Monday, November 07, 2005

Metaphor and Us

There is a Milan Kundera quote I use as a signature on my gmail account:
"Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love."
At first I think it was a very unconscious inclusion. I was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was invited onto gmail and I thought it was just a really cool quote. In the book it is said in the context of Tomas, the libertine professional thinking about Tereza, one of his conquests. She is something of a country innocent and he fancies her floating through the rushes in a basket toward him. A neat little biblical metaphor, and then of course Kundera drops in the above line. There are lots of reasons why Tomas and Tereza are terrible for each other if you tried to commodify their attributes. Yet from the time of Tomas' little metaphor, despite subsequent infidelities and separations, he will never be able to let go of her.

I suppose it's only natural here to make the argument that an author would overplay the value of metaphor or archetype. It's their stock and trade, right? And yet I wonder, how much are we driven by metaphors and archetypes. Can a single metaphor really give birth to love. We have any number of scientific and/or pseudo-scientific ways of measuring who we ought to love. Everyone has ideas about which people belong together in their circle of friends. I know I've been told who I should hook up with. And of course, on paper, all these connections make sense, but often these little intrigues never make it off said page of paper. At the same time, people meet connect in ways that baffle everyone who knows them. Are they just making these choices while drunk at parties? Or are they satisfying some other, metaphorical need? Do we need to construct a narrative for our lives? Why?

I suppose as someone who has tried to thwart the notion that my life has any kind of heroic narrative, it's only natural that I would find all this terribly interesting. I suppose most people don't think about this, they just do it. But others (mostly liberal arts majors I suppose) find it terribly fascinating to contemplate. It seems wrong to say so about something that's so intrinsically human, but is it all a bit vainglorious? Maybe most of us are forgiven, because we don't see, but what if we do see it? I've thought about this enough that I feel terrible conscious of it, and the more conscious of it I feel, the more I want to thwart it. I feel vainglorious trying to concoct my own narrative. But is it worse not to do so? To try and put oneself above the whole universal human experience, that's got to be just about as arrogant.

Do we just let a narrative congeal around us? Multiple narratives (a la Citizen Kane)? These narratives are all constructs of course, but to what extent can we live without them? Can we live our lives without a plot?