Fictivity: The Ubiquitous Metaphor


Metaphor is as much a part of language as words; it’s as much a part of human thinking as thinking itself.

If you have been tracking with this series about Fictivity — my coined word for the subject of fiction and everything that goes with it —you’ll probably be aware by now of the importance of ‘vacuums’ — gaps, holes, missing things, incompletenesses and so forth, the emptinesses which compel motion in human thinking and in life. Vacuums are the primary force in this world — they are almost the ‘Force’ from Star Wars, in that they bind things together, prompt activity, and affect the immobile, stirring it into action. All things have vacuums, from the sub-atomic particles buzzing with quantum energies to the gigantic galaxies spinning around their black holes. More importantly for our purposes, vacuums underpin and drive human behaviour: it is the absence of things which prompts us to seek their presence. If ever the mediaeval idea of a Prime Mover behind all the operations of the universe was real, it is the vacuum.

Metaphors are the instruments through which we link up these emptinesses, magnifying their power.

Metaphors have existed as long as there have been human beings. Plato said ‘Time is the moving image of eternity’; Emily Dickinson said ‘Dying is a wild night and a new road’; Benjamin Franklin said ‘A good conscience is a continual Christmas’; Albert Camus said ‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’

But it’s not just poets and great thinkers who use metaphors — they are commonplace in everyday speech. Expressions such as ‘blowing off steam’, ‘music to my ears’, ‘thorn in my side’, ‘talking to a brick wall’, ‘heart of stone’, ‘late bloomer’, ‘lame duck’ and many, many more fill the language until it overflows with them (another metaphor). In fact, to try to separate out ‘metaphorical’ from ‘literal’ communication is a fool’s enterprise — better to travel down the road surveyed by Owen Barfield and to realise that language at some stage is (and was) homogenous, a blend of the metaphorical and literal, and that the trend or effort to split the two up is a later development and probably a destructive one. Human beings just don’t think without metaphors, or don’t think very well.

This is a big part of what makes fiction work, and, if mastered, can vastly improve a writer’s ability to communicate with power, authority and authenticity. ‘Books are mirrors of the soul,’ said Virginia Woolf, and what happens in fiction reveals spectacularly what is going on in the human psyche perhaps more than anything else.

I’ve told the story elsewhere of how, when enrolling at university many years ago, I arrived at the sports hall which had been turned into a registration area. Dozens of booths lined the walls, each representing the point at which students were signing up for particular subjects to begin their university careers. Each desk had a few students standing in line, waiting to do the paperwork with the people sitting behind. Except for the Psychology booth: that had over 400 people patiently queuing, a line so long that it went around the sports hall and had to be serviced with drinks and sandwiches as people had been kept waiting for so long.

I observed this with some bemusement at that time — I had not even glanced at the subject of Psychology in the university prospectus, and had no idea that it would be so attractive to so many. But there they were, patiently and not-so-patiently waiting to sign up so that they, I imagined, could find out more about how the human mind worked.

Once the university year was underway, I passed by Psychology lecture theatres to find standing room only situations — crowds so large that they spilled out of the big rooms in which the subject was being taught, with those at the back craning to catch a glimpse of the lecturer at the front. Then, in the second year, there were 30 students only remaining; and in the third year, only three. The subject had waned from hundreds to less than a handful over that time. Clearly, it had failed to answer the needs of those who had clamoured for entry at the beginning.

What were those needs? Those students — I found, from talking with some of them — were consciously and unconsciously desperate to know how the human mind worked. They had been met instead by studies of statistics, by the findings from dry experiments, by vague generalities and suppositions and attempts, in fact, to view the world literally.

Meanwhile, over in the English Department, myself and a few dozen others were being given a grand tour of what actually goes on with human beings through the masterworks of literature — we were glimpsing the despair of modernists, the romantic hopes of the nineteenth century novelists, the wonder and awe of the poets, the meticulous attempts to captivate and capture what it meant to be human throughout recorded time. We didn’t necessarily realise that we had the answers that the Psychology hopefuls were seeking, but we certainly knew that we had something that was profoundly satisfying and meaningful.

It was laced with metaphors. Or rather, the metaphorical had not been stripped away from it. Beauty and horror and everything in between was still laid out here, in language which had not been clinicised or sterilised. Things were linked, causatively and consciously as well as symbolically and messily.

Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘Metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with.’ And Walt Whitman pronounced, ‘And your very flesh shall be a great poem.’

If vacuums form the Prime Mover of reality, it is metaphors which give the linkages necessary to create meaning and motion.

As we shall see.

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