Mixing metaphors

Many good-intentioned people seeking to help will tell you never to mix your metaphors, that it is a hallmark of poor writing, that it confuses or fails to engage the reader, and that it is either sloppy or amateurish. In almost all cases they will be right; but then, in almost all cases everyone giving general enough advice will be right about everything. And regardless of topic, in each case there will be exceptions and times when the rules are best ignored – or purposely violated. There is nothing definite after all, nothing set deeply enough in stone that we can rely upon it to guide us safely through a life in an uncertain world, and whatever guideline-giving stones we do have, their compositional material itself shifts and moves, crumbles and fades as the aeons pass and the stars turn, blinking out our existence with barely a backwards glance.

If that last paragraph didn’t provide enough, here are some more jumbled analogies, and I would be honored if my salvo above were considered half as touching as these, found in a single verse of the Rig Veda (book I, section 124, verse 4):

Like a wondrous bird she reveals her breast. She discloses delights like a singer of songs. She awakens sleeping mortals like a fly, ever returning, a most faithful apparition.

The “she” here, the subject (or hero) of the verse, is the dawn, personified, as she has been, for the entire string of verses of which this selection is a part. We start with her revealing, titillatingly, a part of her that is normally modestly covered, and then our joy deepens as she entices our ears (by allusion) as she has our eyes, before moving the metaphorical spotlight onto us as we are said to be “like flies”: briefest, busiest, and most utterly – annoyingly – meaningless of the natural world’s swarming life. Finally we find our focus brought back to good dawn as she is proclaimed to always come back, but not as our sturdy domestic companions a dog might, rather as a ghost. That last is particularly jarring, for who would even want to be revisited by a phantom? Differences of cultural judgments here, perhaps, or historical ones.

What does this verse do for us? To us? Where and how does it take us along with it? I can only speak for my own experiential journey, but I was quite struck by the literary grab bag offered here out of the depths of the second millennium B.C.E. The first sentence immediately brought to mind a red-breasted robin, and with that memories of my hometown, the climate, and the geography there that are all so different from the place where I currently pass my days. I was especially taken by the use of “reveals” rather than “shows” or “displays”; it caught my breath a little. Going from that to “a singer of songs” was something of a letdown as my image of a troubadour was thereby conjured, and unfortunately for me – possibly due to the kind of movies I watched during the eighties – troubadour largely equals buffoon. “Disclosing delights” is a lovely phrase though, if not quite as catching as the one that preceded it.

As another shift points now to the reader, “mortals like a fly” is a wonderful way of putting us in our place, in both applicable meanings of that. We find ourselves thinking of just how brief our time here really is, and we are also reminded of the small and insignificant position we occupy, despite the way we carry on. On repeated readings, however, it occurs to me that “She awakens sleeping mortals like a fly” might in fact be another reference to dawn and the manner in which she stirs us from our slumber. I feel a little embarrassed at my initial reaction – but no, now confusion. Flies wake us up in the most startling way, not at all like the breaking sun and its gentle pink hues do. What could be meant?

And then there is that final “most faithful apparition”. The sociohistoric trough at which we have fed during our formative years has caused us to think of the spirited dead in utterly negative terms; there is clearly something else afoot here. A reference to beneficent manifestations of one’s ancestors? That seems a real possibility, and we think that such visions might stem in part or in whole from our dreamworlds, notably given the context the conclusion appears reasonable. Whatever the case, more thought and, importantly, more emotions are triggered in us as we continue to interact with this brief text and its many metaphors. That is, its many mixed metaphors, and, we may wish to add, productively so.

 

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