- The Case Against Metaphor:An Apologia
I knew that she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
Pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind.—Billy Collins
I'm on a walk in Point Reyes—a national seashore north of San Francisco—with a biologist. Where I see a generalized "nature," pretty enough, Rich sees a marsh that teems with activity: he points out green herons and yellow-legged sandpipers, Virginia rails and kingfishers, coots with white beaks and a coyote with ears red as a fox. We see the coyote only because Rich noticed a deer, quite far away, who "looked kind of nervous." He followed the deer's gaze to see the coyote lurking among the trees. All deer, to me, look nervous, but Rich has lived in Point Reyes for 30 years and his eyes, I imagine, are different from ordinary eyeballs—clearer perhaps, or wider—and his world seems more populated and friendlier than mine. We walk in that stance particular to naturalists, heads swiveling, our hands curved to fit the rim of the binoculars held against our chests.
He stops and points out a spider web glimmering on a bush. "It's the pumpkin spider," he says. It looks like an ordinary web to me, silky, luminescent, already a little tattered. I'm gazing around for fresh sights with my binoculars when Rich murmurs, as an aside, "The pumpkin spider eats her entire web every evening, then spins it new again in the morning." We walk on, but his words lodge—I can actually feel it happening—in the region of my brain that makes metaphor. I know that eventually I'll return to my room and write this fact down, and it will steep in my head overnight. I'll get up and make my coffee and stand on the deck, wondering if the fog will lift, if today we'll see elk, if I'll ever finish the essay I've been mulling over [End Page 115] all week. And when I sit down to write, the page will feel particularly blank, and I know I'll have to say something about the pumpkin spider and her web, because I'm a writer and that's what we do with interesting facts: we turn them into metaphor; we are metaphor-making machines. I know I will write something pithy and rhythmic, obliquely linking the spider's work to my own, something about how as a writer I, too, spend all day spinning webs, hoping to catch something substantial. I will wait all day on this gossamer thing, hungry. And at the end of the day I must be willing to eat this scaffold, make it disappear, and in the morning start all over again.
I already know this is the metaphor, waiting for me to grab it and run. It hovers in my peripheral vision, clouding everything, and I try to banish it for now; I want to just keep walking with Rich. I want to see what he tells me to see.
We see three wandering tattlers swooping in over the pond; they flutter and almost land, then flap up wildly and keep going. Rich tells me they're suffering from something called zugenruhe, a term coined by a German naturalist to describe migration anxiety. Though the birds have traveled all night and are surely weary, they can't bring themselves to land: their restlessness is too strong, the urge to keep moving too great. And already I can feel it, like a tickle in my throat, that strangled mandate: Must. . . . Make. . . . Metaphor. But I don't want to, at least not yet; I don't want to make that inevitable connection between migratory fervor and my own vast restlessness, a disquiet we must all feel, at one time or another: the anguished hover above a perfectly fine resting place. Already, in the instant it takes to walk a few feet farther toward the shore, I've formed a notion of how we quiver and keep ourselves aloft, despite our exhaustion.
These kinds of metaphors—intuitive correlations between inner and outer worlds—have always exerted a powerful...