There is a tradition in cognitive linguistics, spearheaded by people like Mark Turner and George Lakoff, of seeing metaphor as fundamental to thought, perhaps more so than literal language, undergirding the structure of our intuitions (“up” is good, “down” is bad). Sapolsky’s claims seem to me to go even further, in that they delve into things that seem more primordial than language: heat and cold and reflexive, gag-inducing disgust at things like moldy cheese.

But what are the implications, really, apart from my grandstanding about how radical they are? Well, we know that metaphors and literal elements are intertwined in the most effective writing, that Raymond Carver’s choice of a blind person and a cathedral in “Cathedral” aren’t arbitrary elements thrown into the mix but are selected because of their thematic yield and power. Carver offers a good example (albeit one whose sponge has been over-wrung) because he painstakingly reins in his metaphor—it’s a cathedral on a television documentary, for god’s sake, and there’s weed wafting through the room and the guy’s wife’s robe is open and the narrator has no way with words, and it’s as anti-transcendent as you can get under the circumstances, and that’s precisely why it works. And I guess what I’d say is that if we can start to see how the inextricable the metaphor and the literal are even in their tugging against one another, we can use them more richly, more boisterously and subtly—every literal moment tapped for metaphorical possibility, every metaphor thrown back into the lake of the literal, and of course I’m still binding myself to the dichotomy here by deploying it when the whole point is that maybe that dichotomy is obsolete, illusory, so pre-November 17th, 1989 (look how close we are to the anniversary!).

Or maybe it’s that much more important to uphold the distinction because such a counterintuitive rationalism is the sole thing that allows us to recognize when we’re being manipulated, that Jews aren’t in fact vermin and that Mexicans aren’t hooded villains slipping across the border by night and that the insinuation of as much is exactly what should evoke our instinct for disgust as viscerally as any block of 21-year-old cheese.

  • Tim Horvath is the author of Understories, which won the New Hampshire Literary Award, and Circulation (sunnyoutside press), and is working on a novel entitled The Spinal Descent.

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