When feeling intellectually bored, a sure-fire solution to get the brain up and thinking once again is to read V S Ramachandran – the cognitive neuroscientist whose capacity to simply conceptualize the most complicated neurological phenomena is only matched by his sheer brilliance in weaving compelling narrative. His books, including “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Emerging Mind“, are treasured in my bookshelf.
Today I was thinking about Shakespeare and reading VS, and I came upon a beautiful passage that pinned down one of the various things that Shakespeare could do better than any of us. I like it that VS takes a similar approach to mine when it comes to reading Shakespeare: understanding the Bard’s brilliance by trying to compete with it. In the example that he cites in Phantoms, he describes a conversation that he has with a colleague about metaphor, and how difficult it is to come up with them. Here is the relevant excerpt:
Not long ago when I told a colleague about my interest in creativity, he repeated the well-worn argument that we simply toss ideas around in our heads, producing random combinations until we hit on aesthetically pleasing ones. So I challenged him to “toss around” some words and ideas by coming up with a single evocative metaphor for “taking things to ridiculous extremes” or “overdoing things.” He scratched his head and after half an hour confessed that he couldn’t think of anything all that original (despite his very high verbal IQ, I might add).
Let’s pause while you repeat this experiment for yourself. Can you think of something that evokes the meaning of “taking things to a ridiculous extreme”?
If you cannot (like VS’s colleague) think of something ‘all that original’, read on, read on, for VS’s further words on this topic:
…I pointed out to him that Shakespeare had crammed five such metaphors in a single sentence:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow. . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
[from the play King John]
It sounds so simple. But how come Shakespeare thought of it and nobody else? Each of us has the same words at our command. There’s nothing complicated or esoteric about the idea that’s being conveyed. In fact, it’s crystal clear once it is explained and has that universal “why didn’t I think of that?” quality that characterizes the most beautiful and creative insights. Yet you and I would never come up with an equally elegant set of metaphors by simply dredging up and randomly shuffling words in our minds. What’s missing is the creative spark of genius, a trait that remains mysterious to us.
I remember plodding through a class on Western philosophy in my bright college days, and one of the things I remember in that course was my professor quoting Aristotle, that “every metaphor is an entire philosophy”. (I cannot, in a cursory Google search, find an attribution for this, which could equally due to my faulty memory or to my professor’s.) I agree; to see similarities where none exist, to give one object a name that belongs to another object and somehow ‘paint’ it with language in a different light, to take the skin off the onion of meaning that is packed into every word that we invent: amazing that a simple clause, four or five words long, can make us think more deeply and leave a more lasting impression than entire essays and paragraphs.
The last word, of course, to xkcd: