I was curled up on my couch listening to a radio program about neurobiology. Apparently there is an area of the brain that, when damaged, causes a loss of the ability to understand metaphor. If you tell certain stroke victims, for instance, that “George Bush is no rocket scientist,” they understand it to mean that he is a politician with no background in the aeronautical sciences. Since this was one of the examples actually cited by the researchers speaking on the radio, it rather begged for a little meditation on literalism in politics as well as the religiously inspired fundamentalism that seems to have swept our public discourse.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I do not want to imply that literalism is a form of brain damage. But I thought the broadcast was interesting because the mental condition seemed like (as in simile) the kind of speech so prominent in debates that increasingly pit “secular humanists” against certain religious and political conservatives. If every word in “George Bush is no rocket scientist” is read only in its narrowest sense, the literalism of its “truth” would require skinning from it all unspoken, contextual, syllogistic and cultural meaning: to wit, that if rocket science is a complex area of study, George Bush is not therefore a student of complexity.
Let me make a second disclaimer for those who are quick with inference: I do not think George Bush is a dimwit. (Wrong as rain, but not a dimwit. Not, let me hasten to add, that I think rain is wrong.)
What triggers the disinclination to metaphor? What would make someone so resistant to the wordplay, the poetry, the malleable space that allows the mind to leap and compare and fictionalize and pretend? Literal readings make words holy; and whether that is an impulse motivated more by respect, fear of blasphemy or mere authoritarianism is becoming an issue in a world where hundreds of millions are newly born-again evangelical/literalist/fundamentalists of one sort or another. I must confess that I am suspicious of a mindset that never veers from face value. I think that metaphor is related to the ability to empathize. You substitute one concept for another, you imagine that two very different things are somehow the same. When I say that the room is hotter than an oven, I’m invoking the oven symbolically, parabolically and yes, hyperbolically. Metaphor is a tiny unit of relativism, I suppose, and relativism is certainly under siege as the property of atheists and communists. But while the image of me-in-the-roasting-pan is not true in one sense, it is accurately evocative as a communicative matter, the kind of expression that connects us in our distinct and foreign bodies one to another. You are likely to feel the urgency of my misery just a little bit more than if I said, “I’m hot.”
Why am I going on about this? I guess because I’ve been arguing with an evangelical friend of mine who sees my understanding of language as dangerous. My friend takes me to task for what he calls my “nihilism” and “postmodernism.” And by that he meant specifically that I’m the sort who “views the Bible as fairy tale.” He’s a true-blue believer, one who carries a wad of those “Just a Theory” stickers to paste on “evolutionist” biology textbooks, Harry Potter novels and Barney dolls.
The culture wars that began in the early 1990s have long since braced me for debates in which I’m called a vulgar relativist. But recently it seems as though this discussion goes well beyond careless epithet and has entered a land where there can be no middle ground. It is as though we’ve entered a place of utterly incompatible “worldview.” I know, I have my own convictions that are abundantly self-evident to me. Perhaps that faith in the transparent rightnesss of what I’m saying is my own form of evangelical self-righteousness. And, I admit, I was raised to think of the Bible as parabolic, meaning I always thought of it as a book with lessons that were to be applied in daily life, but in a metaphoric way, because that is how we bring that ancient wisdom to bear in the present. You take two situations and make a comparative leap, a reasoned deduction. You relate the two not because they are identical but because they have some crucial element in common. It’s the same thing I do in analogizing two cases in the law. There is creative play in that, but it also contains the seed, the first step, of something like the scientific process.
And so I read with some curiosity and foreboding about creationists who continue to wage war against the notion of evolution, who argue with flat insistence that God made the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. They dispute claims of paleontologists that fossils are tens of millions of years old as inconsistent with the Bible’s characterizations of the world as 6,000 years old. (The Answers in Genesis website advises believers to ask of nonbelievers: “Were you there?”) In response to religious pressure, the Cobb County Children’s Museum, in Georgia, is rumored to be “updating” the displays of Tyrannosaurus rex by “adding footprints next to the dinosaur bones to show that man and beast once lived side by side.”
And in northern Kentucky, evangelical minister Ken Ham is building a $25 million Museum of Creation, which will show, purportedly, AIDS as God’s punishment of homosexuals, and a Tyrannosaurus rex chasing Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I know, too, that this is a matter of faith, of perspective. What worries me is the general collective shift in this direction. The insistence upon flat meanings is a way of not looking behind words. The injunction not to look behind words is a habit of deference, of faith, of doing as one’s told without question, even where the physical evidence is overwhelmingly contradictory. It would not be anything I’d be concerned about if this didn’t seem also to be at the heart of an increasingly successful evangelical push to merge the interests of church and state. And an ideology of obedience to the literal word is the last thing we need in a world as overheated (metaphor: oven, pressure cooker, boiling pot) as ours.