I love metaphors. The merging of two seemingly incompatible ideas to beautify a literary passage or to create symbolic value or memorable conversational hyperbole, is a powerful thing. Not only are metaphors effective literary constructs, they are effective conceptual processes that help people understand and categorize their world in a powerful, memorable and meaningful way.
“Conscience is a man’s compass.” - Vincent Van Gogh.
We already know that a compass is an important tool for physically guiding us in the right direction. By linking compass with conscience, Van Gogh’s metaphor instantly connects the tangible concept of good physical direction with the less tangible concept of good moral direction. In doing so he instantly reinforces the notion that conscience is a moral faculty.
Benjamin Franklin said, “A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”
Christmas symbolically represents family reunification, laughter, love, sharing, safety, and forgiveness. Topping the list, however, is the notion of good will toward others, as represented in the act of exchanging gifts. The expression, “It is better to give than receive”, sums up Christmas nicely.
By connecting good conscience with the notion of continual Christmas, Ben Franklin essentially said that a good conscience will not only continuously benefit those who have it, but those who come in contact with it. Franklin’s metaphor helps us understand the power of an abstract concept (good conscience) by connecting it to a symbolically powerful and concrete one (Christmas).
Metaphor can be effective in advertising:
“Canada Dry: We’re the champagne of ginger ales.”
Remember that one? That slogan is permanently burned into my brain even though I don’t drink soda pop. It is a compelling slogan because it suggests there is a brand of ginger ale that is so upscale as to transcend soda pop and compare favorably with champagne. Who would even consider drinking a generic ginger ale when they could enjoy the champagne of ginger ale?
Metaphor can be funny:
"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." - George Burns
“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” – Truman Capote
“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.” – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
“The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man” ― José Ortega y Gasset
At the risk of sounding pretentious I’ll use metaphor to describe metaphor:
The metaphor is a literary Swiss Army Knife. It is a versatile literary tool with the potential to be, at once, funny, serious, profound, eviscerating, inspiring and ultimately truthful.
As a closing thought, a question: What tool kit is truly complete without a Swiss army Knife?