Metaphor to Reality
It’s a common literary technique to use physical things for metaphorical reasons. For instance in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante is on a physical journey from hell to heaven that is meant to be a metaphor for his spiritual journey or in the Bible, Israel’s physical wilderness wanderings for 40 years are meant to be metaphorical of their spiritual wanderings. So you have some physical object or action that happens in a scene or a character and it is also meant to be a metaphor for some non-physical thing: like a character trait or theme. A messy room symbolizing a messy mind of a character.
But you can do the opposite, too. That is where you start with a metaphor and that becomes a physical, literal thing in the story. It’s kind of hard to understand abstractly so let me show you a few examples.
I noticed this in two places in the Bible. First in the gospels when Jesus heals a blind man. The strange thing about this is that nowhere in the Old Testament does it say that the Messiah will heal blind people. In Isaiah 35, when God is talking about all the good things that are going to happen when he comes back and it says that the “eyes of the blind will be opened”, but that seems to be a metaphor. Why? Well, earlier in Isaiah, in chapter 6 when God is judging Israel he says that Isaiah is to “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” That is, the physical faculties of seeing and hearing are metaphors for moral and spiritual faculties. So later in Isaiah, God says that because Israel is spiritually and morally blind and God will give them spiritual moral eyes, cure their blindness. But when Jesus comes, he unexpectedly opens physically blind eyes. The metaphor of blindness came first, then physical blindness.
Another example of this is with the metaphor of a furnace. In Isaiah 48, God says that the exile is like being in a furnace (48:10). That is, a fiery furnace is a metaphor for physical exile.
But then, in the book of Daniel, when the Israelites are in exile Shadrach, Meschach, and Abendego are literally thrown into a fiery furnace. The metaphor came first, then the literal thing.
So why then this literary technique, what does it do?
Well, I’m not sure, at least not sure of every reason. But I do know that it tells you something about the author and something about the text.
First, it shows you the genius the author is capable of. Bach famously wrote a short phrase that represented his name and would sprinkle it throughout his work. This is the phrase.
This reverse metaphor technique demonstrates the literary virtuosity of God, the ultimate author, that he can take imaginary things and make them real, make worlds with this mind and then his hands.
You see if you go into a movie or a book is dumb and adolescent, I’m not going to give it careful attention. But if you go in think that it is a work of high genius, you will attend to every detail.
Second, it shows us that the text is a deep and layered thing. That it surprises. And as much as you think you know how it’s going to end or where the plot is going, you don’t. Under every metaphor there might be a real thing.