At Flatford Mill: Real Life as Metaphor

Yesterday I was at Flatford Mill, the site of John Constable’s family business and the setting for some of his most famous paintings. Constable, like Van Gogh, is one of those painters whose work is so famous that it is difficult to actually ‘see’ it anymore. With Van Gogh, usually you ‘see’ the paintings once, the first time, and then you just see the t-shirts, coffee cups, and place mats after that.  I never ‘saw’ Constable at all, though. His paintings are so famous, and so ubiquitous on tea towels, coasters, and jigsaw puzzles, that I never even looked once, much less actually ‘saw.’ But with my daughter’s class at Flatford Mill, I looked at Constable for the first time—or at least, at the color reproductions we carried with us as we walked around the lush, green countryside visiting the places that he painted—and was amazed at what I saw: vivid, vivacious scenes of everyday life, painted with incredible intensity and love for the people and places depicted. I finally understood why Constable is so famous.

So yesterday morning, I was sitting in front of Constable’s father’s mill, on a bench that afforded me a view of Willy Lott’s house identical to the one that Constable painted in The Hay Wain, when a FedEx van drove up and parked right in front of my nose, blocking my view of Willy Lott’s house and the little mill pond and replacing it with the passenger door of the FedEx van, which had the slogan

The world on time

painted on the side of it. I was annoyed at the driver’s thoughtlessness—disrespect even—until I realized what a perfect example this was of metaphor imitating life, or life imitating metaphor, I’m not sure which. The FedEx van and its slogan are the perfect metaphor for the way the constant pressure of work and worry and deadlines obstructs my appreciation of the commonplace beauty of daily life—of looking at, really looking at paintings; of walking in the countryside on a gorgeous sunny day with my daughter; of sitting on a bench and simply doing nothing.

FedEx delivers the world on time, and for that I am truly grateful. But it also gets in the way of another world, a world that is just as important and, in fact, far more permanent than the one FedEx delivers. Constable painted a world so intensely present and so detailed that it is both a world completely in and of its time and a timeless world, too. The world that’s happening in The Hay Wain happens forever, and the fact that it happened at all is because John Constable stopped the other things he was doing and ‘saw’ it.

The FedEx driver picked up or dropped off whatever package he needed to pick up or drop off, and then he drove away, restoring to me my unobstructed view of Willy Lott’s house and another world—just in time, too.

The ‘Savings’ versus ‘Cuts’ Metaphors

In the U.K., the Labour Party has complained to the BBC over the broadcaster’s use of the word “savings” to describe the coalition government’s efforts to reduce the budget deficit. The Labour Party insists these efforts should be described as “cuts,” as this piece from The Guardian makes clear. All the fuss about cuts versus savings has to do with “associated commonplaces,” the term coined by philosopher Max Black to describe the clouds of metaphorical associations and connections conjured up by even the simplest words.

Metaphors—and the associated commonplaces they activate—matter because they frame how we think. A metaphor opens up certain avenues of thought even as it closes down others. Just think of the different associated commonplaces created by the terms ‘estate taxes’ versus ‘death taxes’, ‘healthcare reform’ versus ‘socialized medicine’, ‘collateral damage’ versus ‘dead civilians’, ‘rightsizing’ versus ‘mandatory job losses’. Each of these terms conjures up very different and typically contradictory associations. And the more metaphors like this are repeated, the more firmly entrenched the attendant associated commonplaces become.

The Labour Party doesn’t want the deficit reduction effort to be described as ‘savings’ since ‘savings’ has an overwhelmingly positive connotation, especially during an ‘age of austerity’. Conversely, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition doesn’t want the deficit reduction effort to be described as ‘cuts’ since ‘cuts’ has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, and implies inflicting real pain.

If this all seems kind of obvious and harmless, consider the dramatic effect different associated commonplaces can have. In Miller-McCune, Tom Jacobs describes how University of Michigan researchers asked two groups of people a question about the environment. One group was asked whether they believed ‘global warming’ was happening; the other group was asked whether they believed ‘climate change’ was happening. Around 86% of self-identified Democrats believed the environment was altering, regardless of how that process was described. Among self-identified Republicans, however, 60% endorsed ‘climate change’ but only 44% endorsed ‘global warming’. Why?

“‘Global warming’ entails a directional prediction of rising temperatures that is easily discredited by any cold spell,” Jacobs quotes the researchers as saying, “whereas ‘climate change’ lacks a directional commitment and easily accommodates unusual weather of any kind … Moreover, ‘global warming’ carries a stronger connotation of human causation, which has long been questioned by conservatives.” In other words, different associated commonplaces trigger dramatically different responses. Maybe useful to remember as we try to figure out how to save the planet by cutting CO2 emissions…

Metaphor and Euphemisms for Death

At a talk at The School of Life last week, someone drew a blank strip of paper from the globe, which entitles them to either 1) read a random passage from that day’s newspaper and I have to spot at least one metaphor within 30 seconds or 2) name any theme and I have to think of a relevant aphorism on the spot. If I fail in either of these tasks, that person gets a free copy of my book. In this particular case, the audience member did both. When she read from the Evening Standard, it took about 5 seconds to spot the first metaphor: ‘opaque’ in reference to a situation whose outcome was unclear. When she came up with ‘death’ as her theme, though, I had a brain freeze and couldn’t think of a single aphorism on that subject. (‘Brain freeze,’ by the way, a phrase I picked up from my kids, is a kenning.)

Of course, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of aphorisms about death. So it irked me to no end that I couldn’t think of one. About 15 minutes later, after having conceded defeat and moved on, the old chestnut

There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes

popped into my head. But it was too late: I had already given this person a book. The next morning I awoke with the perfect aphorism for death in my head, Malcolm de Chazal’s

Death is the bowel movement of the soul evacuating the body by intense pressure on the spiritual anus.

The incident reminded me of the role metaphor plays in disguising or sidestepping issues we’d rather not talk about, death being a prime example. Just think of all the euphemisms—gentle metaphorical circumlocutions—we have for death: passed on, passed away, no longer with us, gone, etc… Many of the euphemisms for death are funny, too, like ‘pushing up daisies.’ I remember a joke my Dad used to tell when I was a kid every time we drove by a cemetery: “You know, Jim, people are just dying to get in there.” I thought of it many many years later as I rode into the cemetery to bury him. Black humor suits a funeral as much as black suits.

Which makes Paul Hensby’s list of euphemisms for death worth a quick perusal. Hensby is proprietor of My Last Song, named “the best funeral website in the world” by the Your Funeral Guy website, and lists several dozen mortuary metaphors, including

Bit the big one

Fallen off the perch

Bought the farm

Gone West

Given up the ghost

Popped his/her clogs

and my personal favorite

Assumed room temperature (popular among mortuary technicians)