When I was in grad school, I tutored this kid whose mom had sent him to a private Christian school because it was the best school in town. He was not Christian. And he had a question on one of his tests–“How do we know that so-and-so is a Christ figure?”
Well, let me tell you, this kid did not know how we knew that so-and-so was a Christ figure because the kid did not understand what a Christ figure was. So, he bombed that question and the test.
And so I, the minister’s daughter, was brought in to teach him about Christ figures and other tropes of literature. I think it went okay, but I don’t know. I never, ever did get him to understand what a Christ figure was and how he could find one in a piece of literature. In some ways that we just take for granted, that I just took for granted, you understand beyond words the cultural symbols you’re immersed in.
About this time, Dr. J said something to me–that a metaphor is a boat–that has always stuck with me as being such a useful image, that a metaphor is a little, fragile vehicle (I imagine it as a rowboat) that takes you from one idea to another one that you would not necessarily otherwise get to. She might have been drunk when she told me that a metaphor was a boat, but it is, a way of conveying a person from idea to idea.
But what is an idea? If we’re going to stick with a nautical metaphor (if that’s the boat we’re floating in), I’ve come to think of ideas as rocks that drop and break through the surface of our mind so to create ripples. So, we might see a metaphor as a way of taking us from one site of impact to what we hope will be another.
We can see then, the realm of poets as being writers who play in the outermost ripples, stretching to see how far away they can get from the point of impact (or honestly how close) and tell you something about what’s going in in your mind between the ripples.
But I was thinking again about Lee’s post from another angle. Can you plop a word like “Judas” out there in the water and expect the boat to only travel from “Williams is like Judas in that he’s a betrayer”? How does the term “Judas” as “betrayer” even have any resonance if you don’t know who Judas betrayed? And, if you do know who Judas betrayed, how is it somehow unfair to ask “If, in this metaphor, Williams is Judas, who is Jesus?”
It’s not. You cannot want to bring the weight of the word “Judas” against someone and then piss and moan when people call you on what gives that name its weight. You cannot, in other words, bring us to the beautiful lake, plop us in the boat, set us off from “Judas” to “Williams” and expect that half way to “Williams” we’ll forget what brought us to “Judas” in the first place.
It just doesn’t work that way.