The Body Knows:
A new book bashes the brain
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
Regular readers of this column know that I often
write about the "poetic basis of mind." By this, I mean to indicate
that the basic structure of the psyche is images and that we express ourselves
Thus, our entire experience of the world is "as if," rather
than of anything like direct knowing of essential truth. Freud and the
other founders of modern psychology understood this implicitly. In psychoanalysis
and work with memory and dreams, they found that early experiences, especially
traumatic ones, often become symbolized. Thus, incest can get "remembered"
as cult abuse. (In contemporary practice, superficial therapists too often
read these metaphorical memories as literal.)
This was so fundamental to Freud's way of imagining the psyche that he
used myth - the myth of Oedipus, especially - as the way of describing
pathology. Myth, of course, is a culture's shared metaphorical way of
expressing something true about life. Freud also understood that personal
metaphors are found at depth, not through spiritual seeking. Thus, as
writer Christine Downing points out, The Interpretation of Dreams
opens with a quote from the Aeneid in which Juno vows to travel
to the underworld for the answers the heavens have not given her.
The poetic, or metaphorical, basis of mind operates all of the time -
not just as an expression of pathology. Thus, according to this view,
everything has a meaning other than its apparent one, so that the greatest
psychological injury a person can do himself is to literalize experience,
whether in the world or intrapsychically.
Although this idea has often been treated as the crackpot thinking of
poets and depth psychologists, it has begun to gain currency among a broader
range of thinkers in recent years. And this year's publication of Philosophy
in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is certainly a milestone.
It is an elaboration of their Metaphors We Live By, a book that
was considered highly eccentric at the time of its publication in 1980.
In the latter book, the two - Lakoff is a linguist and Johnson is a philosopher
- demonstrated how metaphors, not objective truths of any sort, structure
our culture's concepts. (A classic example is the idea that "argument
is war," a metaphor that structures discourse as a win-or-lose experience
with all the associated feelings of battle.) Lakoff wrote a controversial
book a year or two ago called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know
that Liberals Don't. In it, he showed how political ideologies are
expressions of the nation-as-a-family metaphor. Thus, conservatives see
government as the strict father who rewards discipline. Liberals, on the
other hand, conceptualize government as the nuturing parent.
The new book, Philosophy in the Flesh, is subtitled "the
embodied mind and its challenge to western thought." It is the most
comprehensive study of metaphor by either writer yet and offers the fascinating
thesis that metaphors, thought itself, arise in the body, not in the organic
brain alone. Thus, the way we conceptualize our experience is an expression
of the body itself.
The importance of this, of course, is to reunify mind and body, not as
merely cooperative aspects, but as functions that serve the same purpose.
Further, rather than using depth psychology or spiritual arguments, Lakoff
and Johnson rely on cognitive science to make their case. (Other scientists
are lately proving the existence of the unconscious as a biological function.)
They attempt to find a genetic basis for the metaphorical quality of human
thought. Their case studies are those philosophers who have "disembodied"
intelligence from the body.
There are problems in their analysis. Naturally, by reducing metaphor
to an expression of the personal body, they completely relatavize
truth. No objective truths at all survive in their model, which thus continues
the ancient debate between essentialists and relativists, taking the postmodern
side of the latter.
Still this book is one of the most important to come along in some time
for its synthesis of linguistics, philosophy and psychology by way of
cognitive science. It raises important questions about why we think the
way we do and, indeed, returns responsibility for it to our full being.
A new journal, Mythosphere, is being edited at the University
of Alabama by William Doty, a well known expert on "trickster"
figures in world mythology. Like Parabola, it is an effort to bridge
academic and popular writing about "image, myth and symbol."
The first two issues have been impressive, including an article by Christine
Downing (cited above) in no. 2. For information, call the distributor:
Ma Jaya, the colorful guru interviewed here a year ago, is returning
to Atlanta to give a workshop, "Chaos and the Mother," April
23 and 24. She is being hosted by one of her followers, Clare Ahern of
Jaya Devi Yoga Studio.
Ma Jaya's story is unique. She is a former Brooklyn housewife who began
having visions when she took a yoga class as part of a weight-loss plan.
Neem Karoli Baba, the guru of Ram Dass, appeared to her in 1973 and she
embarked on a path of kundalini yoga and compassionate action, including
work with AIDS patients. She operates Neem Karoli Kashi Ashram in Sebastian,
Interested persons should call Kashi, 1-800-226-1008, for
Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing
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