Univers(e)al Metaphor

I recently wrote about how the structures of desire manifest themselves in music, even at some of the lowest levels of complexity, such as in the movement of one chord to the next. I wanted to find a way of visualizing how the very smallest building blocks of music (notes) can combine into harmony, and stumbled across the following diagram:


This is a potential representation of two related chords. The red dots could be the name of the chord (eg C major, A minor – in the key of C major, A minor is the 6th chord); the blue dots could be the notes themselves, which can belong to two chords at once (C being both the tonic of C major and the third of A minor). The ensemble of those interlinked circles could represent the chordal relationships in a harmonic sequence or between the chords of one key, for example.

But it’s not intended to represent music. It was designed as a representation of a water molecule – H2O – two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. The atoms ‘share’ some electrons, which binds them together into a molecule; or rather, the electrons spin round both the hydrogen and the oxygen nuclei rather than around the lone atom’s single nucleus. Thinking about electrons whizzing around nuclei sparks another metaphorical comparison to the way planets orbit around stars, or moons around planets.

How can a representation of a water molecule also serve to show how musical harmony works? Isn’t it interesting that so often the symbols we use to portray one thing work just as well for another? This can work horizontally, through the application of a single metaphor to different meanings: in the 18th century the concept of bearing light means the Enlightenment project of bringing reason to the masses; but in the Bible it means the Light of the World dispelling spiritual blindness or sin. It can also work vertically, the way that using the medieval theory of the four levels of allegory allows (according to Dante) the story of Moses’ exodus from Egypt to signify also our redemption, the soul’s conversion and its future salvation.

While metaphors can be carefully constructed by us, they can also spontaneously occur to us, perfectly fitting and illuminating the object in consideration. Are these kinds of links, like the way the H2O diagram can also represent harmonic structures, merely a neat coincidence?

There are two possible explanations for this commonality of metaphor:

  1. Logic underpins everything in the world: physical laws, morality, aesthetics. There is a common ground of meaning underneath everything which naturally means that the metaphors we are able to use can apply to diverse realms.
  2. I and not logic am the commonality between the diverse realms of being I’m attempting to describe. My individual lens affects what’s fed to me; my individual processor affects the conclusions I draw from that and the ideas I originate. The fact that I comprehend all of the world through this same viewpoint makes a commonality of metaphor possible.

When it comes to the second possibility, theorists of fictional narrative viewpoints have something to contribute, having studied how these affect what’s presented to us in books. In the 19th century Stendhal claimed that realist writers like himself were a mirror reflecting the mud at the side of the road back to society. While Flaubert is also hailed as a realist, his narrative is less a clear lens than a blurred pane, pulling various characters’ viewpoints into the main narrative voice. On the other hand, Dante imbues the physical world with various levels of symbolic meaning, literalising the effects of sin in the physical Hell; his lens is like an overactive Snapchat filter, maybe even a pair of psychedelic VR goggles.

However, no one can claim to show the world as it really is in a book. No artistic creation can ever be a wholly truthful window onto reality unless it is in fact a copy of the entire world; and then it would be neither artistic, nor the creation of a human being. The same way an optimist sees the glass as half full, whereas the pessimist sees it half empty, so one person can look at the world and see meaningless chaos, where another sees miraculous design.

Perhaps my links between different realms of reality – music and atoms – are forced, and perhaps it’s only my faulty lens and comprehension that tells me these are valid links because the universe is logical. Given these constraints, it’s very difficult, maybe even futile, to be objective about anything. However, I would like to think that self-examination and awareness that we see but through a glass darkly can help us remove the rose-tinted sunshades and step into the light …


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