Accuracy of metaphor and debates

On The Media-- Eau-Stained Wretch
BOB GARFIELD:: He describes another perfume as, quote, "sweeping over you like the silent, massive shadow of an Airbus A340, and yet another is "like looking down into a well of cool, black water." I told Burr he had a real knack for turning a phrase, but that I had no idea what he was talking about.
CHANDLER BURR: It's not meant to be literal, certainly. We're really avoiding the use of adjectives, because I think that that's a cheap way of doing it. I think that metaphors, while they're more abstract, are actually, in the long run, going to be more accurate. You talk about works of art, sculpture, movies, dinner, in terms of what it makes you feel and placing it in a context. And that's what I do with a perfume. When you smell this perfume, this is the sensation that you're going to get.
BOB GARFIELD:: Yeah, Chandler, but is a musk? It is a floral? Is it a spice?
CHANDLER BURR: Exactly.

This is a very revealing little interchange between a writer and a reader. First, it again underscores the importance of negotiating the content but, more importantly, it also hints at a self-awareness on the part of the writer about how metaphors actually work. He is absolutely right. Metaphors are not only a much more effective way of communicating abstract concepts but also allow the listener/reader to build a much higher quality of mental image of what is being described. This is not true of abstract concepts only (it is hard to claim that smell is abstract, anyway) but rather of complex concepts, which is pretty much all of them.

Of course, accuracy is a slightly inappropriate metaphor for the workings of metaphor. George Lakoff uses the term aptness to describe how we can relate to metaphors as descriptive devices. This gives the vocabulary to finally talk about metaphorical descriptions and evaluate them rather than just discarding them as unworthy of discussion.


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