What Is A Metaphor?

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Once upon a time there was an artist. He was a skilled artist, his paintings beloved of all in the village, but he was also an ambitious artist, and he wanted more than what he had. He wanted fame and wealth, and he wanted admiration and respect, and he wanted all that lay beyond these. Which was why, one day, he visited the local wise man. 

“Wise man,” said the artist. “I am content with my lot, but I am not content. I seek fame and wealth, and I seek admiration and respect, and I seek all that lies beyond these. How do I find them?”

“This is easy,” the wise man replied. “You must only answer one question: what is a metaphor?”

So the artist set off to find his answer. He climbed great mountains and traversed wide seas. He weathered angry storms and survived merciless droughts. He wrestled violent bulls and watched his limbs blacken with venom. Finally he returned to the wise man.  

“Wise man,” said the artist. “I have answered your question. A metaphor is the containment in each thing of all other things. The suffering of the lion is the suffering of the lamb. The joy of the child is the joy of the flea. Each one reveals the other: you need only look to see.”

“That is right,” the wise man replied, and rewarded the artist for his trials with the gifts of fame and wealth.

Some years later the artist returned. “Wise man,” he said. “You have taught me how all things reveal each other, and you have given me the gifts of fame and wealth. I am content with my lot, but I am not content. I seek also admiration and respect, and all that lies beyond these. How do I find them?”

“This is easy,” the wise man replied. “You must only answer one question: what is a metaphor?”

So the artist set off to find his answer. He plumbed deep caverns and scaled deadly cliffs. He fell into unfathomable love and met inexpressible loss. He tamed wild horses and spoke the language of ravens. Finally he returned to the wise man. 

“Wise man,” said the artist. “I have answered your question. A metaphor is the containment in each thing of my own self. The suffering of the lion is my own suffering. The joy of the flea is my own joy. In each one I am reflected: I need only remember myself to see.”

“That is right,” the wise man replied, and rewarded the artist for his trials with the gifts of admiration and respect.

Some years later the artist returned. “Wise man,” he said. “You have taught me how all things reveal each other, and you have taught me how all things reveal myself. You have given me the gifts of fame and wealth, and you have given me the gifts of admiration and respect. I am content with my lot, but I am not content. I seek all that lies beyond. How do I find it?”

“This is easy,” the wise man replied. “You must only answer one question: what is a metaphor?”

So the artist set off to find his answer. He cut through dark forests and rode caravans of ice. He crawled over bodies and forgot how to speak. He slaughtered fields of cattle and wept until dawn. Finally he returned to the wise man.

“Wise man,” said the artist. “I have answered your question. A metaphor is the containment in each thing of its own self. The suffering of the lion is its own suffering. The joy of the flea is its own joy. Each thing exists apart from the other, and together they form a whole, and although I am not those things, can never be those things, I am of that whole. I need only forget myself to see.”

“That is right,” the wise man replied, and rewarded the artist for his trials with the gifts of empathy and clarity. 

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Some years later the artist returned. “Wise man,” he said. “You have taught me how all things reveal each other, and you have taught me how all things reveal myself, and you have taught me how all things reveal what they are, and through this the greater self we belong to. You have given me the gifts of fame and wealth, and you have given me the gifts of admiration and respect, and you have given me the gifts of empathy and clarity. I am content with my lot, but I am not content.”

“Your last gift is too much,” the artist continued. “I see too clearly the suffering of the lion, which I have caused. I see too clearly the joy of the flea, which vanishes in an instant. I see too clearly the despair of the wise man, whose wisdom changes nothing. I see too clearly the world as it appears, rather than the world as I wish to see it. Please, let me return what you have given.”

“This is easy,” the wise man replied, and touched the artist’s forehead, and took back his gifts of empathy and clarity, and all the knowledge that afforded these gifts, and all the knowledge they afforded in turn.

The artist was pleased to be rid of what pained him, and he was pleased to retain his fame and his wealth, the admiration of his admirers and the respect of his peers. 

While he spent the rest of his days painting works of brilliant color and vivid spectacle, few who saw these works recognized the world they depicted. And the few who did knew of no other. 

And when the artist walked past the wise man’s house one day, at the end of his life, he remembered nothing of the trials he once endured, nor the wisdom they brought him. 

And he was content with his lot.

But he was not content.


Header image via Netflix.