A Story in Which I Ruin Children

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.

11 thoughts on “A Story in Which I Ruin Children

  1. Oh Aunt B. You’re reading too much into things.
    Just kidding. This is exactly what we’re supposed to be teaching kids in high school and college – that words have a few set denotations and many possible connotations. We are supposed to give them some tools to evaluate connotations for when they are reading something difficult or when they are writing. Many resist, though, because that’s “reading too much into it.”
    That kind of reading is really higher-order and hard to teach high schoolers especially just because there are so many students and so little time. I believe is this why so many classes and exams boil down to: this character IS a Christ figure. That color MEANS anger. As there there is a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and its meaning. (If there were, you wouldn’t need a symbol, would you?)

    There’s actually some really interesting reading out there about metaphors and how they function in our brains. Gillian Beer, for example, has this well-written book about reading Darwin like a literary text, and in it she argues that pretty much all exciting science is described in metaphors, because in order to get from the idea we know to the idea we don’t totally know, we do need a boat. Darwin’s Plots, it’s called. I recommend it if you like thinking about this.

    That said: some dialetics are culturally taught from a young age. If you call something evil, you conjure yourself as good. If you say Judas, you invoke Christ. If you ignore that, you’re demonstrating poor critical thinking skills at the very least.

  2. I do like this post, but the logician in me has to make this note: making a metaphor to define “metaphor” breaks a key rule of good definition making (about not being circular)! That cracked me up “A metaphor is a boat.”

  3. I thought about that, but then I thought, well, at some level, all language is symbolic–this word “cat” after all is not actually a cat, just a means of taking us from the author’s idea about an actual animal to your idea of an actual animal. So, once we concede that all language is symbolic, isn’t a girl allowed to make a metaphor to define metaphor?!

    Ha ha ha ha ha.

    Okay, fine. No. But I’m still going to anyway!

    Tanglethis, yeah, in the end, that’s what his mom wanted me to do, teach him a one to one correlation, as if literary symbolism is literally just a code to be deciphered. I never could convince her otherwise.

  4. Not to derail your thread, which is right on target, but I want to mention the trouble I had tutoring a non-native English speaker when he encountered Wordsworth. “How can the child be the father to the man? If the child was a child, his child would be a baby!” He did finally figure it out, and was sooo happy.

    This whole blow-up reminds me of the Republican flack who kept insisting that Obama’s intention to “talk to Iran” was “like Munich” who couldn’t tell Chris Matthews what Chamberlain’s actually had done wrong (accepting lies as truth, and thereby being fooled). One of the few times Matthews rose to an occasion during the campaign rather than sinking to one.

  5. You’re right, B. And, I did understand what the metaphor was and it did explain something about how we use metaphors (especially when we’re using them well). It’s not just science whose explanations are in terms of metaphors, but it disturbs people that science doesn’t simply, directly, and perfectly give us clear facts about actual material existence.

  6. After reading the previous post, once you got to the boat all I could think of was the little man in it. See, I told you I’d be reading from a different perspective!

  7. For the more literal-minded among us, metaphor comes from the Greek meaning “to bear or to carry,” which I’ve always liked. Speaking of circularity, I love this Sylvia Plath poem about pregnancy where she uses metaphor as a metaphor for pregnancy at the same time that she lists metaphors for pregnancy. Craziness! Also, it’s cool because it has nine lines and each line has nine syllables and the word “metaphors” has nine letters. She is brilliant.


    I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
    An elephant, a ponderous house,
    A melon strolling on two tendrils.
    O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
    This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
    Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
    I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
    I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
    Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

  8. Oh, Scott, now I feel like I’ve improved TCP for at least one reader. That tickles me.

    Dr. J., I love it! Do you read Coates over at the Atlantic (he’s totally my internet stranger boyfriend)? He does a poem every Friday (except I don’t recall one today) and I just love it. I feel like I’m growing into poetry in my old age. It used to be one of my least favorite forms and now it seems like the only thing that soothes me.

  9. Loved this post. I am new to your site and de-lurking…
    I was raised Catholic, do not practice it much now, but you’ve put into words something I’ve only felt – that while I may have little faith, I do appreciate that there’s many cultural things that make sense to me, simply by way of my upbringing.

    Although it did make me unbearably snotty in 7th grade when we watched a movie with a reference to “30 pieces of silver, to help you on your way!” and nobody else knew it was referring to Judas…

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