The First Metaphor
2020 AnimationGhost in
The First Metaphor
The First Metaphor
2020 Animation Ghost in
The First Metaphor by Franco Amati
The First Metaphor
by Franco Amati
I invented the written word. For years our people were running their mouths and waving their hands around, and no one knew what the hell was going on.
Sure, I owed a bit of gratitude to my cousin Lou who invented the stylus. But that alone didn't do much. He gave us sticks to wave around--great. But I was the one who suggested we use those sticks to put all the verbal nonsense into a neat and understandable system. I said, hey, let's take this gibberish, and let's all agree on what it means. Let's record it on this soft mushy clay stuff that came from--well, I don't remember where the soft mushy clay came from--but the point is, our tribe was a real mess until I came along. Once we were all on the same page, the rest was history.
Speaking of history, I'd like to set the record straight. There are something like a half-dozen inaccurate accounts of the development of the written word. Some folks like to discredit me, saying I stole the idea from a close colleague of mine named Bob. Granted, these same folks have also marred Bob's reputation, calling him a libertine and a philanderer. So whose story do we believe?
Now, let's discuss my colleague for a bit. Bob was a brilliant man. He did not come up with the language we now use, but he did accomplish something great in his own right. Bob had a way with words. It's why I was so fond of him. He was what I'd like to call a proto-linguist. He wasn't a syntax man. He was all about the pictures and the symbols and the imagery. He saw meanings and connections that no person before him ever could.
The thing I hate most is hearing people say that Bob and I didn't get along. That we were competitors, that we had an ugly rivalry. It's not true at all. The fact is, no one knows the real story because I've never told it. And good old Bob hasn't been around to tell it. So here I am today, in my waning years, reflecting on the role that Bob played, and putting the confusion to rest about who deserves credit for our elegant communication system.
One major reason why I've never opened up about this is because the events were intertwined with a love story. And lord knows, I'm not one to discuss romance. In fact, I've always tried to avoid mixing business with pleasure, but this was one time where I couldn't avoid it. It was also the one time that got us all in trouble.
Not long after my great epiphany about writing all the words down, I began to attract the attention of many women in our tribe. The attention was flattering. Who doesn't like to be acknowledged? But it was also somewhat distracting. It was interfering with my life's work. So I tried to limit my affections to one particular person. Her name was Tar.
She was okay-looking. To be honest though, she could have looked like a tree stump, and I would have still fallen for her. It was her mind that I was after. We were the perfect couple. We would talk and laugh and come up with ideas all through the night, day after day. We had so much fun in those early days. We made many discoveries together. She inspired and motivated me. Tar was so perceptive. It was almost as if she had the ability to read minds. She understood the thoughts and emotions of others like no one I had ever met.
Part of why Tar was so instrumental in helping me refine the written word was that she was so socially savvy. She was a great listener. She would notice subtleties in the way people described and labeled things in their environment. Perhaps equally impressive was her ability to assign words to aspects of our internal world as well. She named nearly every emotion, capturing the essence of every mental state that a human could experience.
Tar enjoyed talking to many different people. Conversations were an art form for her, and she was a master at taking other people's perspectives. So it was no surprise that many of the other men in the tribe were drawn to her. For the most part it didn't bother me. I knew where I stood, and I was secure in our relationship. That is, until the stresses of work began taking a toll on me.
With our tribe's culture and language booming, I was stretched thin. At one point there were hundreds of words being added to our lexicon per week. I had become the de-facto overseer of all things language. People would come to me from all corners detailing new concepts, new descriptors, synonyms, antonyms, new sentence structures. You name it. We were flourishing. My team of linguists wasn't very large, so a lot of the burden fell on me. The unfortunate effect was that I wasn't able to spend as much time with Tar.
Around that time, Tar began spending significant time with a new person. She told me that she met Bob near the lake, and they had gone swimming together. After hours of fun, they lost track of time, and the sun had gone down. So they had to camp out for the night. They sat together in front of a raging fire and shared food and stories until they both fell asleep.
Their friendship went on to grow over many more afternoons swimming in the lake and over many more dinners by the fire. Tar admitted to me that she had great affection for Bob. She was remarkably candid with me about all of their activities.
There's a word for when a person begins to dislike the advantages of another. Jealousy--did I feel it? Maybe. But it was complicated. It wasn't the physical closeness that Tar and Bob were sharing that bothered me. It was something else. It was all the time they spent sharing language, in the deepest of ways. In one of those ways, it turned out, was a discovery I wasn't prepared for.
"Last night at the lake Bob said something that really confused me," Tar said. "It was a peculiar use of language."
That piqued my interest. "Peculiar how?"
"Well, we were sitting by the fire, like always, and he looked directly in my eyes. He said something simple, but incredible. He said: 'My yearning for you is this fire, brilliant and hot, stoked each time our breath comes together.'"
"What ... what nonsense is that?" I said.
"Think about it, Gill," she said. "Think about the deeper meaning. The relation between the words. His usage is remarkable. There is no name for this kind of language. To relate something abstract with something concrete. To compare a feeling to a fire. I can't stop thinking about it. This goes beyond merely applying labels to internal states."
"Right. It's as if he's tapped into a language beyond language," I said.
I needed to know more about this meta-language. So I encouraged Tar to continue her relationship with Bob. While it concerned me that their feelings for one another were deepening, there was still a great benefit that I saw in her continuing to interact with him. I considered going to Bob myself, but I had a hypothesis that his meta-language was best elicited in the presence of someone that ignited strong emotion.
"So you don't fear this will negatively affect our relationship?" Tar asked.
"Well, let me ask you this," I said. "Do you still love me? Even with Bob around, do you still feel the way you did about me before you met him?"
"Absolutely. My feelings for you have not changed. If anything they've grown stronger. I have significant emotion for Bob, but it's different. You are two different people. I enjoy you both for different reasons. Do you think that is unreasonable?" she asked.
"No, my love. It isn't. Go and continue to explore your feelings for Bob."
Meanwhile I was getting all the goods on the meta-language. Each night she'd come back with new material from Bob. It was the kind of stuff that really blew your hair back. Actually, that was one of the things Bob came up with. To blow your hair back. It's something the wind does, but in meta-language it means to strongly affect someone. As in, our love-making session really blew my hair back. It invokes revelation. When one's hair is no longer in the face, it no longer covers the eyes, so one can see more clearly. Such a simple phrase, and yet multiple layers of meaning. Bob was exceptional.
The day finally came when I figured it couldn't hurt to actually meet him. There was enough stability in my relationship with Tar, and my work was going smoothly. I felt secure enough to meet the man himself.
Tar introduced me to Bob at the lake. We decided to have a three-way fishing trip. We sat in our boat, and the three of us talked for hours, touching on all manner of topics. Bob was a riot. He had us reeling. And not just with the fishing. A few nibbles here and there. Tar pulled in two big ones, one after the other. She barely had time to catch her breath in between. Bob sliced up the fish with his blade the way he sliced us up with his wit. Not long after that, we called it a day. We were wiped. The afternoon really blew our hair back.
Bob said, "It comes naturally, I guess. It's not like I consciously try to compare unrelated things. It just happens. Throughout my life I've enjoyed making pictures and scrawling on the walls in our cave. Maybe that had something to do with it."
"So drawing was a hobby of yours?"
"Yes, I'd close my eyes, and I'd see things, but I'd also feel them. I'd reflect on their interconnectedness. I'd sit quietly with the pictures in my head. My mother thought I was odd and that I wouldn't amount to anything."
"No, Bob," I said. "Your mother was wrong. You are a genius. And I believe we should work together."
That's when my friendship and professional relationship with Bob took off. We worked well together. He had talents for things that I struggled with. And I helped him in matters that didn't come easy. It was a nice symbiosis.
You may be wondering if things were ever weird because of Tar being involved with both of us. But honestly, it wasn't. The three of us had a mutual respect and appreciation for all of our talents. We trusted each other, and we rarely argued.
We kept up this rapport for years. Looking back on it, there wasn't a more fruitful time period in the history of linguistic development than the era in which the three of us worked together, collecting all the linguistic, metalinguistic, and sociolinguistic data we could find. We loved the work, and we were proud of how it benefited the tribe. That communal sharing of knowledge with the world caused us great success. However, it was the communal sharing that took place inside our tent that caused our undoing.
People in the tribe began to ask questions about our dynamic: Why do three scientists need to spend so much time together outside of work? Do the three of them actually live together? Which one is her husband? They can't both be her husband!
We didn't even think to hide our affections for one another. But people started to feel threatened. Men in the tribe were intimidated by us, worrying that we might move in on their women. Women in the tribe would rant and criticize Tar for spending so much time with two men. They were being so silly and trivial.
It was customary for our people to pair with only one mate at a time. The word for it was monogamy. I rue the day that I added that word to our lexicon. The majority of people thought that anything outside of that monolith of dyadic sexual relations was some kind of abomination.
We withstood the barrage of insults and threats for as long as we could. But we never imagined what these constant aspersions would ultimately lead to.
One day I received notice from one of the tribe elders that the three of us were to be presented with an honorary prize for our societal contributions. They announced an epic ceremony to commemorate us. Dinner, music, dancing, the works.
We showed up, and everyone was super nice to us. People asked us questions about our research. They commended us for our scientific dedication. Towards the end of the evening, we were called up on stage to receive our awards. For some reason they had three distinct podiums for each of us to stand behind, set about six feet apart. Why would they want us standing so far from one another, I wondered.
I gave my acceptance speech first. Then Bob. And finally, Tar. As she was wrapping up, an odd silence came over the audience. What should have been the beginnings of applause was instead an odd series of whispers and murmurs that culminated in a collective gasp. Then screams.
Armed tribesmen cast nets onto each of us, capturing us so that we couldn't move. Our captors closed in on us. Their aim was to subdue us and put us in holding cells. The whole event was an elaborate trap.
Somehow Bob broke free. He had his fishing knife on him, so he was able to cut through the net. When the captors collapsed on him, he threw some punches and got away.
"Bob, just run! Don't worry about us. You have to get away," I yelled.
So he managed to escape, but Tar and I were thrown in prison. They sent out a team to find Bob, but they had no luck. With him missing, they postponed our trial for weeks. Eventually they gave up looking for him and held the trial for the two of us.
We were publicly reprimanded and sentenced to three years in prison for indecency. A year and a half into our sentence there was still no word from Bob. The litigators told us they'd reduce our sentence if we agreed to have no further polyamorous dealings and that if we ever heard from Bob again we'd have to turn him in to authorities or else face further imprisonment. Worst of all, they banned us from continuing our academic work as linguistic researchers.
We never saw Bob again, but in hindsight it was probably for the best. I can only imagine what punishment awaited him if he had been caught.
Years later, we considered the possibility that Bob might have found a new tribe. I like to think that Bob went out into the world and influenced other societies with his talent for metaphor.
Tar and I had always hoped he'd find new love and garner the respect he deserved, that more people would appreciate his creativity and his open-mindedness. Bob was a true scholar and innovator and a unique force in the evolution of human language, making it not only practical but beautiful.