Metaphors, Aphorisms, and Volcanoes

There is a metaphor and an aphorism for everything, including volcanic eruptions.

In thinking about the eruption of Iceland’s volcano, I was reminded of The Prose Edda, the 13th century Icelandic epic by Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda is a handbook for aspiring poets and, according to Snorri, by far the most important thing for poets to know is how to make a proper kenning.

A kenning is a metaphor that replaces a proper name with a poetic description of what that person, place or thing is or does. For example, in ancient Icelandic verse, a sword is not a sword but an “icicle of blood”; a ship is not a ship but the “horse of the sea”; eyes are not eyes but the “moons of the forehead”.

Though invented by ancient Icelandic bards, kennings are still quite common. We use them every day. Simple phrases such as ‘brain storm’ and ‘pay wall’ are basic kennings, as is ‘pain in the ass’ as in you are not you but ‘a pain in the ass’.

Kennings are often among the first metaphors children produce. I remember standing at a window with my eldest son, Gilles, when he was about two. We were looking at a rainbow. He pointed to the sun streaming from behind some dark clouds and blurted out “big sky lamp”, a classic kenning if there ever was one.

So in honor of the Icelandic volcano, it seemed only natural to come up with some appropriate kennings.

Pliny the Younger, writing about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, described the volcano’s plume as “a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches’.” So in kenning form, this eruption could be described as ‘a giant tree of smoke and ash’.

The thing about kennings, though, is that they inevitably reveal our true feelings. If you want to know what you really think of someone or something—your significant other, maybe, or your job—try coming up with some relevant kennings. You might be surprised.

The most appropriate kennings for this eruption, which is overwhelmingly seen in the context of personal inconvenience and financial damage, are good examples of this. So better perhaps than ‘giant tree of smoke and ash’ are kennings like ‘nightmare of air travelers’, ‘disrupter of business meetings and state funerals’, ‘bankrupter of airlines’ maybe, and ‘windfall for train, bus and ferry operators’ certainly.

For me personally, living as I do under one of the flight paths for Heathrow, the best kenning is: ‘silencer of the skies’.

Which is another interesting thing about kennings: They often highlight some seemingly insignificant aspect of an event that later turns out to be decisive. Who could have predicted that, for me at least, the biggest impact of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano would be a few days of peace and quiet?

The eruption of another Icelandic volcano in 1783 is believed to have been one of the causes of the French Revolution, because the ash cloud led to a poor harvest in France and that, in turn, led to even more public unrest. Who can say what the ultimate consequences of this eruption will be?

In all the commentary around the eruption, the most insightful comment I’ve heard came from an Icelandic meteorologist. I doubt he intended this statement as an aphorism, but it certainly is. “Something is happening,” he said, “but we don’t know what it is.”

(Presented at the TED Salon, London, 21 April, 2010)

Aphorisms by Rabbi Rami

Rabbi Rami describes himself on his website as a “holy rascal”, and that seems to me a wholly accurate description. This rabbi’s aphorisms have something of Rumi and Khayyam in them, the whiff of incense mixed with the laughter of the spiritual trickster. Rami, an adjunct professor of religion at Middle Tennessee State University, teaches writing—specifically, aphorism writing—as spiritual practice in the university’s certificate program in writing and at Path & Pen, an annual writers’ conference held at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville. Rami is one of only two other people I know of who teach aphorisms: One is a high school teacher who uses aphorism writing in one of her classes and the other is Sara Levine; you can find out how she uses aphorisms in teaching by watching her presentation at the 2008 aphorism symposium in London. Rami says the goal of his course is “to get people to notice and think about the power of brief writing in their daily lives; to understand how this writing is constructed and how/why it works; and to encourage students to create aphorisms of their own.” To see how Rami achieves all three of these goals in his own writing, read the selection of his aphorisms below. If you want more, as you surely will, follow Rabbi Rami on Twitter.

“Emotions are choices.” Just not ones you get to make.

“In reality nothing is born and nothing dies.” Stop wasting money on birthdays and funerals.

“The only way to see the whole is to step outside of it;” at which point, of course, it is no longer the whole.

Be willing to let anything happen, even if what is happening is that you aren’t willing.

If you think that it’s the thought that counts, try remembering your anniversary and then doing nothing about it.

Detachment is the key to enlightenment, but who cares?

“Don’t allow people to push your buttons.” Wear your clothes inside out.

The difference between being alive and being dead is being able to tell the difference between being alive and being dead.

The Demented Trumpet

On Monday, I finished the final draft of my next book, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (published by HarperCollins on February 8, 2011, since you asked…). Listening to the radio this morning, I was struck (the use of ‘struck’ in this sense is a metaphor, by the way; I was not physically assaulted while listening) by the conversation about the new tower, designed by Anish Kapoor, to be constructed in London in time for the 2012 Olympics. In discussing the object, the presenter and guests came up with all sorts of lovely metaphors, just as everyone who has talked or written about it over the past 24 hours has done. Kapoor’s design has been called

a demented trumpet

a twisted G clef

a sisha pipe, or Hubble Bubble

an arterial shape … with vaguely intestinal tubes

You can see a picture of the design here; feel free to send along your own metaphors for it.

The effort to describe this unusual building/sculpture is an excellent example of why metaphor is essential in daily life. We can only come to understand the unknown by comparing it with what is already known, and metaphor is the way we have invented to do this. The paradox and beauty of metaphor is that we can only comprehend what something is but describing what it is not.