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Cruciform Imagination, Part 1: Simile & Metaphor

As you know, metaphor and simile are not at all the same thing. The distinction between the two makes all the difference in the world. Let’s compare them using the song:

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine You make me happy when skies are gray You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you So please don’t take my sunshine away”

Ahhh. What a simple, sweet use of metaphor. Now imagine if this precious song were written using simile instead:

“You are like sunshine, my only one like sunshine You make me happy when my mood is as gray skies You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you So please don’t take my one who is like sunshine away”

Doesn’t quite have that same ring, does it?

This is because, of course, similes use “like” or “as” to compare two different things while metaphors compare these things by declaring them to be the same, even though in a literal sense, they are not.

I like to personify ideas in order to understand them. Please excuse the forthcoming use of metaphor to describe simile, but I can’t refrain.

Simile is sensible. Simile walks into the room with a nicely ironed shirt and combed hair, and would be outraged at himself if you were to tell him he has a little bit of food stuck in his teeth. He is careful to regard the world just as it is, never letting his feelings get the best of him. He religiously abides by the law of analogy, fully aware of how all things are alike to one another, yet unalike. His world is ordered into a handsome hierarchy of Being, and he knows just where he fits in, because he has given it extensive thought. He gives everything extensive thought. He is, one might say, anal retentive.

Metaphor bursts into the room proclaiming that she is a rag doll breaking apart at the seams, there’s a tempest raging in her heart, and everyone she has ever loved is a stranger.

Clearly, Simile would have none of that. There is no quicker way to violate every one of his rules. One thing may share similarities with another, but by no means can one thing be another! He would tell Metaphor to calm down, that she is clearly not a rag doll and that it is an impossibility for the blood-pumping organ in her chest to contain within itself a tornadic storm.

To which Metaphor would reply, “You don’t get it. You don’t understand me.”

And this is crucial. Metaphor does not have time to arrange her world into neatly chosen comparisons; she has emotions to express. Implicit in this urgency is Metaphor’s wisdom: there is a truth to life truer than literal truth. She knows that when the situation calls for it, she must do greater justice to the truth of the moment than Simile will allow for with mere factual comparison.

Metaphor knows that it is not enough to say, “You are like sunshine,” but that love compels us to say, “You are my sunshine.” This is called emotional intelligence.

(Quick disclaimer: I have deliberately exaggerated both Simile and Metaphor to make a point here. Similes can be delightful, and very emotionally sensitive, while metaphors can be dry and boring. In addition, the gender roles implicated in each example are in no way meant to be prescriptive.)

Now, when metaphors are constructed one on top of another in an overarching narrative, something wonderful happens. No longer are these comparisons constricted to momentary sentences—it becomes possible for characters, plots, and scenes to take on metaphorical qualities. Here we’re moving into the realm of symbolism, where entire stories become enchanted with layers upon layers of meaning.

I’m a sucker for stories like these. One such story that has greatly influenced my imagination over the years is the Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away, which illustrates the gifts and snares of commerce between the human and spirit worlds through the decisions of its main character, Chihiro. Throughout the story, Chihiro must protect and retain her own humanity by practicing the virtues of hospitality, courage, and wisdom towards the spirits she encounters, not all of whom are well-intentioned. By the end of the film, she has grown into a true poverty of spirit.

I have found that, by analogy, Spirited Away has much to say about how I as a songwriter relate to the ideas and intuitions that enter my imagination, many of which are archetypes much older than me (timeless spirits in a sense). In this way, I believe it is an instructive film for those of us especially concerned with tending to our inner imaginative worlds.

In my next post I will examine two vignettes from Spirited Away and make a few observations about what we can learn from them. I will then explore some metaphors for the imagination itself and ask specifically Christian questions about what it means to accept and embrace the poverty of our imaginations in the image of the cross of Christ. And, of course, Metaphor will accompany me for the journey and make some insights of her own along the way. Stay tuned!


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