The power of metaphor

In my inbox today, news that the Dutch edition of my novel August (to be called Willoos, I believe) is on its way. International editions are great that way, bringing with them the bonus of thinking again about a book that otherwise has faded into the past. Coincidentally, the first book I ever had published, Lester, popped into my head while I was out running during the week. Or more specifically, a particular story one of the characters tells in that book, a story I hadn’t thought about for years, came back to me. And the thing is, that story and the novel August, are linked in a way I hadn’t previously realised.

August is a novel that attempts to grapple with the problem of free will. Its two main characters are trapped upside down in a car, after it has tumbled down a hillside, and as the novel progresses and they tell one another their stories, we get to understand how it is they have come to be together in these circumstances. At the time of writing it, I had been reading and thinking about free will a lot, and attempted in the novel to give a dramatic form to my understanding of what is potentially a fairly dry and abstract philosophical notion. In hindsight, I didn’t entirely succeed, in part because my understanding of the issue I wished to represent came too late in the process, and a great deal of the early drafts consisted of me groping my way towards understanding. As is often the case with a novel, some aspect of the early drafts puts down roots, and no matter how you try to rethink the story, that element remains stubbornly in place.

So, while I eventually reached an understanding of the aspect of free will I wished to highlight (a tricky notion that maybe I’ll write about next time) the story I’d committed to didn’t quite deliver up that element. And then, during this week, I realised that I’d already written about exactly this issue before, in the form of a story an old tramp tells to two teenagers in Lester. And that was more than a decade before I’d consciously started to think about the issue of free will. The striking thing, when I realised this, was that the metaphor I used in that earlier novel, captured the essence of what I wanted to say about free will, much better than the August version. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere, both about the writing process, and about the way understanding develops.

With regard to writing, the lesson is that it’s very easy to end up trying too hard. Although a story should be motivated by the desire to say something about the world, when that message becomes too explicit, and the desire to tell it too didactic, something vital about the creative process is lost. To create in some sense is to discover, and when a piece of writing is really beginning to work, the process of developing it is full of surprise and indeed playfulness.

In terms of understanding, very often we comprehend something before we can fully explain it. Which is to say, very often the appropriateness of a metaphor is clear to us well before we can explain exactly what it is the image is conveying. We sense meaning, if you like, the sensation of connections forming in a manner that is consistent and satisfying, even if we can’t quite produce a blueprint for the final thought. Art often does this, I think: to view, to read, or to listen can create an experience akin to understanding. In schools we tend to ask ourselves, what does it mean for a student to know something? Our answers necessarily include some form of demonstration, a student understands a concept if they can apply it to an unfamiliar situation, say, or compare and contrast it with a similar but distinct notion. And that is reasonable; ultimately real understanding does deliver up those capacities. But knowledge is also a feeling, a sense of rightness, of fit, or indeed intellectual peace, that is not so easily dissected.

In the literature we more often aim at the second type of understanding. When we read a great passage in a novel, there is a moment of recognition, of ‘yes, this is how it is to be human’, and it is very often not the type of recognition that is easily translated into the dry and rigorous terms of a philosophical proposition. There is something delightful about the necessary looseness of fit between concept and expression, it provides the wriggle room in which we may invent.

The story in Lester did not quite rise to those heights, but it was nevertheless odd for me to realise how clearly I had anticipated, in narrative form, an understanding I would later struggle mightily to develop intelelctually.

I can’t leave this without at least nodding to the content of that story. It involved three travellers, each trying to row their way across a lake, and each confronted by the fact that while they had control of one oar, beside them sat fate, and it controlled the motion of the second. One person chose to ignore fate, paid no attention to what the other oar was doing, and simply tried with the single oar to make their way across the lake. Predictably, the journey was one of maddening circles. The second traveller not only acknowledged fate, but sat back and let it row him to his destiny. Again, unsurprisingly, the boat travelled in hopeless circles. It was only the third who understood that in order to progress, it was necessary first to observe the motion of the second oar and then adjust his own strokes accordingly. They could not get exactly where they wanted when they wanted, but they did get somewhere.

And that simple story (made more poetic in the novel) ultimately said as much about free will in two pages, than August managed to do with more than a hundred times the word count. Which in itself is a metaphor of sorts, I suppose.

2 thoughts on “The power of metaphor

  1. Edwin says:

    As I understood it, August represents the differing viewpoints of certain people on free will. There are those who believe that humanity is somehow special due to its ability to make conscious decisions, and although they wrongly justified it based on inability of others to predict their actions, the point remains valid. Consciousness as we understand it is a purely human concept that cannot be applied to other things or animals. A certain amount of assumption is here required, for instance bypassing the “all other humans are zombies” hypothesis, but the fact remains we do observe in ourselves a freedom of choice that we don’t witness in anything else. An illusion perhaps, but a one that is difficult to disprove.

    However, others argued that since human behaviour, despite its complexity, is essentially predictable, there is nothing special about humanity, and therefore they are no different from animals or robots. This is reasonably compelling, but even if humans are nothing special, the fact that choices are predictable does not negate their existence. Despite the observation that humanity’s actions do follow a bound set of laws, which is definitely important, the opposite would imply that decisions are somewhat arbitrary.

    Then there was the 3rd argument that the concept of free will is essentially irrelevant, because we will live our lives regardless. Although this is certainly true in a practical sense, it somewhat undermines the philosophical basis because it doesn’t address the question of free will, but rather sidesteps it.

    Now when you try to compare these with your metaphor represented in Lester, although the connections are clearly there, the ideas are not represented in the fullness they deserve. They are addressed in a practical sense, and somewhat unconvincingly. Obviously it is stupidity to hope for fate to bring one to something, if you have a specific goal in mind, but what if one is simply enjoying life as it floats past, living the moment without concentrating on a specific task? Is then the “destiny” option not a completely acceptable way to live one’s life? Furthermore, what the real-life equivalent to one ignoring fate and doing what they want would be is unclear. A person stubbornly, steadfastly working towards a specific goal will surely be more likely to achieve it.

  2. Hi Edwin

    You’re right, I think, and I’ll expand on this next time. Choices appear to be either the mechanistic result of prior states, which is to say not free, or they are random. That these are the only options we can describe doesn’t negate that choices exist, but makes it hard to establish choices can be both free and willful. The implication is that what feel like choices must be something other than that which we intuitively imagine, and that’s where the rowboat comes in: the distinction between the internal and external constraint, which the metaphor hints at, but doesn’t develop (because that’s what metaphors do). I’ll try to make this clearer next time.


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