“Who can give a definition of a mixed metaphor?” the teacher asks.
I raise my hand. I’ve been hoping for this one. And since the rest of the class has been in a stupor for the last hour— quite understandable, given how dull it’s been— he calls on me.
“A mixed metaphor is when you change your train of thought midstream,” I answer.
He considers it. “Good. Now can you give an example of one?”
I grin. “I just did.”
The lesson to be taken from this—other than “keep your students too busy to plot out pranks on you”—is that, despite the injunctions against mixed metaphors that all of us have received, when we encounter one in the course of daily life, it often passes so far under our radar that we swallow it without question.
This doesn’t just happen in speech, but in writing, too. Here’s an example from chapter nine of Are You Dreaming? by Daniel Love: “It is easy to simply shrug these things off, assuming they will do no harm, but in doing so we open the doors for further nonsense to encroach upon the subject, burying its real potential.” I count four metaphors—“shrug off,” “open the doors,” “encroach,” and “burying”— and only the middle two mix well.*
How does this happen? Are we really such inattentive listeners that we fail to notice when people are passing nonsense off on us? Well, there may be a certain amount of this. But I think the problem isn’t so much that we’re not paying attention, but that we’re paying attention to only one thing: the drift. Words are arbitrary placeholders for things and concepts, and once a metaphor has become common currency, it gets treated just as a word does—as if it had an arbitrary relationship to the image it carries along.
No matter how appalled we may be by mixed metaphors, we are never confused by them. This is important. We have no trouble parsing even the most ridiculous combinations and figuring out what the speaker means to say, and the process may take place without us even becoming aware of it. Stylistic faux pas? Perhaps. But not nonsense.
This is important because as we dream, we seem to change our train of thought midstream very frequently. As anyone who has learned to meditate knows, we do a good deal of this in our waking hours as well. The difference is that as we dream, we experience many of our thoughts imagistically.
This goes some way towards explaining the abrupt transitions that take place in dreams—one of the characteristics that most clearly distinguishes them from waking experience, and most frequently calls down the charge of “nonsense” from those who have only a casual acquaintance with them. How can dreams be meaningful when they are full of sudden discontinuities, many of them jarring breaks from the logic of our waking lives, and when we don’t even notice them happening? But it is exactly when dreams are like this that they are most like language.
Beneath the imagistic patchwork of dreams is a continuous train of thought, and every junction is an opportunity for an interpreter to board.
Sometimes, the meaningfulness of a discontinuity—or the continuity of meaning despite a discontinuity— may even be obvious to someone who doesn’t work with their dreams. No interpretation is required to spot it: only good observation.
To illustrate this, here’s one dream from not long after I started keeping a dream-journal regularly:
I was either a woman joining a rebel army or I was going to participate in a track meet—it kept changing back and forth. I was getting married to someone who was also fighting. During the parts where I was going to a track meet, I was driving through a strange town, afraid I was going to be late. As it turned out, my first race was much later than I thought, so I had time to eat and rest. Then it turned into the other dream where it turned out there was enough time to hold a wedding ceremony. (August, 2007)
It is hard to imagine a more striking discontinuity than those in this dream, which actually seems to consist of two parallel dreams: one a scenario that only departs from waking life in minor ways, the other much farther removed. But the same narrative arc underlies them both, and the end result of both is: “it isn’t so urgent after all. There’s time.” What isn’t so urgent? Nine years after dreaming it, all I can say for sure is that it’s neither a race to be run nor a battle to be fought. Either dream alone would have been sufficient to get the point across to an interpreter, but the flipping back and forth between the two makes the drift more clear than either alone could have.
Another short example from around the same time:
I was practicing with French interrogatives. There were people asking me all sorts of questions. I had to think hard about the answers. I was told it was so I could be a developed character. (November, 2007)
Here, the break isn’t an imagistic shift, exactly, but the collision of two frames of reference—real life and fiction—in the course of a conversation.
A short explanation: an interrogative is a word that signals a question, such as “who?” “what?” “why?” It’s quite possible that I was actually reviewing them around this time. “Developed character” is narrative jargon, used in literature and other media. You might also say 3-dimensional character or round character. But you wouldn’t use the term to describe a real person.
However, you might talk about somebody becoming a more complex person, or a deeper person, or a better-educated person. For a university student living away from her family for the first time, studying, meeting new people, acquiring new interests, all are possible. I am posing questions to myself—or my environment is posing questions to me—or perhaps my dreams themselves are, seeing as that was one of the new interests I had acquired—and I don’t yet have answers. I am having to think about them, and in the process I am growing as a person.
So why “developed character” rather than something more literal? It could have just been because the phrase was the closest at hand—a dream really doesn’t need another reason. If I casually used the phrase during into a lively conversation with my friends, I’m sure that they’d understand what I meant by it with no need of an explanation, without even considering it strange. (Did you notice the term “narrative arc” in the paragraph right after the rebel army dream?)
However, it may also have been because at that time the concept would have been more meaningful to me, more evocative, more current than something literal would have been. I grew up in an environment that was ambivalent towards intangible goods like personal growth and development—and, by extension, formal education as anything more than career preparation. Having had a thoroughly unpleasant formal education myself while setting a high value on learning, I had my own reasons for being ambivalent. In short, I may not have had an unequivocally positive way of putting such concepts to myself.
One final point: this use of the narrative jargon may also indicate a sort of proto-awareness into the dreaming state—“I am not a real person.” It’s a long-shot, a possibility that would hardly be worth mentioning if I didn’t have so many clear instances in the years that followed, but it’s always interesting to speculate.
To be continued….
*I count 21 metaphors in this post, not including Daniel Love’s.