The Value of Metaphor in a Pandemic

20 July 2020

Metaphors are some of the greatest tools of human expression. They let us expose rich textures of commonality between things. They let us in on fine shades and details that we might have otherwise missed in a situation. They can be remarkably forceful, they can stick around, they can have great emotional power, and they can bring us together in the way we see and conceptualize the world. 


For all these reasons, you might think metaphors have their place in global tragedy. Now more than ever, we need to communicate in expressive, emotive, vital ways, to bring us together. But rich and helpful metaphors haven’t really shown up in our communication about this pandemic. Instead, we keep reaching for the same kind of metaphor, one so hackneyed that it will surely join the ranks of dead metaphors any day now. This is the war metaphor. Many political leaders have likened the pandemic to war, in an obvious attempt to drum up the associated can-do spirit we actually do need to mitigate our losses. 


Besides this obvious type of metaphor, there are a jillion comparisons of the pandemic to other pestilences, both factual and fictional. There have been a dizzying number of comparisons to Albert Camus’ La Peste, or in English The Plague, which—alongside other stories about pestilence—enjoyed a bump in sales around March of this year, and even sold out on Amazon. But these are just that: flatfooted comparisons, quite clear in their commonalities, not meant to provide such cognitive richness and exploratory association as a good metaphor does. There are rigorous ways to compare and contrast 2020 with 1918, and important things to learn from survivors of the polio epidemic of the 1950s. These can be illuminating comparisons in their own right, but these are not metaphors, and they don’t offer what metaphors might offer.


What’s a metaphor, then? And what makes a good one? A metaphor is a figure of speech that usually involves a literally false, ‘figurative’ claim (like “Juliet is the sun”) comparing two things. (Sometimes, interestingly, it makes an obviously true claim that juxtaposes two or more things; consider “no man is an island,” an example the famous philosopher of language Donald Davidson discussed.) 


The point of metaphor, most philosophers think, is to set off a rich and open-ended search for commonalities between two otherwise unalike things. You are not simply meant to ‘get’ one immediate likeness between two otherwise dissimilar things—Juliet gives Romeo energy, like the sun does!—and then move on. Instead, metaphors (or at least the good ones) set off a stream of ideas about what the two things might have in common, and can lead you to see rich structural commonalities, as well as looser associative likenesses, between two things. A good metaphor can even significantly affect how you think about or ‘see’ something. All of this helps explain why you can’t paraphrase a metaphor and retain its figurative meaning.  


All this sounds well and good, and perhaps well needed, but we don’t have it ready to hand. We don’t yet have the rich and transformative ways of thinking about the global pandemic that a good writer could give us in a metaphor. Why not? 


I’m not entirely sure of the answer to this question. All I can offer here is another flat-footed comparison. Not only is this comparison not a metaphor; it’s a comparison to another absence of metaphor, and yet another comparison involving war. (Forgive the irony.) 


In his stunning poem “Explico algunas cosas” (“I explain a few things”), Pablo Neruda wrote about the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. In contrast to the richly figurative language he uses to describe peacetime (“frenzied fine ivory of the potatoes, / tomatoes stretching to the sea”), Neruda narrates wartime in this flat language:

Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,

bandits with rings and duchesses,

bandits with black-robed friars blessing

came through the air to kill children,

and through the streets the blood of the children

ran simply, like children’s blood.

These last two lines have the shape that a meaningful, metaphorical comparison might have. But instead they give a flat comparison, deliberately and emphatically nonfigurative. They express something like the limits of creative language in the face of ongoing tragedy. They express that specifically by refusing to look away from the literal. It is not comparison, not

reconceptualization, not surprising and beautiful likeness that was needed in this moment; it was recognition of the basic, immediate facts of the situation at hand.


The absence of figurative language in our public lexicon right now reminds me of these lines from Neruda for precisely this reason. In a sea of misinformation, denial, and avoidance—there’s a metaphor for you!—there is nothing needed more than confrontation with the ongoing immediacy of our danger. There is nothing uncreative or inexpressive about Neruda’s lines; on the contrary, they have great impact, precisely because they refuse to give the metaphorical when it is expected, and so end up emphasizing the importance of the literal.


What we need now is not metaphor, but something more fundamental: acceptance of fact.


Image by Almudena Sanz from Pixabay