In Entangled Life: Making Sense of Fungi, the delightfully named biologist Merlin Sheldrake questions the overextension of metaphor, a form of figurative language that applies words and phrases in places where they are not literally true. His frustration is well-founded: for centuries, misguided metaphors have clouded our understanding of fungi. Human beings are just now beginning to understand these complex life-forms in their own terms, rather than studying fungi as pseudo-plants or pseudo-animals.

Sheldrake does express gratitude for what metaphors can spark: “It is well-established in the sciences that metaphors can help to generate new ways of thinking.” But in his book, he probes the limits of metaphor: when can it be a curse to, instead of an aid for, learning?

“Machine metaphors [such as the wood wide web] are sets of stories and tools that have helped make countless discoveries of life-changing importance,” Sheldrake writes. “But they aren’t scientific facts and can lead us into trouble when prioritized over all other types of story. If we understand organisms to be machines, we’ll be more likely to treat them as such.”

Curled up on the couch last week, reading Sheldrake’s words, I found myself nodding, then pausing. What were the limits of that idea? The biologist calls for humans to try, try, try to experience reality on its own terms, without dimming our perceptions through metaphor. I resonated with his call to embrace truth, but a skeptical part of me lingered behind. Is it ever possible to leave metaphor behind? Can human beings ever make sense of anything without mediating the experience through metaphor?

When a work conference brought me to Washington, D.C., last month, I happily extended my time there: I hadn’t visited the city in over a decade, and I longed to expand my preteen memories with adult experiences. For a few days, I booked theater tickets, visited museums, and pondered my geographical proximity to historic hearings at the Capitol and rulings at the Supreme Court.

One evening, walking from the Foggy Bottom station to the Kennedy Center, I rounded a corner and found an impressive building looming over me. What a very 70s hotel, I thought, and prepared to cross the street. But as I glanced back, a resounding sense of well, duh rippled through me. This wasn’t just any 70s hotel, but the most iconic hotel of the 70s: the Watergate

After so many years of knowing it through metaphor and analogy, I was face-to-face with reality. And for all my love of history, I could have walked right by it.

Around the middle of the film Tick, Tick…Boom!, protagonist Jonathan Larson wobbles on the edge of relational disaster. Jonathan writes songs and hopes to see his work on Broadway; his girlfriend Susan loves to dance and has just been offered a teaching job in the Berkshires. This is her chance, and she wants Jonathan to come along. Jonathan and Susan’s fight escalates as the couple volleys dreams, desires, confessions at each other, shock and hurt reverberating in both pairs of eyes.

The scene cuts between Jonathan and Susan’s argument and a performance of “Therapy,” Jonathan’s song about a lovers’ quarrel. As Jonathan and Susan begin to reconcile, the song starts to speed towards its conclusion. But as they embrace, Susan notices Jonathan tap, tap, tapping on her back. She pulls away.

“Oh my god,” she spits. “You’re thinking about how you can turn this into a song, aren’t you?”

The pedantic part of me wants to note that this piece blurs the lines between metaphor, simile, analogy, synecdoche, and a dozen other literary techniques. I’m well aware of the concepts’ definitions, but I can’t shake their common effect: understanding one idea in terms of another. In the immortal words of Community’s Britta Perry, trying to describe an analogy: “It’s like a… thought with another thought’s hat on.”

I know that my literary pickiness grows from the same tendencies that make me unlikely to abandon metaphors. I am a woman of words, a person who spends her days surrounded by artistic imagination and verbal creativity. I spend my free hours reading books and watching plays and humming along to music. I would have to search and search for a day in my life—even a few hours—that have not been bathed in metaphor.

And I know that metaphors are omnipresent in my life partially because I am a person who believes in a God who has revealed himself through metaphor. Because I cling to Christ seen in ten thousand places, to God as Rock and Light and mother hen and wronged father and frustrated employer and long-awaited bridegroom. Metaphors are tools for meaning-making, and when those tools have harvested bushel after bushel of meaning for my life, of course I struggle to see them as incomplete, limiting, or dangerous.

When a student wrote to Flannery O’Connor asking for “‘just what enlightenment’” the writer intended readers to receive from her stories, Flannery responded with her trademark wit: “I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy [the stories]. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of course, she didn’t want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out.”

Maybe, at their worst, metaphors reshape us into the student who hunts for the moral of a story but cannot bear to read it. They mold us into Jonathan, insistently controlling a fight that has not yet finished. To expand Flannery’s metaphor, we want to “evaporate Instant Enlightenment,” but we want none of the joys of gradual, time-marinated knowledge. That would require a staggering amount of humility.

Metaphors help us make sense of reality, and sometimes we turn reality back into a metaphor: Watergate was a building before it was a catchphrase, a place before it was a scandal. Maybe I want to resist Merlin Sheldrake’s criticisms of metaphor because they attack a power I cherish—the power of imagination. But just because it is a power I love does not mean that it cannot be oppressive.

Still, while I find myself growing to agree with Merlin Sheldrake’s critiques of metaphor, I want to make room for an idea he hints at but barely explores. Sheldrake is a scientist, eagerly hoping to know in full, but I read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners at the same time as I read Entangled Life. And the voice of Flannery cautions me against any presumptuous idea that I—we—could ever possibly know everything. She writes that the “Christian novelist” (and I would argue, any Christian) “lives in a larger universe” than those who deny the existence of the supernatural. “And this doesn’t mean that [the Christian’s] obligation to portray the natural is less; it is greater…the main concern of the fiction writer is mystery as it is incarnated in human life.”

Maybe I am wrestling with the difference between writers and scientists, between Christians and non-Christians, but I’m not inclined to dismiss our obligations to mystery by dividing them into categories. Shouldn’t something more universal guide us? Shouldn’t we all be concerned with mystery, trying to incarnate it in our own ways?

I remember my college roommate, a biology major, explaining her love of science to Christians who found scientists arrogant: didn’t they know that the more you dig into the natural world, the more you know that you are small? Whether we experiment with words or with chemicals, we will run into the limits of human capability sooner or later.

“It is hard to make sense of something without a little part of that something rubbing off on you,” Sheldrake writes. “Sometimes it is intentional.” I want a little of the unknown to rub off on me, a little bit of the mystery to mark me like a blessing. Sometimes, however much I hate to admit it, metaphors can shield us from what should overload our senses. They can dim the light of truths that should be disorienting and beautiful, unexpected and wild. Maybe somehow, in the wrestling, our longings for control can be silenced, and we can at last interact with reality—not just its metaphors.


Photo Credit:  Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of the infamous Watergate Hotel, Washington, D.C. Washington D.C. United States, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph.

1 Comment

  1. Josh Parks

    Thank you for this nuanced bit of semiotic wrestling, Courtney! I’m with the theologian Sallie McFague on this one—the only thing that can free us from the limits of metaphor is to pile up as many metaphors as possible.


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