My favorite metaphor of recent years comes by way of John Updike, who wrote that “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”, and though the passage from which this acid maxim is extracted goes on to vitiate its power, there is no better, briefer, or more memorable explanation for the absurd existence of Britney Spears, say, or Nicole Richie, or Bill Clinton, or, for that matter, any preening local-celebrity weatherman you or I might know of.
That’s one of the things a metaphor does: It compresses a large and unwieldy facet of reality into a powerful little nugget that makes it easier to grasp and, by turning it slightly towards the light, allows us to see that reality in a new way (although it should be noted that the subset of people who appreciate the power of metaphor probably intersects only to a very slight degree with the subset of people who have any desire to see Nicole Richie in a new way, or at all.)
I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like, a new hardcover anthology of “history’s greatest analogies, metaphors, and similes” compiled by Dr. Marty Grothe, doesn’t contain Updike’s comment on celebrity, and for that matter contains far too few citations from that indispensable genius.
On the other hand, the collection does contain a great many other valuable and illuminating comparisons. Dr. Grothe, a psychologist and management consultant by profession, isn’t one of those editors who merely sweeps his broom around a few dusty corners of the Web and prints whatever sticks. For the most part, he’s after something deeper, the “ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us”, as Franz Kafka put it in a letter to a friend.
Even when, like far too many anthologies of this sort, Grothe includes quotes from politicians, comedians, and others who themselves are used to speaking from behind masks of various sorts, those metaphors are generally pretty good, as when Henry Winkler unfonzically commented in a commencement address that “(a)ssumptions are the termites of relationships”.
However, there are times, here and there, as the book’s title perhaps inadvertently would suggest, that Grothe is sometimes a little too promiscuous about what he allows into his anthology. Hey, I just metaphor I didn’t like: Omar Sharif, the actor who played Doctor Zhivago, is quoted here as saying, “bridge is a sport of the mind”.
That is quite possibly the most boring figure of speech in human history.
Worse, Grothe is the most likely to talk down to his readers, in the explanations he appends to the quotes, when the metaphor in question is the most banal and the least in need of explanation.
For example, Grothe notes that the great linebacker Joe Schmidt, who played for the Detroit Lions in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “popularized” (though apparently did not create) that excessively well-known expression of weary disgust, “life is a shit sandwich and every day you take another bite.”
But Grothe goes on to note superfluously that “(t)he point is that life is an unpleasant affair that must be endured, like eating a sandwich made of feces,” in the process not only stating the way-beyond-obvious, but mashing it in our faces: By peeling apart a perfectly serviceable if overly used metaphor and exposing its odiferous origins, it will be difficult to ever hear the original expression again without wanting to immediately leave the room for a breath of fresh air.
(Dr. Grothe might have attended to one of his book’s earlier citations, from John Ray, who said, “(h)e that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink.”)
Prediction: Ten years from now, hardly anyone will have the slightest idea what Mary Matalin, quoted in these pages, meant when she said “Scooter is to Cheney as Cheney is to Bush.” But when F. Scott Fitzgerald, also included in this anthology, noted that “(a)t eighteen, our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide”, the truth of that remark will resonate—though probably not for the weirdly bearded middle-aged ideologues for which it was intended—a thousand years from today.
So, too, will this remark by Howard K. Beale (no, not the dude from Network) about Andrew Jackson, which could be applied equally as well to Rod Blagojevich today, or, 100 years from now, to whomever happens to be the governor of Illinois at the time: “His mind had one compartment for right and one for wrong, but no middle chamber where the two could commingle.”
Ultimately, the odd, and out-of-place, cracks from Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser (remember him?) and various other clowns and politicians aside, this is an engrossing and provocative collection of quotations, with healthy amounts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Ruskin, George Bernard Shaw, and William Shakespeare.
And, as well, Arthur Schopenhauer, who says here, “(t)he closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.”
I’m in the middle years of my life, but I’m ready to drop a few masks myself. For example, I am willing to admit that I have no intention of ever hacking away at a Teutonic edifice like Arthur Schopenhauer. Kudos to Dr. Grothe, then, for taking an axe to Arthur’s collected works, and those of a hundred other authors, and handing us the sparkly bits.