Saturday, December 8, 2012

when metaphor leaves it up to you to fill in the words

Joe Romm, author of Language Intelligence, recently blogged on the use of extended metaphor, reminding readers of Lincoln's powerful metaphor of "A house divided." Joe Romm specifically criticizes President Obama in comparison to Lincoln, calling out, "the failure of Obama to be a rhetorically inspiring leader on climate."

For regular verbal metaphors, I agree. I love quotes that evoke an image, no matter how brief, as in,  "Show me the beef," or "Read my lips."  In contrast, Obama's "Yes, we can," has only a shadow metaphor, a ghost metaphor full of pale images of various kinds of cans. That leaves me in a state of visual confusion.
None the less, I'm going to cut Obama some slack, and he can thank Woody Allen, if he wants to.

Nearly forty years ago, I spent an evening with friends at a Woody Allen movie marathon.  Hour after hour we laughed at slapstick and funny juxtapositions. The next morning, I woke up to the realization that Woody Allen worked a lot with visual, non-verbal, versions of metaphors. In scene after scene, it felt funny, but it wasn't until I verbalized what I'd seen that I saw how many visual puns and metaphors Allen had inserted in his movies.

So how does that give Obama a pass for not being a good rhetorician?

I'd make the case that Obama is a metaphor himself. Once I describe him verbally, as I did the scenes in the Woody Allen movies, then the metaphor comes together - or falls apart - as the case may be. 

Obama could himself be the metaphor for our country's heterogeneity, not quite rootless nor fully rooted, re-inventing ourselves, restlessly on the move, dribbling the proverbial basketball, looking for an opening.  He's the image of the self-created man in a self-created country.  He is a metaphor.

Even so, it wouldn't hurt if he took a hint from Romm.

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