Understood as Metaphor

Is metaphor fundamental to understanding?

NOTE: Within this text, wherever gender is not key to the explanation, I am using the Elverson ey/em construction of the Spivak Pronouns.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Dick Marx and Ken Nordine collaborated to perform a composition called Faces in the Jazzamatazz (see full text below). It is a dynamic poem recited by Nordine over the musical stylings of Marx’ jazz combo. The metaphorical richness of the poem contributes to its effectiveness. Nordine’s powerful language dredges up our shared mutual experience in order to fully convey the internal state of each observer in a jazz club.

Many professional philosophers tell us that metaphor is merely a rhetorical device. They tell us that metaphor is used to move the emotions but not to convey information. Philosophers, for the most part, claim that the way to understand reality is through mathematics and transcendent reason (consider Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or Heidegger’s word-rich Zein und Zeit). The facts of the world correspond to what we actually see in the world. I am now reading Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. At the half-way point of my reading, I am fascinated by their claim that metaphor is not merely rhetorical but instead fundamental to the way the human mind understands the world. They claim that metaphor is literally built-in to the very meat of the brain.

Faces in the Jazzamatazz begins with “What do they mean: the faces in the night looking into the antique mirror of jazz?” That is not a cypher of a sentence. Anyone reading it will understand it clearly, even though a face does not actually have a meaning and even though there is no antique mirror currently in the possession of a thing we call jazz.

Let’s try an experiment. Let’s try translating that first line without the metaphor. Will this be interesting? I have no idea but I’m intent on trying it.

Those who enjoy performances of jazz music may collectively identify as a cohort indicating a set of values which may be contiguous with some overarching meaning. Said meaning may be best understood by thinking of jazz in an historical context; by considering not only how jazz has evolved to entertain the observer but also how the observer is affected by and in turn affects the performance of the music.

Does that mean the same thing as Nordine’s prose? I really think that it conveys all of the specifics, but much is missing. The key missing information is that which is dredged up from each listener’s memory and direct experience of eir world. With “What do they mean?” The brain that processes that question is immediately alerted that there is something to be discovered, that there is a meaning to be understood. Since meaning is basic to everyone’s understanding of their personal value, it raises flags.

Then, “the faces in the night.” Every human has special circuitry in the brain dedicated to recognizing the human face. The term “face” tells us that this is important. Arms and ankles are there at the jazz club as well but, for reasons that only the human may understand — faces make this important. That information is not conveyed well by the non-metaphorical paragraph but it is important information. It emphasizes that the meaning is tied fundamentally to the humans involved and that they are uniquely important to the question.

The “antique mirror of jazz” carries multiple tracks of data. The mirror indicates that the effect of the jazz goes two ways. The performance reflects the listener and the performance is affected by the listener. Even so, it is ambiguous enough that the listener may understand it in a number of ways simultaneously. The performers and the audience share an experience and each affects the other. The music reflects the culture of the age and amplifies it for the audience which exemplifies that culture. Jazz is a musical style with a history. That history is rich and has developed from a diversity of cultures. I don’t know about my reader; but, I see that “antique mirror” as a truly antique mirror, one made of polished onyx and only reflecting in black and white. In order to see the reflection, one must stare intently. This brings special meaning to my understanding of the statement.

Nordine speaks of “watching with our sea shell ears” and how the music will “shine with such intensity upon the double-zero of our blinking eyes.” “Our sea shell ears” are the ears of those who have experimented with sea shells and hands cupping ears in order to hear faint sounds just beyond our natural awareness. It reminds us of the times we strove to hear what was to be hidden. It reminds us of the joy of discovering what others have missed. “The double zero of our eyes” brings to mind the animated cartoon where the eyes have been emphasized as the primary feature of the character’s face. They are the eyes of one transfixed.

These metaphors work because they recall and incorporate shared cultural experience. It is the physical experience of concepts that map constructively to the experience being described and which bring to that experience important additional information. It could be that the proper way to understand poetry is not as flowery language that is presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner. It could be that the true value of poetry is the astounding density of real information conveyed with only a few well-considered words due to metaphor.

The Metaphors of the World

We are all casually familiar with hormones, the biological chemicals that turn on and off our various life-preserving activities. It was not until I understood the word’s etymology that the full impact of the hormone became clear to me. Konrad Lorenz, in his book On Aggression, explains that the word “hormone” derives from the Greek term “hormâo” which he interprets as “I drive”. The metaphor of the hormone as a determined shepherd driving the animal herd of the body from pasture to paddock clarifies the full meaning in a way that the sterile description activating chemical could not.

Thus the word hormone is itself a metaphorical statement about how these chemicals drive the human body. This subtle insinuation of metaphor into everyday speech is so common that we no longer notice it. Its ubiquitous presence should imply its importance to our thought processes. I may recall the year 2020 with the statement, “The U.S. is a quagmire of delusion and disappointment.” In so doing I evoke each reader’s understanding not of a simple sovereign state but of a wet, gloopy, sticky expanse of impenetrable terrain. It emphasizes, in the mind of the reader, the intended message that the state has been frozen against progress and that progress will require unbelievable exertion. I could restate that non-metaphorically with a half-dozen sentences that would still fail to fully convey the intended data.

With reference to those who stormed the U.S. capital on Jan 6, 2021, I may write, “The visible objects in their world correspond one-to-one with the visible objects of the real world; but the meanings, relationships and interactions of those objects have become the tools of sedition.” Sedition has no hands and cannot wield tools. There is no other world; but, each metaphor is translated faithfully into a clear and rich understanding of the data to be conveyed.

Other metaphors such as those we use to understand our experience of time and space make exchanging abstract information efficient and achievable. One may say, “there is a bee in my garden.” This makes sense even for a garden on an outside lawn of a private home. What makes that interesting is that there is no actual “in” in the outside garden. In order to define a bee as “in” a garden the speaker must have established, in eir mind, a metaphorical container around the garden. The container establishes, in the mind, an upper limit for the height of the space that is the garden. If the bee is a foot above the tallest plant, our container probably classifies the bee as “in” the garden but if the bee is ten feet above the tallest plant, it is probably not in the garden. It is flying over the garden.

When discussing events, most people use the same metaphors: time is a journey we travel or time is a traveling scene moving around us. The past is behind us and the future is in front of us. Most cultures see this the same way. A notable exception is the Chilean Aymara culture which understands the future to be behind the body with the past in front of the body. That is very interesting since the past can be seen and the future cannot — a very clever understanding of time. Still, for most cultures the future is in front and the past is behind. We create metaphors to allow us to explain complex concepts to each other by using existing profound similarities that map from a well grounded frame, well understood by the body (movement) to a highly abstract frame (time).

Time is not an entity that moves past us. It is an acknowledgement of our shared perception of change in the surrounding environment. Aided by our internal 40 beats-per-second clock (a signal that informs the brain of specific intervals which contribute to our understanding, or possibly illusion, of the passage of time) we place specific events into specific time intervals; but that isn’t really how time works. The notion of time as a thing that moves past us (e.g., The wedding is approaching.) or as a thing through which we move (e.g., I am nearing my deadline.) is simply a real and valuable mapping from the incomprehensible concept of time to the familiar concept of movement. The real similarities between time and movement carry real value in our ability to comprehend time.

Metaphors of Delusion

What about metaphors like government is family which is fundamental to most right wing movements. Right Wing means a rejection of rule by the people in favor of rule by a father figure (See Reading Right to Left for a full explanation). This metaphor brings with it faulty data and corrupts our public discourse.

Let us take monetary theory as one example. The family has to save money so that it can pay for essentials, therefore the government must do the same thing. This, of course, is ridiculous. The family has no ability to print money. The private sector is not helpless without the currency that an individual family has injected into the economy. The family is not the fundamental source of all monies accessed by all with whom the family interacts. Here, metaphor has failed us. It is not the source of data, it is the source of delusion. Metaphor, a basic tool that humans have used for millennia in order to better comprehend a complex world, may fail us in the modern age.

The metaphor of government is family brings with it subordinate metaphors such as President is father which implies that the leader of the country is the head of the family put in place by fate or a god (another father figure). Of course, according to the U.S. Constitution, the President is elected by the people and is in the People’s employ. Father is not to be questioned. The President may be influenced by Congress, mass protests or even by a well worded letter. As an employee, the President should respond constructively to the needs of the majority of eir constituents (employers) — a difficult task, but some Presidents have pulled this off admirably.

In the U.S. we live by a number of falsehoods driven by metaphor. Consider the metaphor we draw from the idea that an incorporated business with a valid board of directors operates as if it were a single human. We may call this metaphor business is person. The word “person” is important since it is a legal term of art. It doesn’t actually mean a human being. The term is derived from the Latin persōna. The word persōna is illuminating. It literally means the thing emitting the sound. It refers to a mask in a Roman play which included a primitive megaphone so that everyone could hear the actor speak. So the list of actors in a play is known as the Dramatis Personae — it is the list of masks. So in the context of law, the corporation is a mask pretending to be an individual human but, of course, it is really just a façade. Under specific circumstances, the corporation will be treated like an individual as if its board of directors were acting in unison as a single entity.

This is a fairly innocent concept, but ever since Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway in 1886, we have equated a corporation not so much with a mask but with a true human. A corporation is a human with all of the rights and privileges of a human being. The courts afford all of these benefits but rarely hold the human being that is the corporation to account for slights or crimes. This has been the case ever since J. C. Bancroft Davis, an ideological court Reporter of Decisions formerly of Newburgh and New York Railway Company, added this to the headnote of the court decision:

The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.

This note referred to a discussion held before the case began and it was not mentioned in the actual decision. In other words, this was a clerk’s recollection of an earlier conversation and had nothing to do with the court opinion until he jotted down this idle comment. Despite the disconnect between the decision and the recollection, corporatist judges have sited this as settled law in stare decisis ever since. A corporation, therefore, is a special immortal super human being even though that metaphor has no basis in the decision of the original case.

The Citizens United decision of 2010 determined that not only are corporations super humans, they, unlike ordinary humans, may contribute about as much as they want to political campaigns. This brought to the foreground a new metaphor: money is speech. This silly metaphor has become the gateway to the new Republican revolution. Prior to that, speech was what people spoke or wrote. Suddenly, speech was what flowed freely from the limitless coffers of the wealthy, meaning that the wealthy may speak so as to drown out all others. Here the U.S. Supreme Court, in an incompetent decision, manufactured a new metaphor that conveys fallacy rather than fact.

Metaphor: Handle with Care!

The important point to be considered here is that metaphor is powerful. It carries new information not contained in a simple transfer of data. In honest human discourse, metaphor contributes a richness, a fullness, a girth to the slim pickings of mere data. We cherish and value metaphor because it carries information of such abstraction that it evokes understanding in the attentive human that goes even beyond what the communicator is seeking to convey. Through metaphor both the communicator and the listener benefit. Both move beyond the mere data. The communication educates in both directions because metaphor dredges up context that may elude both.

This power, inherent in metaphor, makes it dangerous. Metaphor as a weapon requires our constant vigilance. In the same way that we must guard against such influence as flattery, misdirection and the invitation to fill in corrupted blanks, we must watch for a flawed metaphor trying to draw us into a twisted reality. Watch each metaphor. Verify with your reflective mind that the metaphor makes sense. A metaphor like the moon is a balloon is unlikely to be serious or dangerous. A metaphor like God is love carries value through constant repetition and may offer solace to one in need. A metaphor like life is struggle may be used by capitalists to persuade workers that their pointless suffering is virtuous. A metaphor like freedom is slavery show us the ultimate literary limit to its influence. A limit that seems all too achievable in the world of the Republican machine and fake news. Metaphor, when wielded with malice may make anything into anything else.

As with any powerful thing, responsible people must wield it with care. As with any powerful thing, it may be used to do damage. Rational people must always assess metaphor in order to determine its validity. Metaphor is powerful and so we must all be wary of it. When metaphor is used, do not accept it merely because it is beautiful. Assess it first and, only if meaningful, bask in its astounding beauty.

Faces in the Jazzamatazz

© 1959 Nordine/Marx

(transcribed with permission from the CD The Best of Word Jazz vol. 1)

What do they mean: the faces in the night looking into the antique mirror of jazz?

By what insistent instinct do we crowd the smoking dark and watch with our seashell ears the pounding truth break against the huge inchoate spirit of this biggest of the little cities.

And why do the stars of this spirit’s music shine with such intensity upon the double-zero of our blinking eyes.

The questions multiply the mystery.

Are we the face of get-away-from-it-all? “Have another drink , baby. Live it up. Let’s have a ball before the great big all goes up in fire and brimstone. Make mine a double and short on the soda.” Clap hands in the reeling darkness and play lusty animal with the yeah, yeah, yeah of drowning night.

“You shoulda seen me when I stood on the table and the bouncer came with his tuxedo,” and the alcoholic air rocking with rolls of laughter after while the ghosts of Dixieland gone white are crashing through the changes inside The Saints Go Marching In. One for the road and hiccup home to hangover.

Are we this face?

Are we the face of “Get there, get there, get there. Who’s at the Blue Note. Who’s at the Southerlands? Somebody’s opening at the London House.” Grab a cab and seize upon the tock ticking ticky tock. “Should I wear the mink? Somebody said something is happening at the Cloister Inn,” and the long lines form in front of the revolving door of The Spin now now now. “Do I look alright? Keep the change. I read, in Downbeat…”. And the smoke rises above the hubbub as the cash register LPs come alive. Mr. and Mrs. Face face up to an evening on the town. Twelve conventioneers accompanied by a driving rattatatat become disciples of punchline pornography and expense accounts rise in the falling jazz and a waiter’s feet hurt.

Something ends and the applause begins. This clapping reward is bridge for the blues. “Aren’t ya glad ya came? Aren’t ya?”

Are we this face?

Are we the face of “I wonder as I wander” looking with the look that little children have for that loving something. For that joyous whatever-it-is. For that delightful I-don’t-know-what-next. Tired of playing run sheepy run and follow the leader. The game we are looking for is looking for us and it’s called 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 green light! A great big huge unbelievably infinite “GO” sign for this biggest of the little sleep-walking cities where the dream we dream is just around imagined nightmare’s corner. Come on along to Rennaisance which is anywhere you want it. Hope swings eternal and that’s where everything is in jazzamatazz Chicago. Don Quixote rides across the sprawl of us in a crazy movie called The Midwestener. Gallops across the jumping light where everyone waits to see where the real action is and we strike our matches against old Chicago midnight. Against old anywhere’s midnight. Somewhere below the non-stop jet from New York to Hollywood. “Hi, stranger.”

Are we this face?

All these faces and more and more we are; and, the truth is right in front of us when our backs are turned, so pick up your trumpet and play this. Doomsday boys and girls of dust come blow your horn for Mister Must. Full circles roll in spirals down into the fright of the thinnest town.

Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen, a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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This work represents the opinion of the author only.

Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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