Monday, May 23, 2016

When a Thing Becomes a Metaphor for Something Other Than Itself

Most of the things we see about us on a given day do not have descriptive tags attached to them. Even though all of us come into the world having to learn the names and functions of things through instruction and experience, most of our species, past a certain basic age, know and can distinguish the objects they encounter on.

 Furthermore, most of us are able to visualize with some accuracy an object once we are presented with its name. If we are presented with the name of an object we do not know, curiosity often drives us to make the connection. The reverse is also true. "Hey," we ask individuals we suspect will know, "what is this gadget?"

Questions persists: How does a person know what a thing is? How does a person know what a thing means? At what point does a thing become a metaphor for something other than itself? And one final question, although may others are possible, What happens when a specific object, say a fountain pen, has differing meanings for different individuals?

At one time in your life, stories meant different things to you than they do now. Stories meant a series of linked, related events in which one or more characters attempt to discover something, meet obstacles from their attempts, then encounter the object of their search in such circumstances that they are changed from the individuals they were at the beginning of the quest.

You knew early on if a particular iteration of this formula would please you because, even then, you understood how the story is supposed to give you an idea of what the quest for discovery is, and because, particularly back then, you enjoyed the early attempts to discover what the obstacles were, because obstacles were action.

You did not realize, early on, how some of the obstacles, both in movies and novels, reflected certain cultural or political biases or how the bad guys always had humiliating payoffs and how women such as Anna Karenina and Nora Helmer had to pay for their courage to break conventional boundaries of behavior.

A visit to some of your notebooks and earlier stories as well as fictional works in progress reveal to you how many different times you have a character observing that he or she has not been him/herself lately, that things aren't always what they appear to be, and that definitions and identities are difficult to come by.

Such things are not mere repetitions; they are preoccupations with states of awareness growing fuzzy, where boundaries have become vague, and where identity is unstable. Many of your formative years were spent in Los Angeles, where buildings are torn down, replaced, given extreme makeovers. 

Things there may be what they seem to be, but many other things are not what they appear to be because of some impatience to put a new fingerprint over an older one. You follow the progress of Los Angeles as though keeping track of an old lover, looking for cracks in a facade, alternately enjoying the breakup and wondering what might have been.

The best philosophy for now is the sense of things being what you wish them to be after you have done enough research to make sure you've not taken the thing for granted and in the process missed something important. You have to let a thing, whether it is a book, a small pebble, or the tube of anchovy paste you discovered in your kitchen storage area, speak to you, objectify it to the point where you can ask of it what it wants you to know.

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