For generations, English teachers have been telling their students that one mark of great literature is the intelligent use of symbols and metaphors. Over time, however, the public’s tolerance for clever imagery has worn thin, such that there is now an inverse relationship between the number of literary devices you can use and the number of books you can sell.
For those currently enrolled in one of the country’s six-million MFA programs in creative writing, this unfortunate turn of the screw is a harsh blow that will likely rock their collective boat and send students scurrying to catch the next bus to greener pastures. Seduced by the once-formidable cultural gravitas of the literary novelist, and persuaded to enter graduate school by the prospect of working for Target, these impressionable youngsters have staked their lives on the idea that it is better to say something indirectly through symbols and metaphors than to say something by just saying it. Stripped of these literary tools, many young writers find themselves in the unenviable predicament of having nothing to say and no way of saying it—a situation that leads many of them to apply for art school, where mystifying people with metaphors is still encouraged.
Before hitting the panic button and setting out to tend a new garden, however, it may be helpful to understand how we arrived at this fork in the cultural steak.
But first, a primer:
In high school, we all learned that a metaphor is a word or phrase that stands for something else, and is often used to compare one thing to another, or act as an imaginative bridge between a person, thing, or place, and a larger idea. For example, in the sentence, “The classroom is a zoo,” the writer is trying to tell us that the animals in the local zoo are an alert, studious bunch who pay attention to their handlers and do everything that is asked of them. Likewise, the phrase “time is money” tells students that the more time they waste, the more money they will make. People often confuse metaphors and symbols, though, which is understandable. Symbols are similar to metaphors, except when they’re not, which is why on the SAT, if you’re asked to choose between the two, answering “symbol” gives you a better statistical chance of being right.
This lack of clarity is only one of the reasons people have soured on the idea of using one thing to say another. If you don’t know what the first thing is, after all, how are you supposed to figure out what the second thing is?
But there are other reasons.
Surprisingly, the cultural tide against the use of symbols and metaphors did not begin to explode because too many of them were used in books. No, the problem started when they began showing up on movies. In the old days, movies told simple stories that anyone could follow. Then Orson Welles made the movie Citizen Kane, ending an entire generation’s tolerance for things that pulse with larger meaning and significance.
Now, before he made Citizen Kane, Welles had already damaged his credibility by airing a radio show called, “The War of the Worlds,” in which he pretended to be reporting that the world was being invaded by Martians. People panicked, believing it was true, and began calling travel agents to find out how they could arrange a flight aboard an alien spacecraft to get off this godforsaken planet. To calm the travel agents, Welles explained, “No, no, no, the Martians are not real, they’re a metaphor for human alienation and our fear of people who have giant heads and slitty eyes and bluish skin.”
You mean it’s all bullshit?, the travel agents replied.
“In the literal sense, yes, it’s a lie,” Welles explained, “but in the metaphorical sense, it is true—truer than any fact-based report of an alien invasion could ever be.”
Why did you lie to us?, the agents asked. To make us look like fools?
“No, to get at a larger truth—a truth that can only be told through symbolism and metaphor,” Welles replied.
Liar, liar, pants on fire, said the travel agents.
“That’s the idea,” Welles said. “See how the image of fiery pants drives home the larger message of my dishonesty?”
But what are we going to do? We sold thousands of tickets to Mars based on your report, the agents protested. Now we will have to refund all that money.
“That was indeed foolish,” Welles replied. “Perhaps you could tell people they are going to Mars, then send them to, say, Yemen or Syria.”
After duping the public on his radio program, Welles went on to make Citizen Kane, and that’s when the golden age of metaphor began sliding down the slippery slope of stupidity into the silver-plated age of loud-mouthed literalism.
Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a made-up character who represents, in real life, a man named William Randolph Hearst, who was one of the richest men in the world. Mr. Kane is not much of a citizen, though, and he does not need a cane, so the film is rich with irony right from the start.
Anyway, at the end of the film—after he’s made a bazillion dollars and spent his life building mansions, buying art, and sleeping with movie stars—the last word Mr. Kane says before he dies is “Rosebud.” Nobody knows what to make of this. For a while, people think Rosebud might refer to a woman. But no, at the end of the movie it is revealed that Rosebud is the name of the sled Mr. Kane had when he was eight years old. The End.
Ever since, generations of Film Studies students have been told that Mr. Kane’s sled isn’t just a sled—it’s a symbol of his lost innocence and the emptiness of material wealth. The sled represents the last time in Mr. Kane’s life when he was truly happy, and was, it turns out, the only thing he ever loved.
In recent years, however, students listening to this explanation have stared glassy-eyed at their teachers, nodding in silent agreement, while a voice inside their own heads screams, “That is complete nonsense! There’s no way a sled meant that much to Mr. Kane—especially that sled!”
Consider: The sled Mr. Kane supposedly pined for wasn’t much more than a plank of wood with a couple of runners attached. It couldn’t have been very comfortable to ride, steering it would have been difficult, and stopping it next to impossible. Citizens of snowy climates know all too well that sleds like that don’t work if the snow isn’t packed extremely hard—and if the snow is too hard, you’re looking at the kind of runaway sledding situation that often ends in a concussion or serious spinal injury, especially if you elected to go down head first, as any kid with an ounce of self-respect would surely do. When that happens, a down jacket and stocking cap can help cushion the blow, but when you slam head first into a retaining wall at full speed, there isn’t much you can do except close your eyes and pray. Thus, if Mr. Kane actually had a sled like that, he probably didn’t associate it with pleasurable memories; he probably associated it with intense pain and a trip to the hospital. You know, the kinds of things that happen . . . just before you die!
This is why no one believes in symbols and metaphors anymore: the messages they supposedly contain are notoriously unreliable. As we have just seen, the most famous symbol in the history of cinema is, to use a particularly aromatic metaphor, complete horseshit. The truth is, Charles Kane uttered the word “Rosebud” at the end of his life because he thought he was going to die, which is what he probably thought every time he climbed on that sled. There’s nothing symbolic about it. Nothing could be more literal.
Having perpetrated this string of hoaxes and lies in the movies, Orson Welles also poisoned the use of metaphorical symbolizing in literature. English teachers everywhere have been fighting the good fight, trying to get their students to understand the communicative power of a compelling image—but to no avail. These days, students are not shy about challenging a teacher’s authority. “How do you know the tree is a penis?” a student might counter, or “Maybe the flower is just a flower, have you thought of that?”
This kind of thing never would have happened back in the days when everyone knew what stood for what. But now, everything is chaos. People are free to interpret anything any way they want, so trying to inject extra meaning and significance into a narrative is pointless.
All of which is to say, if you are trying to write a book and still think you should pack it with symbols and metaphors, think again. They’re confusing. People don’t like them. And even if you come up with a good one, people won’t believe you.
That wasn’t always the case, of course—and I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars to prove it.###