Of course, you have been thinking since that last post, well of course you can “believe” these myths and Gods after you reduce them to symbols and metaphors. Your “belief” deserves to be put in quotation marks. The people who conceived those Gods and stories believed them literally. Their Gods were solid. All that seems absurd and fantastic to you now, so you make ideas out of it and reassign the reality to those ideas. What was true fact in the first century is non-factual truth in the twenty-first. You help your myths escape the slings and arrows of outrageous literalists—by turning those myths into airy nothings, as open to interpretation as the clouds.
Well, my hypothetical literalist (I require no proof you exist, by the way; I shall take your existence on faith), this seems like as good a time as any to talk about metaphor. When I say “metaphor,” you probably think of a literary device. You probably associate it with poetry, which you secretly or not-so-secretly believe to be irrelevant. So making the material metaphorical, making the concrete conceptual, strikes you as a diminishment. To reduce something to a metaphor is to ornamentalize irrelevance.
What I want to do is change the spin on metaphor. Metaphor needs an image makeover. Let me try and recontextualize metaphorical thinking for you. First of all: Metaphorical thinking is not magical thinking or even fuzzy thinking. Metaphor is the second highest operation of which the human mind is capable (the highest is that related Art of Making One: love). Even more importantly: Metaphor is one of the few means we have of describing and understanding what we cannot observe. Metaphor is crucial: I assert this as a poet and as a scientist.
As a scientist? Absolutely. Electron cloud and genetic transcription are the meteorological and graphical metaphors that science needed to understand, articulate, and communicate what the hell it was talking about. Quantum leap, chemical attraction, hydrogen bond, genetic code, sodium-potassium pump, wavelength—I could go on. The grunt work of science is mathematical; the big ideas rely on language to make sense of themselves, and, in the case of Einstein’s elusive “unified field,” are sometimes downright mystical. In fact, metaphor itself might be thought of as a way of unifying fields. Consider this analogy: Science is to metaphor as literature is to…metaphor. Because purely interior, unobservable processes—whether emotions or religious experiences—rely just as much on metaphor to be understood and articulated. Hope is the thing with feathers.
So when myth and scripture enter the second life of metaphor, we must see it as a blossoming. Diminishment—“making small”—is the wrong image, the wrong metaphor. Say rather they are being unlocked and accessed. They escape the literalist critique by revealing their transcendence of the literal. The meaning inheres in the Gods, figures, images, and events of these tall tales: their tiger-riding Goddesses, hoofed devils, magic rings, resurrections, cosmic lotuses, Paradisal roses, ash trees rooted in the navel of the universe, quests to the underworld, slain dragons, virgin births, Antichrists, seraphic choirs, fire-sleeved bodhisattvas, bearded creators, talking monkeys, seducing serpents, oceans of milk, rivers of honey, tormenting fires, winged ankles, winged backs, winged horses, world-supporting turtles, walled gardens, sky-shouldering Titans, and primordial golden eggs. I cherish the world’s mythaphors because, by meaning more than they are, they are even more than they mean.