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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mrs. Blandings' Dreamhouse

What's in a word? A case may be made that without metaphors, we couldn't communicate a thing, and without understanding how to use metaphors, we end up communicating too many things.

Consider this excerpt from the 1948 comedy, 'Mr. Blandings builds his dreamhouse', where housewife Muriel (Myrna Loy) gives instructions to the contractor and house painter.

Muriel: Now, we'll talk about the painting. I had some samples. Now, first: the living room. I want it to be a soft green. Not as blue green as a robin, say, but not as yellow green as daffodil. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow. But don't let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow green!

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, the dining room I'd like yellow. Not just yellow - a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshiny. I tell you, Mr. Delford, if you'll send one of your workmen to the grocer for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can't go wrong!

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, this is the paper we're going to use in the hall. It's flowered, but I don't want the ceiling to match any of the colors of the flowers. There's some little dots in the background, and it's these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhockle, but the little blueish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear?

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, the kitchen is to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic hospital white. A little warmer - but still, not to suggest any other color but white.

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now for the carter room - in here - I want you to match this thread. And don't lose it: it's the only spool I have, and I had an awful time finding it. As you can see, it's practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.

Mr. Delford: Aha ...
(The sound of tableware falling down is heard in the background)

Muriel: Oh, excuse me ...

Mr. Delford: You got that, Charlie?

Jack: Red, green, blue, yellow, white!

Mr .Delford: Correct.

In this excerpt the painter and builder weren’t killjoys, they were just trying to get the job done. To clarify the problem they had to clarify the language. If not, then they could never have settled on the right shade of grey. Of course, this type of plain speak is aesthetically unattractive, and for those who think that the aesthetics of creation derives from the very language we use, the painters did a very bad thing. But by no means did the painters impose on Muriel’s imagination. It is just that for imagination to carry well, it must be able to be copied. Thus for that matter, even Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling must first be described by a billion pixels of different hues for us to adequately transport its higher values to a billion pairs of eyes.

The problem comes from understanding how we use and misuse metaphorical speaking. A metaphor is simply a abstract property that is bestowed on a word that does not logically derive from that word. Hot passion, cold reason, consciousness raising, and flowing experiences don't actually tell you what these experiences logically are as simple facts of behavior, but they sure as heck make those experiences seem a lot more special, and as explanations, a lot more marketable.

Which brings us to a class of psychologists and psychological thinking that has as much in common with the painting contractor, but with a whole lot less marketing sense. Like the painting contractor, behavioristically minded psychologists (or behaviorists) disregard all the colorful metaphorical attributes that we give to behavior, and just look at behavior plain and simple. So instead of good, bad, happy, sad, they simply look to the facts of how folks behave. That means of course that they paint a picture of the mind with the same rudimentary accuracy of the painting contractor, yet if they were to sell the doggone thing, they would have to return to Muriel's metaphors, and color the world as happy as a ripe apple. Of course, behaviorists continue to be loath to do this, and because they can't shift their metaphors on a dime, they remain a micro-dot on psychological horizon with many expertly painted but metaphorically bland houses for sale that even Mrs. Blandings wouldn't buy.

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