Metaphorically Speaking: The Power of Metaphor: Background information when reading Levels of Life

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Levels of Life

by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes X
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 144 pages
    Jul 2014, 144 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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Beyond the Book:
Metaphorically Speaking: The Power of Metaphor

Print Review

In Levels of Life, Julian Barnes creates an extended metaphor between the trials of hot-air ballooning and the experience of love found and lost. In one example he writes:

Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood supply to the brain; mourning blows you in a new direction. But since you are now in enveloping cloud, it is impossible to tell if you are marooned or deceptively in motion. …You are a first-time aeronaut, alone beneath the gasbag, equipped with a few kilos of ballast, and told that this item in your hand you've never seen before is the valve-line.

From Greek mythology, to Shakespeare, to Star Wars, metaphors have been used throughout history, arguably as one of language's most powerful and descriptive tools.

Star WarsAccording to Merriam-Webster, a metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." Metaphor is as old as language itself, having been etched in the baked tablets of what is considered to be the oldest surviving written work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to approximately 2000 BC. A thousand years later, Homer would establish the epic simile*; later Aristotle would call the use of metaphor "a sign of genius." Milton adopted the technique, Shakespeare mastered it ("Life's but a walking shadow," "Juliet is the sun," "All the world's a stage…"), and Dickens practically reinvented it. The list goes on and on. In the 1970s, scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote volumes on myth and religion as metaphor and, after collaborating with George Lucas on the original Star Wars trilogy, changed the way audiences look at movies.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that, "metaphor has attracted more philosophical interest and provoked more philosophical controversy than any of the other traditionally recognized figures of speech. …when we resort to metaphor, we contrive to talk about two things at once; two different and disparate subject matters are mingled to rich and unpredictable effect."

But why are metaphors so powerful?

Romeo and JulietAmong the many possible reasons, metaphors familiarize readers by comparing potentially unknown items to things they might already understand. Not only do they provide a frame of reference, but they also work on readers at an unconscious level, allowing them to take in multiple meanings at once. For example, when Shakespeare's Romeo says "Juliet is the sun," the reader immediately understands that she is the center of his universe, a life source, fiery, etc, without him having to explicitly say so. In this way, readers can absorb meaning at a deeper, more resonant level.

In a 2011 article published in The Chronicle for Higher Education, we learn that in the late 20th century, the study of metaphor became increasingly popular with "philosophers, linguists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and others…" Some believe that metaphor is "the concept at the crux of all thought, and maybe all human understanding." Author James Geary explains:

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. …Our understanding of metaphor is in the midst of a metamorphosis. For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to 'normal' thought. Now the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways.

In 2011 two psychologists at Stanford set out to understand how the use of metaphor affects the way people think about crime. Some of their subjects were given a paragraph to read that likened crime to a wild beast ravaging the city, while others were given a paragraph comparing crime to an infecting virus. Outside of the differing metaphors, the paragraphs were identical. After a series of follow-up questions, the doctors discovered that: "Participants who imagined a 'virus infecting the city' universally suggested investigating the source of the virus and implementing social reforms and prevention measures to decrease the spread of the virus. ...Participants who imagined a 'wild beast preying on a city' universally suggested capturing the beast and then killing or caging it."

And, it's not just scientists who are picking up on the power of metaphor either. Advertisers across the globe have been using metaphors as a way of manipulating consumers for years. Tropicana tells you that their orange juice is "your daily ray of sunshine." Do you feel aware of how metaphors influence your daily decisions?

While there is still so much to learn about how metaphors affect people as they read and why they are such an influential and powerful technique, I think it's safe to say that metaphors are gems in literature.

For more information, check out this BBC Radio program entitled "History of Metaphor" or watch a video of Joseph Campbell telling an anecdotal story on myth as metaphor:

*A simile is a kind of metaphor involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid. The comparison is made with the use of the word like or its equivalent as in "my love is like a red, red rose." (Robert Burns)

First image of Star Wars poster
Second image of a 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene

Article by Elena Spagnolie

This article was originally published in October 2013, and has been updated for the July 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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