For James Geary, metaphor is not just another literary
device, a word scribbled on a 7th grade note card before receding
into memory. In his new book, I Is An
Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See The World,
the bestselling author exposes how metaphors impact almost every aspect of our
lives, from advertising to economics to physics, illuminating how such a simple
rhetorical trick effects decision making at its core. Delving into the history
of metaphor, Geary explores their etymology and linguistics, exposing truths
that have been in front of our faces and pouring out of our mouths without any
thought given to them - do you know what
the term ‘scared shitless' actually means?
Saturated with endless examples, I Is An Other leaves you self-consciously listening to the way you
speak since, according to Geary, each of us utters a metaphor ever ten to 25
words. Sound like a lot? Maybe too much? It does until Geary explains, in one of
the most compelling chapters in the book, how those with autism spectrum
disorders interact and comprehend the world differently, largely because they
are unable to understand metaphorical thinking.
Although the witty and concise writing can turn kitsch at
times, playing for chuckles with lines such as "metaphor keeps the mind
shaking, rattling and rolling long after Elvis has left the building," and
explaining metaphors through other, over-simplified metaphors, it provides an original and smart
understanding of the effects of figurative language. Geary's newest leaves you
with one major line: "image trumps information."
Geary, who is currently living in Cambridge for the year while completing a
Nieman Fellowship in Journalism, took some time to talk to me about his various
books and interest in aphorisms, as well as his upcoming performance at the
Harvard Book Store tomorrow evening.
I'm curious about
your performance tomorrow. I've heard it's much more than a reading. What
exactly is it going to entail?
It's not a reading at all. There's not a single moment
during the performance where I read anything. It's much more of a
talk/performance/stand-up comedy routine.
The first part of it is a visual presentation that describes
how metaphor works in the brain and also demonstrating to people these psychological
tests or psychological exercises that are really fun and enlightening, and we
do them together-basically an exploration of metaphor and how it works.
Then there's a juggling segue in which I juggle and talk
about aphorisms, and I relate aphorisms to metaphor and juggling. It's very
What made you
interested in intensively studying metaphors?
I discovered aphorisms in the "Quotable Quotes" section of
the Reader's Digest when I was eight, aphorisms being these short, witty,
philosophical sayings, like Mark Twain's "I never let school interfere with my
education." And I wrote a couple books about aphorisms. I've been more or less
obsessed with them since I was eight. And in researching those books on
aphorisms, the deeper I got into the subject, I kept thinking: what makes
aphorisms special? Why do I like them so much? How do they work? And I realized
at some point, when I was compiling the encyclopedia of aphorists, that
aphorisms work almost completely via metaphor.
There's a great aphorism by a Polish author, Stanislaw Lec, that goes, "No
snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." And if you think about that
saying literally, it's nonsense. But if you think about it metaphorically, it's
got all kind of funny and interesting implications for how people behave in
groups, and the dangers of groupthink, and how people feel comfortable doing
something in a group that they wouldn't feel comfortable doing alone.
I realized that metaphor is actually present not just in
literature, but everywhere in daily life: psychology, economics, science. Any
time we try and express anything that involves something abstract or emotions
or ideas, we use metaphor.
I thought one of the
most interesting parts of the book was the chapter on Asperger's.
That was one of the most surprising, and in a way shocking,
things I discovered: how difficult it is for people with Asperger's to get by
in daily life. They don't understand all these very simple, basic metaphors
that you and I, and everybody without autism, just takes for granted. It really
brought home the point that our emotional lives, our relationships and how we
relate to one another would be so impoverished without metaphor.
I was interested in
the fact that at the end, you have 30 pages of notes and a 30 page
bibliography. How did you go about researching such a huge topic?
I'm very methodical when I'm doing research for my books. I
live in London
normally, when I'm not doing a fellowship at Harvard, and the metaphor book -
well, for all my books - I spend a lot of time in the British Library. For the
metaphor book, I put in a key word for metaphor and looked at every book that
came up. And that turned out to be a hell of a lot, unfortunately for me.
I had this intuitive sense that metaphor was very, very
important in daily life, but I didn't realize how important until I got into
doing the research. And there's lots of literary studies on metaphor, and on [how]
this poet or that [uses metaphor], or metaphors in the 17th century.
But I wasn't really pursuing a literary criticism, [although] there's lots of
literature in [the book], lots of poetry and poets: Wallace Stevens, Hart
Crane, Robert Frost. The book is infused with a literary sensibility, but it's
not about literature.
The 30 pages of notes and the 30 pages of bibliography came
from [that], not going through every
book that came up under the keyword at the British Library - I would still be
there reading if I had.
Between aphorisms and
metaphors, you seem to enjoy tackling huge topics - even endless topics. What
draws you to research the more abstract?
It makes them very difficult to research, but that's a
fascinating intellectual challenge to be able to take on huge, sweeping,
unwieldy topics. How do you get your head around those things? Well there's a
metaphor! "Get your head around them."
My background, what I studied in college and what I'm
passionate about, is literature and language. . . Literature is not just
something in books, it's something that we actually live and breathe in a way
that I think is not really widely recognized, and is very important. For the
aphorisms books, for example, I talk about how people use aphorisms everyday,
how we're constantly using them. We see them on billboards and in pop songs
that we're constantly sharing. Aphorisms are oral literature that is still
practiced everywhere around the world, and for me, that's a very clear example
about how literature informs and infuses daily life.
Metaphors are something people think of as a literary
device, but [they're] actually a fundamental principle of the way we think.
Whether we read literature or not, whether we love poetry or hate it, it
doesn't matter. We are all using metaphor all the time, and we are all creating
metaphors all the time. However unwieldy the topic is, it's a perfect way to
celebrate and demonstrate the intersection of daily life and literature, or the
arts and the world, or however you want to phrase it. And not just literature
and the arts, but also science and economics, and how these are all intertwined
in a subject like metaphor.
JAMES GEARY PRESENTS I
IS AN OTHER | Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge
| February 23 @ 7pm | Free | Harvard.com or 617.661.1515