BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 10 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

Wie viel Meer ist im Fisch?

On the power of metaphors to bring about change

J
BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 10 AUG 11

Metaphorical Situation (Bratislava)
Photograph: Boris Ondrei?ka

...so Im in this hotel in Vienna waiting for the lift its taking an eternity to come and my companion says: This ones for sleeping horses. What a metaphor!

Sleeping horses really are surreal. I saw one just recently near Cambridge. It was standing there in the countryside, like something cut out and pasted in, totally motionless: asleep in another world, not part of this one. Then it shuddered. And woke up. As a fresh horse.

Why do horses sleep standing up? If they lie down, their lungs can collapse. Then they wake up, and they're dead. Knut the polar bear also died after his siesta. In the weekly women's magazine my neighbour gives me (as previously reported), I read an account of how it happened: He was dozing in the sun, then he suddenly leapt up, turned round in a daze, keeled over and fell sideways into the water.

What these animals go through mirrors the way metaphors stand and fall: metaphors are sleepwalkers between worlds. Its already in their name: across (meta-) the line between two spheres of experience, they carry (-phorein) the meaning of a term from one world (horse in meadow) into another (person in hotel). While this border is being crossed, the ordinary meaning of the words briefly succumbs to the sleep of reason it crosses Jordan, dies a petite mort and wakes up on the other side transformed; or confused to death. This is how people waiting for the lift become sleeping horses.

A society changed for the better would be happily metaphorical. After their siesta, the horse and the polar bear would meet us in the café, and, over espresso or cortado at the bar, theyd say: Phew, made it through again. Where to now, now the mind is free? You go to my meadow, and I'll finish your column? Or: You go on ice, I'll follow the sun? I wouldnt need asking twice.

Unfortunately, society hasn't got this far. But metaphors offer a foretaste of such bliss, especially concrete ones: In the best bar in Bratislava, you drink Borovicka out of tiny fish-shaped clay cups, straight from the fishs mouth. If you then drink out of the fish like a fish, youre living the metaphor, and it carries you over the line: fish drink the sea. What do you become when you drink out of fish? The thirsty ocean? The possibility exists, thanks to the metaphor. Lets drink to metaphors! To a world in which, to quote Marx, we are free to do one thing today, another tomorrow, to practice criticism in the morning, sleep all afternoon and at night become oceans!

Heres to the fish!

P.S.: Akin to the meta-phor is the Christo-phor-us, literally he who carries Christ (across the river): a man of action!

P.P.S.: Ive just read the announcement for a conference where the speakers are invited to confirm that art possesses no agency and that believing it capable of changing anything is thus a desperate desire. In the old days, clerics were summoned for the same purpose: to tell people that no one can do anything except those who summon the
cleric so it doesnt occur to anyone that something could change.

Lets drink to worlds changing, to the metaphorical agency of art and
to all those who care not for clerics.

Another fish, na zdravie!

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.

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