For about fifteen minutes every day I worry about AIDS or herpes or Pentagon cost overruns. It’s not that they have any great effect on me, it’s just that I am a broad-based, categorical worrier. My father taught me this; he was such a worrier that when Nixon was elected President he very suddenly moved the whole family to Montreal because he believed (not without justification) that our new President would give the National Rifle Association legal permission to shoot anybody whose politics they misunderstood.
But my father’s real strength was diseases. He knew them all and knew all their symptoms, and within moments of learning that I had the sniffles, he could convince me that I was liable to develop with any number of exotic and incurable scenarios. As a child my near brushes with appendicitis and pneumonia numbered in the dozens, and I never did understand why, after some days in bed with ginger ale and the television, I always mysteriously recovered.
Now that my worries are more sophisticated I realize that misunderstanding itself is often symptomatic of a disease, one far deadlier than herpes or even AIDS because its major symptom is the absolute denial of its existence. This is the disease of literal-mindedness. A person may have a severe case of this, perhaps even a terminal one, and never know it because he has suppressed the symptoms by refusing to associate with anybody who will tell him anything he doesn’t already believe.
Literal-mindedness ranks with sex and money as one of my favorite worries. My motives for publicizing those symptoms are neither particularly altruistic nor compassionate, although I do like to be accused of those obvious virtues. Rather, I am continually bumping up against people with heavy doses of the complaint, and I find these encounters every bit as uncomfortable as they do. Perhaps if the disease were well enough understood to be treated with sympathy rather than mindless adulation, all of us would have far fewer of these uncomfortable encounters.
Not just limited to those who live narrow and constrained lives, literal-mindedness is something we all catch from time to time, like the common cold. However, its effects can range from a sort of psychic sniffle to spiritual meningitis. The main difference lies in our immunity systems, in the degree to which we can shake off its effects and get on with our lives. Those of us who have never built up a store of metaphor, fantasy or other forms of tolerance to it are liable to suffer under its effects for years without even knowing it.
Those suffering from literal-mindedness tend to see things only for what they are on the surface. They cannot see things as representative of other things. They need to have ambiguities resolved down into single, clear-cut meanings. They overlook dual meanings and abhor paradoxes. In severe cases, they lack a genuine sense of humor and will laugh at your joke only if they understand ahead of time what category of humor it is intended to fall into.
Sufferers have only a passing acquaintance with symbolism. Though many of them revere the American flag, they have no concept of the depths of reality that it represents, the diversity, tolerance, freedom, idealism and accommodation that are bound up in the flag’s symbolic folds. For a literal-minded person, the flag becomes simply a sheet of cloth to which certain emotions have been attached, and those emotions are liable to be no more than a sentimental cartoon of what “the best nation in the world” ought to be. Such people can only imagine the nation as their own idealized egos made larger. This explains why in certain extreme cases, the sufferer can revere the American flag and yet denounce the Martin Luther King holiday. King, a supreme Christian and a rhetorician whose only peers are Lincoln and Gandhi, stands at the heart of everything the flag symbolizes, and yet it takes a leap of the imagination to see the connection. Those with imaginations oppressed by literal-mindedness are denied this rich level of understanding.
One way to spot a sufferer from literal-mindedness is to tell him that the Holy Cross represents the intersecting planes of matter and spirit, the vertical penetration of the Presence of God through the horizon of material reality. They will be shocked. For them the cross is a piece of furniture on which Jesus had an accident, as though he bumped himself coming home in the dark, and because they have a strong sentimental attachment to Jesus (often mistaken for love, which also requires an act of the imagination), they feel an equal attachment to the cross. The literal-minded person has so much difficulty recognizing anything significantly different from his own experience, that to him Jesus is an older brother, wise and kindhearted perhaps, but still an older brother who shares his limitations, prejudices and voting record. Jesus is the way the literal-minded man would be if he woke up one morning to discover he’d been promoted to God.
The man afflicted with literal-mindedness sees tradition as a rigid formula for what is permitted in the world. He is shocked by the new, the different. He has a hard time learning, since the best teachers work through parables, metaphors and analogies. He does seem to get through school, though, because he has so strong an affinity for the facts. When he reaches college, he can see no virtue in a liberal education, or in any courses that are not directly related to the way in which he intends to make his living. Literature is useless; for those bound to be captains of industry, there is no relevance to Captain Ahab’s obsessive and tragic pursuit of the White Whale. And yet Ahab’s single-minded goal orientation is the very thing they have most to fear. The part of them that, through ignorance, is allowed to become Captain Ahab is the part that will bring darkness and sterility to their lives.
Those with the disease do not want to be told that there are multiple interpretations, do not want to be told that they will just have to decide for themselves. They want to be told what the facts are. But this is just a refusal to learn to evaluate. The fact is that the facts are always changing. The way to get by has always been to develop our perceptions, our judgements, our intuitions, and to expect to be wrong from time to time; while there may be factual landmarks on the hard ground of limited experience, out on the ocean of real life what counts is to know how to navigate.
Literal-mindedness resides in recalling facts or traditions and evaluating which are the most appropriate to any situation. True, this is a part of using the mind, but there is much more. What distinguishes us from chimpanzees is that complex but precise melange of thinking, feeling, evaluating, willing, fantasizing, visualizing and other more subtle functions. The obvious solution is to require everyone in the world to study the process of using their brains. Only when a student is certified by a committee of clearly superior individuals can he be licensed to marry, attend church, watch television, or perform any other activity that can be considered difficult or dangerous.
Obviously, the literal-minded among the powers that be would never allow so fanciful a solution to become reality. And thank heavens for that, because complex systems are never successfully imposed; rather, they evolve. And the materials already exist out of which this complex cure for literal-mindedness can arise. They are waiting in the medicine cabinets of our minds like so many bottles of pills. Or perhaps I should say like potted herbs growing in our kitchen windows, since their gentle operation has none of the harsh side effects of pills and since various mixtures of these same cerebral herbs can serve as preventatives as well as cures.
Some of these curatives have already been mentioned: metaphor, simile, symbolism, and analogy, with their offspring, the poetry, parables, myths and fairy tales with which, not so long ago, we entertained and educated ourselves. The first four items describe techniques of non-literal, or figurative, thinking, while the remaining four are modes of communication that rely on these figurative techniques.
Though metaphor, simile, symbolism and analogy are similar, and though they are sometimes discussed under the general category of “metaphor,” it is worth mentioning the distinctions between them. As we learn in eighth grade or so, metaphor is the process of explaining something, often an abstract and difficult subject like love, by comparing it to something whose qualities can more easily be grasped. Simile is a limited version of the same phenomenon in which the comparison hinges on the words “like” or “as.” The difference between simile and metaphor is the difference between Robert Burns and Neil Young: “My love is like a red red rose / That’s newly blown in June” versus “Love is a rose but you’d better not pick it / Only grows when it’s on the vine.” In simile, the focus tends to stay on the literal subject rather than the figurative explanation. In contrast, the focus of a metaphor can proceed for miles into non-literal territory. Romantic authors like Hawthorne, Blake and Whitman sometimes viewed the entire world as a series of metaphors for God’s personal system of ethics.
This penchant of metaphor for opening up into unexplored territory is the basis of symbolism. Like the flag and the cross mentioned earlier, symbols start as metaphors — that is, as familiar, usually material, objects used to represent complex, usually abstract concepts. However, symbols tend to accumulate further meanings, unrelated to the terms of the original metaphor; for example, the notion of America as a land of liberty is conveyed by the flag to all members of the American culture, but it could never be guessed from an examination of the “Stars and Stripes” itself.
Analogy takes metaphor in the opposite direction; an analogy can be seen as a metaphor for the literal-minded. In an analogy every term of the unfamiliar concept bears a direct relationship to a term of the familiar one. In fact we call an analogy “good” or “bad” in direct proportion to the exactness of this correspondence. Filing cabinets make so good an analogy for the workings of a computer’s memory that we commonly refer to those minuscule arcs of magnetically coded information stored on floppy disks as “files.” It is as if the disks are the cabinets, the minuscule arcs are the manila folders, and the actual sequence of bytes is the contents of the folder. On the other hand, a tea kettle boiling on the stove makes a poor analogy for the workings of a nuclear power plant. Although both use heat to generate steam, the analogy takes no account of other essential factors such as scale, complexity or nature of fuel.
Of the basic narrative modes that take advantage of figurative thought, poetry, myth and fairy tale are the most familiar; allegory and parable are slightly less familiar. Like analogy, allegory is fairly limited. An allegory is a story that is highly symbolic, but whose meaning is very precise, since each symbol plays a very specific part in the author’s symbology. The author of an allegory engages the reader’s imagination, yet attempts to control the conclusions that the imagination will reach. Allegory was especially popular during the Middle Ages, when the workings of Providence were conceived of as precise and well-defined, and the main task was to make them comprehensible to man. In modern times, A Pilgrim’s Progress and the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorn are good examples of allegory, but in a time in which coming to a definition of Providence and its relationship to the individual is more important than understanding any culturally limited definitions, allegory is a cloying and potentially deceptive use of the tools of figurative thought.
Parable, though similar to allegory in many ways, is far more open-ended and depends more on the interaction between the story and the listener’s mind. This is probably why the parables of Jesus are still so active a part of our culture, while the allegories used by his more literal-minded followers to describe the same situations are continually fading and dying, century after century. The teaching stories of the Sufi and Zen traditions are good examples of modern parables.
To see the distinctions between the various forms of figurative language, it is only necessary to consider the ways of teaching used by Jesus, who was a master of figurative thought and language. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed,” he is, of course, using a metaphor. When he says, over wine at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the New Testament,” metaphor has expanded into symbolism. When it’s a comparison that doesn’t fit neatly into a single image like these, but has to be derived from the intricacies of a story, then he is using a parable: “The kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants and delivered unto them his goods.” It may start the same way as a metaphor, but rather than simply stating the terms he crosses the threshold into the Land of Metaphor, and brings his listeners with him.
Nevertheless I cannot recommend a careful study of the Gospels as a cure for the disease of literal-mindedness. It should be clear that it requires a figurative imagination to make this careful study. But many people talk about the poetry of the Bible, and taking my cue from this, I recommend poetry as a prime cure for literal-mindedness.
While television is everywhere in our culture, poetry is nowhere. In fact, poetry has so little influence that it sounds impractical to talk about it as a cure for literal-mindedness. But the heart of poetry is metaphor. And it is metaphor that allows us to understand the subtleties in what others are saying to us, and to communicate at a higher, more meaningful level than can be achieved within the literal meanings of words. At best, the study of poetry is the study in which we can learn the operation and use of metaphor.
Most of us do not receive this in our early educations, though we may come across it in college or graduate school. Learning the uses of metaphor as adults is delightful, and yet dangerous; if we are not bred to figures of speech we may come to see them as something beautiful and exotic, but divorced from our everyday lives, something to be admired or used in special circumstances such as poetry readings, but not a tool with which to approach our world. If the uses of poetry are not taught early and repeatedly, they become cut off from everyday life. Too often poetry is seen as something out of the past, like paintings in a museum, and not as something from which to learn imaginative ways of responding to our experience. Think back on your own experience with poetry. You probably read poems by Tennyson, Longfellow, Whittier, maybe Keats, Shakespeare and Dickinson. But despite its virtues, this poetry can easily be looked on, like “Paul Revere’s Ride,” as the chronicle of interesting events out of the past, by no means connected with the world we now live in. How many of us were exposed in school to Bly, Plath, Snyder, even Auden or Lowell, or any other poet who interprets the world in the Atomic Age?
There are reasons to hope that cures for literal-mindedness are spreading faster than the disease itself. Fifteen years ago, the “Poets in the Schools” program did not exist. Now, energetic working poets make visits to classes of every age, and it is a rare youngster who can graduate from high school without having had at least one of these encounters. And this is not simply passive entertainment. The visiting poets usually have the youngsters writing and enjoying poetry before the end of the visit, working with metaphors or sounds or rhythms and getting a feel for how remarkable language can really be. These youngsters are not doing this to become great poets, or even to get a good grade, but for the pleasure and the discovery of the process. The ultimate goal, and the goal of a new emphasis on poetry in our society, is to show how emotions, spiritual truth, and anything else that resists literal communication may be approached through the imaginative use of language.
In today’s increasingly narrow and career-oriented college educations, the importance of imaginative thought is underemphasized. Hopefully this is a fad (it may be another disease, but to get any constructive worrying done we really ought to take one disease at a time). The main problem with a job orientation is that most of the specific skills needed for any job will be learned on the job, and not through an abstract and potentially inapplicable education process. A job-oriented education teaches the ability to apply one’s thoughts and presupposes that one knows how to think to begin with. But a look at any baby will show that people are not born with this ability, and as the education process increasingly concentrates on bodies of fact and applications of procedures, the opportunity to learn how to think, and to think figuratively, is progressively squeezed out of the picture. If one knows how to think, one can learn to apply one’s thoughts; the reverse is not true.
Fortunately, most colleges still maintain humanities and composition requirements, which at best provide an arena in which to exercise and expand the mind. In this way those chemical equations and banking formulae that come later on will not be mere drudgery, but rather the tools with which an active imagination creates a fulfilling work life.
There are, of course, many other habits of thought that can encourage the creative use of the mind. Argument and debate are good examples. There is nothing wrong with airing differences of opinion. To seek consensus is often to seek an opinion so vague and fuzzy that nobody has any notion of the sharp and potentially dangerous edges of the issues they supposedly agree on. In the past, our legislatures were full of men who could debate important issues until all the crucial facts were in the open, and still respect one another enough to cooperate on the nuts-and-bolts work that had to be done. Lately, our national fear of any real debate on the issues, symbolized by the installation of athletes and TV personalities in high office, is bringing the traditional adversarial system to a halt. Debate becomes no longer a matter of exercising and broadening the mind, but much more a matter, like the Superbowl, of which team you are for. The abortionists or the pro-lifers? The racists or the bleeding liberals? The Sandinistas or the Contras? In a society of literal-mindedness, it has nothing to do with the depth of the issues. All it has to do with is image, what can literally be perceived on the surface.
Can we even entertain the ideas of our opponents? Do we even remember the metaphorical meaning of “entertaining an idea?” Anything that can serve to broaden our minds can be a cure to the disease of literal-mindedness. I can’t pretend that I am equipped to cover the problem in its entirety, but since the solution is creative thinking, there is no need; everyone is free to create his or her own solution, and the one sketched out above is mine.
I can’t even pretend that my solutions will solve anything. Their importance is that they point to a very serious problem that eludes easy definition, and they point to some ways out. Obviously this is not something that can be quickly overcome; in fact, the very idea that anything important can be quickly overcome is a symptom of literal-mindedness. The suggested cure is mild and works by degrees.
Among the many stories of the Sufis is one about a man who woke up one morning to find himself in the country of the Fools. A crowd of Fools were running down the road in terror shouting, “The Monster! The Monster is chasing us!” The stranger got them to calm down, and being a brave man, convinced them to confront the monster with him. They walked back a distance until they came upon a large watermelon lying in the middle of the road. “Why, you fools,” said the man, “this is no monster, it’s only a watermelon,” whereupon he took out a large knife, sliced the melon in half, and proceeded to eat a piece. “This one is an even greater monster than the one we were fleeing from,” said the crowd, whereupon they threw themselves on the man and tore him to pieces.
A few years later another man woke up to find himself in the country of the Fools. Like the first man, he met a crowd fleeing in terror and like the first man he accompanied them only to discover a giant watermelon. But unlike his unfortunate predecessor this man agreed how terrible the monster was. They all fled together, and the man stayed among the Fools for several years. During his stay, he spoke to them from time to time of melons and monsters and knives, and, by the end, they were all eating watermelons together.
Not a literal-minded story.