Posts Tagged metaphors

Of political marriage and divorce … metaphorically speaking

… the greatest thing, by far, is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of similarity of dissimilars. Through resemblance, metaphor makes things clearer. ( Aristotle, Poetics)

I’m tickled pink (as I’m sure are millions of my fellow Indians) by the great Congress – Left tamasha that’s taken centre stage in Indian politics. I just hope the whole thing doesn’t end in farce –  elections.

 What interests me is the language in which this “relationship” and the sordid parting of ways is being couched. Major English news channels describe the Congress-Left liaison as “marriage” and the Left’s pulling-out as “divorce”.  The newsreader on NDTV last night actually said, absolutely deadpan,”The left has taken the divorce papers to the President.”

And the grounds for divorce? I suppose you could call it adultery (after a fashion!) – the Left taking umbrage at the Congress liaison with the US. The Congress claims it’s a platonic relationship, but I’m inclined to think the Left’s suspicions are not unfounded, looking at the way the Congress is rushing into another liaison –  with the Samajwadi Party – even while the Left is still processing the divorce papers!  Triangle upon triangle,  eh? 

Marriage is a popular metaphor, and not just in literature. It’s an oft-used Biblical metaphor for the human-divine relationship. It’s also pretty common in business parlance. I’ve read at least one article in Journal of Business Research that uses the marriage metaphor to describe organizational relationships, bringing into play the entire gamut of interpersonal relationships –  individual partner expectations, communication behaviour, appraisal processes, problem-solving.

Metaphors? Pshaw!! Ornamentation, rhetoric, flourish, you say? Not something one uses in ordinary speech and writing? Well, you’ll have to read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By  to change your mind! A book in which the authors argue that the way we think is essentially metaphorical in nature, that metaphors don’t just make thoughts more vivid and interesting, they also structure the way we perceive things – our conceptual system. 

To take the most famous example in the book, the “Argument is War” metaphor structures the way we think about argument. Consider the words we use to talk about arguments: winning, losing, opponent, attacking, defending, planning, strategy …

As Lakoff and Johnson put it, many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war:

He attacked every weak point in my argument.

His criticisms were right on target.

I demolished his argument.

I’ve never won an argument with him.

If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

The war metaphor forces us to think and speak of argument in terms of  winning, losing, defending and attacking. Would some other metaphor make us perceive it differently?

How does the marriage metaphor structure the way we look at coalitionist relationships? Does it create expectations of loyalty, commitment, bonding, responsibility and such like? And if the breaking of the relationship is seen as divorce, does it carry associations of betrayal, mistrust, and bitterness?

One could really go berserk here. For instance, viewing the marriage as an “arranged” one, a “love” marriage, or a marriage of “convenience” would probably influence the expectations we have of it.  Also, who in this relationship are we inclined to think of as the husband and who the wife? Would that determine who the aggrieved party is?

An editor from the ToI insisted, on CNN-IBN, that the Congress-Left arrangement was never a relationship to begin with – the Left was always on the outside. So a marriage of convenience then, something we are not unfamiliar with today. Does viewing it this way make the break-up seem less damaging?

I’m inclined to think that describing the relationship in terms of marriage and divorce lends emotional content to what would otherwise seem a prosaic, business-like association for narrow political ends. And therefore greater viewer interest is guaranteed!! 




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The only explanation I offer for the title of this post is that I can’t think of anything else!  

Writing is not easy. And I don’t mean just titles. Writing five sentences on nothing in particular can be tough, too. This was an exercise I gave my students in one of their introductory syntax classes for the semester. Saves me the trouble of hunting up examples for syntactic analysis, of course! But the idea behind the exercise was to get real sentences for analysis rather than text-book ones.

I’d have thought writing five English sentences would be as easy as ABC for postgradute students of English. Well, not quite! 

Some of them said the difficulty was due to the self-consciousness that the exercise induced. We don’t usually make up sentences that have no specific communicative or expressive purpose.  Like the toy sentences in grammar books: John is a boy. She is a girl. Seriously, does anyone ever say such things in real-life conversations?!

 The exercise reinforced my fascination for the creativity and ease with which we  string words together into sentences. All the time. Spontaneously. Without pausing to ‘construct’ them in our minds! It’s almost as if we’re programmed.

 Oh, that reminds me.

The other day I had to fill out a form on-line. After I hit the Submit button, the machine gave me this message: “We’re not convinced you’re human . . . ” And went on to describe how I could ‘prove’ my human-ness – by typing a word inside a box exactly as it was displayed. You know, the kind one often gets when creating e-mail IDs.

It set me thinking. How would I prove to a machine that I’m human? I mean, just how is a machine even qualified to judge my human-ness? Gave me the goosebumps, it did.

The seduction of the machine is nowhere more evident than when it breaks down. Like yesterday when, thanks to the Internet outage, the electronic catalogue in our university library was inaccessible; and since, in their zeal to appear modern and high-tech, the library had stowed away their manual catalogue, I was reduced to rummaging painstakingly through the bookshelves.

I love it though – not the dust on my hands and face, but the browsing. Because that’s when you stumble upon some gems. And that’s how I found Mike Sharples’ How We Write: Writing As Creative Design: a fascinating study of the mental processes involved in writing.  (Sigh. The disbelief is quite uncalled for. Condemned, as I am, to read and mark student writing for a living, I cannot help but find such books interesting.) 

Sharples draws attention to the rather mechanistic metaphors that we use in talking of the writing process:

The hydraulic metaphors – well up, flow, dry up;

The pyrotechnic metaphors – fire the imagination, burning with ideas;

The exploration metaphors – searching for ideas, finding the right phrase;

The bodily function metaphors – writer’s block.

But the last word on metaphors of writing is Freud’s: “Since writing entails making liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper, it sometimes assumes the significance of copulation.”

Hmmm. Where does that leave one half of humanity, I wonder? The female half?

And to wind up, here’s an absolutely hilarious piece by Dennis Baron on the hazards of handwriting. And you thought computers and e-mail had made handwriting a thing of the past? Ha!

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