The Value of a Metaphor
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Today, a quote came up in class from Amiri Baraka’s “The New World”:
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding
Wrap your head around that. A line about misinformation, given to us through a metaphor. A metaphor is the definition of misinformation. A metaphor is imaginary. Sometimes it’s a struggle for teachers to convince students that fiction has value, even though it’s imaginary. What use is this imaginary world to me? How will it help me achieve my goals? Get into college? Be successful? What use does a metaphor have to me? Why does Baraka give us a metaphor, a synecdoche, instead of the whole person? Is it the news media? Someone shouting on a street corner? Politicians? Perhaps someone we know? Who wants us to consume false narratives? What reason do they have to misrepresent reality? How have we come to accept that the “shoulders, hair and tongues”, the façade, the appearance, is more important than the substance? The conscience doesn’t make up misinformation, the construct of the person does. In other words, the person that they want to appear to be, not that they are, or should be. Students need to bring their imagination to a metaphor in order to understand it. The metaphor transforms the world by saying what isn’t. It makes the impossible possible. It both takes away our control and gives it to us. It takes away our control because it creates a false reality. We take back control by interpreting the metaphor. The artist and the audience create at the same time. Baraka takes one reality and transforms it into another. It’s the tongue, not the person, or the voice, responsible for the falsehood. He gives us the truth by taking us away from it, and then demanding that we interpret the truth for ourselves. We must use our imagination to understand. We must use our imagination to create “A New World”. Baraka’s speaker ends with a very literary declaration:
Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
and be that dream in purpose and device.
We need to be able to recognize a construct and call it for what it is, a construct, not a reality. But we need to forge a new reality by understanding the truth, and then imagining what’s possible. And what’s possible is not one interpretation, or one thing. It’s many things. The metaphor: the foundation of democracy.
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