Thursday, March 17, 2016

Metaphors We Bleed By

I am actually on schedule with this blog post (gasp!). Somehow, even in the midst of grading papers, revising Chapter Two, and all of the other end of the quarter busy-ness, I was able to stay on track for my reading (and blogging) the past week and a half. Go me! I think a large part of the ease with which I stayed on track this round was how enjoyable I found this book, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. While it is by no means a simple book, I found its theories fascinating and accessible, and, perhaps even more importantly, applicable to my work!

Lakoff and Johnson posit as their thesis that metaphor goes far beyond being an aspect of language, and, instead, can actually be said to be at the core of our way of thinking. What they refer to as “conceptual metaphors” are not phrases like those you may have heard in your middle or high school English classroom when you learned about metaphors, such as, “Love is a red rose.” (Interestingly enough, it was very hard for me to come up with a “standard” metaphor example to use in that sentence, after all of the re-structuring this book did for the way I understand metaphor.) Conceptual metaphors are metaphors that shape, and make up, the way we think (and then, yes, the way we speak), the way we understand the world. Some of the prime examples Lakoff and Johnson use are that “Argument is War,” “Happy is Up,” and “Theories are Buildings.” Most of these are so deeply engrained into our cultural consciousness that we (or at least I) don’t think of them as metaphors. For instance, if I tell you that “I won the argument,” “she’s feeling pretty low today,” or “he laid the foundation for a strong theory,” the sentences will likely not strike you as particularly metaphoric. And yet, of course, they are.

As I began reading the book, I noticed myself reacting rather strongly to Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas. “But that’s just the way we say that!” I would exclaim to myself after each common phrase was revealed to be a metaphor. “How else would we say it?” But that, of course, is the core of their argument: because metaphor is conceptual as well as linguistic, many metaphors feel like the only rational way for us to describe or explain something.

Moreover, what I realized in terms of the applications to my own work was incredibly helpful. Several years ago, back when I was still just writing my prospectus, one of my committee members suggested that it sounded like I was structuring my project around four different logics of bleeding. The idea felt perfect, and my dissertation is, in fact, structured into four chapters according to those logics: bleeding as physically healing, bleeding as spiritual penance, bleeding as nourishment, and bleeding as masochism. What I realized after reading Lakoff and Johnson, however, is that, while the term logics was a perfect fit for me three years ago, I now realize that what I’m actually writing about are four different metaphors of bleeding. Each of my chapters deals with texts that yes, sometimes portray bleeding as literally a means of physical healing or nourishment, but are also much more focused on conceptualizing bleeding as a metaphorical act of spiritual purgation or masochism. The metaphors I’ve found myself focusing on the most so far, in Chapters One and Two, are that “Bleeding is Expression” and “Bleeding is Cleansing of the Soul.” Both are metaphors that are relatively easy to understand, particularly with a solid base of knowledge about medieval understandings of blood, but both are quite obviously metaphors, reflecting key aspects of how medieval writers thought about and understood blood. Perhaps I’m not expressing myself particularly clearly yet, but for me, this is a breakthrough. Now that I understand that my project is really about understanding these metaphors of bleeding, I feel like I can approach my writing – as well as my own comprehension of medieval ideas about bleeding – much more productively.

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