Metaphor and Simile

Chapter 10 of The Master and His Emissary is titled The Enlightement, which is to say another chapter centred around a religious theme and paradigm shift. Only it isn’t. This chapter is focused mainly on metaphor and poetry, and that’s where I want to comment.

If you haven’t happened to have read the prior posts on The Master and His Emissary or The Matter with Things, I’ll summarise the functions of the left and right cerebral hemispheres. If you have, feel free to skip this paragraph. The left hemisphere is closing and convergent whilst the right hemisphere is expansive and divergent, The left is about naming, categorising, and analysing; the right is about experiencing the world as presenced. Where the right hemisphere is about presentation, the left is about re-representation. A challenge occurs when the re-presented view of the left supersedes the experiential view of the right. This is what occurs in a left-dominant brain.

Metaphor is a function of the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere considers metaphor to be a figure of speech. It trivialises it in one of two ways. Either, it reduces it to components that map to some other concepts—ignoring the parts that can’t be mapped—, or it assumes the metaphor to be whimsy and therefore without inherent value.

But metaphor is more than a figure of speech. It’s a figure of thought that can’t be reduced. Metaphor is like art or music and other residences of the right hemisphere. These things must be taken as whole entities and be considered in the manner of Gestalt.

Being analytical and representative, the left hemisphere can be educated. I could be wrong, but I don’t see how the right can be strengthened. It seems that its weakness is interference from the left, but the left is constantly wintering on that it’s always right, and all you need is to be more analytical. If you don’t have empathy, you can’t learn it. If you don’t understand metaphor, you’re pretty much out of luck. The same goes for anything in the experiential right hemisphere.

Might I be wrong? Sure, I’m no neuroscientist, but short of some external event, like a stroke, brain lesions, head trauma, or some such. I don’t see the vector. In a way, it’s like the advancement of technology. It’s difficult to stem the tide and reverse it. This is the challenge. In the West, we’ve been on a path to rationality and reason—left hemisphere fare—, which has shifted it further and further left. We just need more systems and processes.

Why the title, “Metaphor and Simile?” Metaphor resides in the province of the right hemisphere. Simile resides in the left. I remember listening to Joseph Campbell in the 1980s discussing the power of metaphor. Where metaphor is a mode of thought, simile is just a figure of speech. And it’s an analytical analogue. Love is like a rose. There’s a simple mapping. Love is a rose is more robust. John Lennon sings these lines in Mind Games.

Love is the answer and you know that for sure
Love is a flower you got to let it grow

Love is a flower. You got to let it grow. Grammatical structure aside—only an intractable problem for left-brainers—, this is a relatively simple metaphor, flowers grow and bloom; love grows and blooms. 

Follows are another few famous metaphors. These may feel more accessible than some others.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.”

William Shakespeare

“All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.”

Khalil Gibran

This one is particularly interesting as it suggests how diminutive words are relative to that of the mind—mere crumbs.

“And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Walt Whitman

How shall your flesh be a great poem? No like a great poem, but to be a great poem.

I’ve talked about Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled previously.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This poem is replete with metaphors.

The road itself is a metaphor for life, and the forks are the choices we make. Interpreted from a post-Modern perspective, and as Frost said himself, the trick is that it doesn’t matter which path is taken. In any case, irrespective of which paths you take, it will still make all the difference.

I’ve digressed.

McGilchrist says societies and people are moving too far into a left-dominant worldview, which only reinforces and accelerates this worldview. I don’t know how reversible it is. It’s swung both ways before, but that was prior to Scientism. This and hubris are not a great combination. In the end, the probability of teaching someone metaphor is on par with teaching someone to appreciate a work of art or a piece of music.

McGilchrist says we need to regain this capacity for metaphor—and empathy and so on—, but this requires (in my mind) a paradigm shift. I don’t see it happening at an individual level. There would need to be a cultural shift, and that is unforeseeable from here at the moment.

Here’s the challenge as I see it. In saying that we need to regain the ability to understand metaphor without assuming it can be deconstructed without a loss of meaning, he doesn’t provide a path—at least not yet. I’ve got two chapters remaining, so perhaps he’ll offer some guidance or conceptual framework in one of them. Otherwise, the future looks bleak. Of course, humans are adaptable. Evolution works that way, but you can also veer down an evolutionary dead end without knowing your journey has no viable future until you get there. And that will make all the difference. 

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4 thoughts on “Metaphor and Simile

  1. Just a note to say I’m enjoying your précis of McGilchrist. I haven’t read either of his works yet, my knowledge of him coming from secondary sources, and his various YouTube lectures. I first came across the left-right brain dichotomy from a book by Betty Edwards called “Drawing on the right side of the brain”, which is about teaching people how to draw. It’s a long story, but essentially she provides strategies for subduing the left brain’s analytical tendencies, which get in the way of artistic ability. Besides improving one’s drawing ability no end, she also (and quite literally) illustrates very well what I understand McGilchrist is saying. I look forward to reading more.

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    1. I appreciate your supportive comment. I have several comments in response.

      Firstly, Iain has a LOT of video content where explains own his material and meta surrounding it. He’s a pleasure to listen to.
      I’ve got one chapter remaining in The master and His Emissary, and it’s immediately apparent this work is necessarily the result of his experience. You may already know this, but he was a Lit professor at Oxford before retuning to Med school and becoming a psychiatrist. Then he decided to pursue a PhD in Philosophy with this topic as his thesis. We was also a poet and loves poetry.

      As for Betty Edwards, not ony had I read that book in the ’80s, my son re-purchased it a few years back. I’ll admit that I am not a right-brain artist, but when I took a drawing class in the late ’90s, one of our assignments was the inverted Stravinsky exercise. I was amazed at the result, but this is rather a parlour trick. Because the left hemisphere hasn’t imprinted and codified inverse images, activity is forced toward the right. However, McGilchrist, who is familiar with the book, cautions about taking it too literally. That happens to be correct (like a stopped clock), but it’s foundation is on the prior psychological misconception of split-brain activity that had all but been debunked. I was on the debunked train, so we resistant to listen to McGilchrist. But after listening to a couple of his introductory videos, I could see he was taking a different approach. He agreed that the psychological version was pop-psychology and pseudoscience, but the neuroscientific version was another thing still. This is the basis of his books—undoing the old and refreshing it with evidence.

      Here’s a nice 2-minute clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcGe-lhI7_g

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      1. Thank you very much for that. I thought I’d listened to that interview in full at one time, but clearly missed the direct reference to Betty Edwards – who clearly draws on the earlier, inaccurate and, as you say, now debunked train of thinking, to which I suspect I’m still a victim. That’s a risk of only having a casual acquaintance with someone’s work. I do find him a pleasure to listen to, but had better plunge into his book! Thanks again.

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