Consider the Metaphor

“Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness.” — Susan Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors

Mary Louise ParkerMetaphor is inseparable from human language and conceptual thought. The use of metaphor appears in our earliest stories; the first writing about it appears in Aristotle, who wrote, “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” The literary device is as at home in Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage”) as it is in 80s pop music (“Once had love and it was a gas, soon turned out / had a heart of glass”). The singer Blondie did not literally have a “heart of glass,” but the listener grasps her meaning: her heart was fragile and easily broken. Metaphors transfer and transmit meaning.

“Heart of Glass” is straightforward, but the best metaphors are complex. Consider the “extended metaphor,” also called a conceit. Shakespeare’s metaphor from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,” extends and deepens in the next line: “And all the men and women merely players.” As the lines continue, each image is layered on to the one before, logically following from idea to idea. If the world is a stage, then people are the players and, as players, “they have their exits and their entrances.” If we understand exits as deaths and entrances as births, simple comparisons transform into a poetic, existential consideration of mortality.

In Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss, a romantic fairy tale evolves into a powerful and moving metaphor. The play began for Lucas as an attempt to capture how marriage transforms one’s lover, how newlyweds wake up the next day and feel as if they don’t know the person lying next to them. But, as Lucas wrote the play, he found himself confronted in his own life by sudden mortality as his longtime companion and countless friends were disfigured by AIDS. Beautiful youths were transformed overnight into old men — a dark transformation that has echoes in the play he wrote.

Prelude has become a modern classic, and what makes the play endure is that Lucas doesn’t simply use language to contain his metaphor; he uses bodies. Metaphor is made flesh in Rita’s transformation, a subtle way to convey the sense of having one’s fleeting youth stolen. Through his comparison, we see what it is to love a dying man, and by turns, arrive at the play’s hard-won, essential truth: “Never to be squandered . . . the miracle of another human being.”

— Lisa Timmel


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