Metaphor in History-telling


I found Hayden White’s Historical Text as Literary Artifact fascinating on the one hand, but overwhelming on the other hand.  It contains a myriad of theories to consider, and, like the Russian nesting dolls pictured above, often one thought is buried inside of another, which in turn is part of yet another idea or concept.  Not that all the layers are concentric, of course, since they extend in a variety of directions and spheres.

THE GIST FOR ME:  Unless we experience history firsthand, our knowledge of it puts us at the mercy of those historians who choose/chose to describe to us a particular set of events, either in written form or in the spoken form: an oral tradition handed down, or, both written and spoken forms, especially if the events have occured since the invention of the radio, television, or other means of mass communication, such as the Internet.  In modern times, therefore, our knowledge of history, and hence our perception of it, is presented to us in a combination of several formats.

One predominant thought kept returning to me over and over again as I read the article: Form.  Form dictating content.  The ‘form’ being the way in which history is communicated to us: literary styles and techniques, encoding, emplotting.  You could argue that choice of content, such as what to include or what to exclude, is equally, if not more important.  But choice of content actually reverts back to form in the end:  the history or story may be the sum of its parts, but the choice of those parts, whether conscious or unconscious, is an attempt at shaping our story, and thus really related to form in a very essential aspect.


Hayden White, p. 91: “The metaphor does not image the thing it seeks to characterize: it gives directions for finding the set of images that are intended to be associated with that thing.  It functions as a symbol, rather than a sign: … [it] tells us what images to look for in our culturally encoded experience in order to determine how we should feel about the thing represented.”

Metaphor, if defined as A = B, might produce a phrase such as “Military leaders are chessmen.”  The metaphor can provide symbolic or iconic interpretation of the terms we want to define.  If, for example, military leaders = chessmen, then they could symbolically represent (potentially be in possession of) any of the figurative qualities that we attribute to a chess piece, such as power or subordination.  Taking it a step further, a key personage in the context of war could be called a “pawn,” thus implying the qualities or similarities that a pawn represents: the weaker player, a soldier vs. a general, a prisoner of war vs. his/her captors or the enemy.  In this symbolic or iconic sense, a pawn could be considered any player in a game whose worth, while it might be strategic, is nevertheless dispensible. 

How can the above concepts be applied to the telling of history?

A case in point might be that of a historian dealing with the biography of Saddam Hussein.  From a metaphorical standpoint, he could certainly be viewed as a military/political leader = chessman.  In this context, he would clearly have represented, at the height of his power, a king on the political chessboard, an obvious symbol of absolute or nearly absolute power.  

The metaphorical symbol of the King, based on our culturally encoded experience, can nevertheless produce quite opposite interpretations: to Hussein’s supporters, the icon or symbol might suggest a ‘fallen king,’ a leader stripped of his power by other ‘chess pieces’ who contrived to get rid of him.  For those writers of history, the king on the chessboard represents a tragedy of the worst kind, since, within the confines of their cultural filter, Hussein was a hero to his chosen people, however ruthless and cruel some of his deeds may have been. 

For others, the great majority I would venture to say, the ultimate demise of Hussein due to his crimes against humanity, would involve an entirely different intrepretation of this “tragedy of the fallen king”: he would be the villainous despot who got his just desserts.

Still another iconic interpretation offered by the symbolism of the chessboard is that of a pawn: regardless of the fact that Hussein was deserving of punishment, in the political arena of the world chessboard, he ultimately became a pawn, or, as the dictionary defines it in the symbolic sense: “someone who is used or manipulated to further another’s purposes.”  This, at least, might be the metaphoric interpretation of those who believe that the United States has/had ulterior as well as altruistic motives for invading Iraq. To Saddam’s supporters, his final status as a pawn, if we choose that symbol, would make this person, seen by many as an evil madman, to be a sacrificial victim.  It will be interesting to see which metaphorical symbols historians will choose in future historical writings of these events.

(Enough of that, as it is getting into dangerous political territory, and that is not my intention at all.)

DISCLAIMER:  The use of metaphor in writing, according to Hayden White’s article, is inextricably linked to its three cousins: metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. (page 95.) In my initial draft of this post, I intended to address all four aspects in relation to historical writings, but decided to focus on just the “metaphor doll” in this set of Russian nesting dolls because: (1) I felt the post would be far too long to do justice to all four concepts, even in a superficial treatment;  (2) I was unable to reconcile the definition of metonymy that I found in the Wikipedia with White’s statement (page 96): “If we stress the differences among them [the elements or events], we are working in the mode of metonymy.”  My understanding of metonymy was that of  “a word that substitutes another by means of association.”  If anybody can clear that up for me, I would welcome the explanation.


10 Responses to “Metaphor in History-telling”

  1. Ginger Gonzalez Says:

    When I first read the Hayden White article, my head was spinning, so I agree with you about the complexities of the theories presented. I liked the image of the Russian nesting dolls that you used to desribe the intricacies involved in understanding his presentation of ideas. After collecting my thoughts, attending Dr. Conway’s class, and reading the article again, I was able to process the information and begin to see how the “dolls” connect.
    As for your inclusion of politics in your post, I found it most interesting and feel that literature is an outlet for expressing political views and should not be ingored.
    Your post was detailed, interesting, and well thought out. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. ortiz5304 Says:

    Ginger: Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. VJ Says:

    Hi Cathrine,

    You know the thing about Hussein is that the guy who gave him the gun to kill is the same who demonized him, so…
    Anyway, I’m learning from your blog. Keep on feeding me!


  4. ortiz5304 Says:

    Hi VJ: As I said in this post, I did not really want to get into anything political, my intention was just to present both possible sides of using metaphor in the interpretation of history.

    I do agree with your point about the irony of the “guy who gave him the gun to kill.” I think people often find it quite easy to change sides in the battle when it suits their convenience.

    I do enjoy reading your blog; your writing style is easy to read, and yet has much substance as well. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Sally Garcia Says:

    I’m confused because it looks like I’m leaving you a response to your first article, but I really wanted to respond to your blog on Tintern Abbey.

  6. Sally Garcia Says:

    Since the previous email worked, I’ll continue with my thoughts. I previously had trouble with blogspot, so I’m afraid to write a long response to you before making sure things work.

    The think that confuses me about Tintern Abbey, is why he named the poem that. Any ideas? I also read somewhere that there was some sort of cabal involved in the poem, but I know not what. Certainly, having seen the Abbey for myself, it’s a beautiful spot and so his comments about nature are certainly visually appropriate.

  7. Catherine Says:

    Hi Sally! I think what happened with your comment is that you went to the bottom of the page to comment, and there are 3 posts showing on the page, which is why your comment ended up here. For future reference, you just have to click on “comments” right below the post in question.

    I don’t know why the title is the way it is except that the place he was describing was just a spot in nature and he had to associate it with a known place, and hence “a few miles above Tintern Abbey.” Interesting that you have seen it for yourself. I would love to visit it one day if I ever get back to the U.K.

    Thanks for commenting. See you in class!

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