Eula Biss and Metaphors

One way in which we understand our lives and recognize how we function in this world is through metaphor. Like breathing, metaphors are essential to our experiences of being alive. In On Immunity, Eula Biss presents many examples of how our lives—especially our bodies and the concept of immunity—“[remain] remarkably dependent on metaphor, even at the most technical level” (55). Through her look into the ways in which the perceptions of immunity and disease play out in our society, Biss looks at how our “ability to make and understand basic metaphor…arrives with language, which is itself made of metaphor” (12).

But we’re not used to having metaphors mixed in with science. Metaphors, as we usually see them, are only in literary works. And we know some of them well.

  • “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” –William Shakespeare
  • “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”—T.S.Eliot
  • “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”—Emily Dickinson 

The metaphors we use to convey our experiences in literature are memorable and vivid. They feel like a natural part of literature. Integral, even. But science? What happens when we think about “facts” through analogies and symbols? And, specific to this essay, how do we conceive of and experience the concept of immunity through metaphor? What happens when we poeticize science? In On Immunity, one mode Biss uses to approach and explore the concept of creative language that slips into science is through the classic gothic novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula arrives in England just as a new disease might arrive, on a boat. He summons hordes of rats, and his infective evil spreads from the first woman he bites to the children she feeds on, unwittingly, at night. What makes Dracula particularly terrifying…is that he is a monster whose monstrosity is contagious” (15).      

Through Biss’s Dracula metaphor, we can see how disease is considered a monstrous thing, that it can spread and infect others quite easily, and that in reality we can’t stop it like we want to. “Dracula, after all, is not a person so much as he is the embodiment of disease” (153). Here, the vampire represents one main thing we are scared of and in some ways very resistant to: death. Not even garlic hung in a doorway (medicine taken daily) or a stake (syringe) shoved right through the monster’s heart (the heart of the disease) can make us feel fully confident about our emotional and physical safety. Illness can bring on death, and we can’t always ward off illness, no matter how many flu shots Walgreens tells us to get. And if we don’t feel these different types of safety, then it is hard to maintain good health and/or to recover from an illness since we’re so stressed out about the possibility of being in pain or dying from it.

As Biss became a mother, she witnessed how the threat of illness is one of the top things we fear, especially in terms of children. As she began to find herself in different doctors’ waiting rooms while she waited for check-ups and current rounds of shots for her child, Biss discovered how the mothers were, like her, writers. She explains: “And so it is not surprising that I began to hear metaphors behind the technical language and information we traded” (10). Metaphor as a way to understand, a way to cope. Yes, immunity understood through metaphor (55).

It is through these metaphors that we’re able to grasp and understand what we can’t see—the biology of our lives. I can’t see what’s inside of my cells, but I know they’re there, working. And they’re working in ways that we have only been able to describe through, you guessed it, metaphor. The golgi bodies, for example, are the janitors of cells. They pack up and move stuff out of the schoolhouse cell body. The mitochondria is the generator, that source of power. And the ribosomes make protein like a cafeteria lady who makes mystery meat. By bringing metaphors into science, we’re able to understand disease on a different level and in different terms.


Writing Exercises

  1. Write about what lives under your skin—metaphorically and/or literally. What thoughts, what things are back there, within you, and wanting to come to the surface?
  2. Use your knowledge about anatomy in order to write about a relationship you were involved with through these physical parts.
  3. Think of your body as a building structure, such as a home or an office. Use this as a metaphor and write about who you think you are as a person through the different parts of your body.

Discovering Metaphor within the Textures of Your Narratives

A metaphor is an analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second…. The tenor is the idea being expressed or the subject of the comparison; the vehicle is the image by which this idea is conveyed or the subject communicated. (A Handbook to Literature)

Metaphor and Simile

The simplest distinction between kinds of comparison, and usually the first one grasped by beginning students of literature, is between metaphor and simile. A simile makes a comparison with the use of like or as, a meatphor without. Thought this distinction is technical, it is not entirely triviial, for a metaphor demands a more literal acceptance. If you say, “A woman is a rose,” you ask for an extreme suspension of disbelief, whereas “A woman is like a rose” acknoledges the artifice in the statement . . . . (Writing Fiction)

The Cliche Metaphor

Cliche metaphors are metaphors so familiar that they have lost the force of their original meaning. They are inevitably apt comparisons; if they were not, they would’t have been repeated often enough to become cliches. But such images fail to surprise, and we blame the writer for this expenditure of energy without a payoff. (Writing Fiction)

The Far-Fetched Metaphor

Far-fetched metaphors are the opposite of cliches: They surprise but are not apt. As the dead metaphor far-fetched suggests, the mind must travel too far to carry back the likeness, and too much is lost on the way. When such a comparison does work, we speak laudatorily of a “leap of the imagination.” But when it does not, what we face is in effect a failed conceit: The explantation of what is alike about these two things does not convince. Very good writers in the search for originality sometimes fetch too far. (Writing Fiction)

The Mixed Metaphor

Mixed metaphors are so called because they ask us to compare the original image with things from two or more different areas of reference: As you walk the path of life, don’t founder on the reefs of ignorance. Life can be a path or a sea bu it cannot be both at the same time. The point of the metaphor is to fuse two images in a single tension. The mind is adamantly unwilling to fuse three. (Writing Fiction)

The Obscure and Overdone Metaphor

Obscure and overdone metaphors falter because the author has misjudged the difficulty of the comparison. The result is either confusion or an insult to the reader’s intelligence. In the case of obscurity, a similarity in the author’s mind isn’t getting onto the page. (Writing Fiction)

Metaphor in Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

There are many craft elements to value and cherish within Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, but arguably, one of the more cherished beauties is how she earns extended metaphor within a single, short paragraph. In the short story, “Inbound,” the narrator, Sophie, makes a connection between a comment made by her father and her little sister, Lily, who has Down’s Syndrome: 

“Lily clarifies life,” Sophie had heard her father say to one of his friends. Sophie didn’t agree. Clarity you could get by putting on glasses; or you could skim foam off warm butter—her mother had shown her how—leaving a thin yellow liquid that couldn’t even hold crackers together. Lily didn’t clarify; she softened things and made them sticky. Sophie and each parent had been separate individuals before Lily came. Now all four melted together….

In this very short paragraph, Pearlman introduces and earns an organic and extended metaphor born from the narrative versus a metaphor or analogy imposed upon the narrative in a way that feels forced and author driven.

Often, we struggle with metaphor: how to discover metaphor within the organic textures of our narratives rather than force metaphors upon our narratives.

In the above example from “Inbound,” the reader senses a depth of history, characterization, connection and foreshadowing, all accomplished within a short paragraph. The craft is so smooth and certain one might assume the passage came swiftly and without much effort; however, it may have taken Pearlman months or even years to perfect this single paragraph. Then again, it might have come to her in a single moment. However this passage came to Perlman, it was born so thoroughly from the characters—Sophie, her sister, mother and father—that it is not only believable, it is essential.


Searching Mundane and Common Character Details for Authentic Metaphors

The simplicity of butter and the process of clarifying is a mundane detail, a cooking lesson common between mothers and daughters. The father using this common detail to explain Sophie’s sister and her impact upon the family is believable. Sophie questioning detail and its accuracy provides a turn and defining moment for Sophie. She is a girl who values logic and keeps her own counsel. In this short paragraph, Pearlman earns our interest, our trust and our wonder.


Writing Exercise

Choose a short story you’ve already written. Scan the story for a metaphor you would like to further explore and revise then ask the following. Does the metaphor:

  1. Connect one or more main characters from the chapter or preceding several paragraphs?
  2. Further the reader’s knowledge of the narrator and/or protagonist?
  3. Provide a sense of foreshadowing?
  4. Provide an organic sense of detail that suits the setting and characters? (For instance, are you using a medieval reference for a contemporary character who knows little to nothing about medieval history?)

This last question is key. Too often writers will force metaphor and detail upon their characters because the detail is interesting to the writer. In early drafting phases this is okay because the writer is still in an exploration phase of the writing process. However, in later revisions, the writer must be weary of how closely the details reflect self and/or character and be on alert for moments when the writer’s details have taken over the character’s details. When our characters begin showing us where they are different than us, our characters are taking true form and shape. Of course, there are writers who write self again and again, and this can work, but the writer must still ask whether or not the characters have been fully explored.


Writing Guidelines

First Draft: As you explore and rewrite the metaphor, remember, this will essentially be a first draft again so let your creativity go where it needs to go. If you discover something entirely new about your characters, allow this to continue, keep writing. You might find you have an entirely new story or an additional story. This is okay. Let your characters lead you. 

Second Draft:  You aren’t under any quick turnaround deadlines, so take your time with this draft. Don’t worry yet about the line edits and so on. Be curious and authentic to your narrative and characters. Ask questions, logic questions, personality questions, detail questions.

Third Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day, few weeks, months, before your next step. In the meantime, explore another metaphor from the same work or another work.

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