Articles and Papers METAPHORIC BEING


Inspired by a reading of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, this was meant to be an enquiry into ‘journalistic truth’ as opposed to ‘novelistic truth.’ It grew instead into a consideration of the significance of the metaphor in our understanding of reality. This happened as a result of several coincidental occurrences: mainly my discovery of Milan Kundera, and then Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Reith Lectures 2003, Steve Hagen’s, Buddhism Plain and Simple, Tutu as I know him, Michael White’s The Pope and the Heretic, and Simon Wiesenthal’s The Murderers Among Us – an unplanned bibliography for this essay.

If you are trying to find a way to connect this random selection of readings, you are engaged in what Professor Ramachandran calls, “cross-modal abstraction,” the ability to abstract common elements from very unlike items. According to the Professor:

  • “cross-modal abstraction,” evolved as a survival mechanism in prehistoric times and became an automatic function of the brain. Once human beings developed the … ability to engage in cross-modal abstraction, that structure in turn became an exaptation for other types of abstraction that us humans excel in, be it metaphor or any other type of abstraction.” (4th Lecture, Reith 2003, p. 5)

My reading represents a search for an understanding of reality. While Buddhists see reality, and Ramachandran, making correlations between neural and physical activity, searches for reality in brain functions, Kundera seeks reality in the way we function in the world. Both Kundera and Ramachandran attribute changes in human perceptions of reality to revolutions that displaced human beings from the centre of the universe, disabused them of the notion of predestination, and questioned their understanding of being in the world.

In Kundera’s words:

  • As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good
  • from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize. In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parcelled out by men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world. (The Art of the Novel, 6)

In Ramachandran’s words:

  • The history of mankind in the last three hundred years has been punctuated by major upheavals in human thought that we call scientific revolutions – upheavals that have profoundly affected the way in which we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos. First there was the Copernican revolution – the notion that far from being the centre of the universe, our planet is a mere speck of dust revolving around the sun. Then there was the Darwinian revolution culminating in the view that we are not angels but merely hairless apes … And third there was Freud’s discovery of the “unconscious” – the idea that even though we claim to be in charge of our destinies, most of our behaviour is governed by a cauldron of motives which we are barely conscious of. Your conscious life, in short, is nothing but an elaborate post-hoc rationalisation of
  • things you really do for other reasons. (Reith 2003, Lecture 1, 1)

For Buddhists it is the reverse:

  • Consciousness divides what is otherwise the direct experience of a seamless Whole into the world of multiplicity, the world of space and time. (Hagen, 140).

While Buddhists calmly make their way, like particles in waves, through life’s diverse and continuous flow, regarding the adoption of a particular point of view as denial of life’s complexity, the rest of humanity continues the struggle to stop the flow with fixed formulations of truth and identity.

In the search for the finite, coincidences, unexpected yet seemingly coherent happenings, tease us with glimpses of certainty. Coincidences call into play Ramachandran’s cross-modal abstraction which allows us to derive coherence from disparate happenings. Thus we give our lives consistency and turn them into metaphors. For Ramachandran, we developed the metaphor as a means of survival; for Kundera, according to Jan Čulik, we use the metaphor to turn reality into myth.

  • Kundera scrutinizes closely man’s myth-making propensity. He finds that the basic vehicle of myth-making is the metaphor. Out of a large number of characteristics, pertaining to two facts or events, we arbitrarily choose one isolated feature which they both have in common, because this superficial similarity happens to please us (it emphasises an aspect that we momentarily, for no good reason, find important, to the exclusion of all other aspects, most of which we are often not aware of). In Kundera’s view, the laws of man’s perception of life closely resemble those of the novel, since the novel is also based on arbitrary metaphors. (Culik, A self-referential Paradox, 3)

Once life was shown to be indeterminate and uncertain underneath its superstructure of myth, some languished in existential angst while others, seeing the gap left by the departure of the Divine, seized on the notion of impermanence and turned it into a metaphor for profit. These pragmatists, whom Kundera calls imagologues – image makers – who demonstrate great expertise in milking our insecurities, have conquered the world with a new dogma:

  • “Imagology!” …this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies; political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers; show-business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey.” (Immortality, 127)

Impermanence and change, the business principles of imagologues, and metaphor their modus operandi, made concrete in updates and make-overs, restore weight to existence and proliferate a material democracy.

  • The word change, … has been given a new meaning: it no longer means a new stage of coherent development (as it was understood by Vico, Hegel or Marx) but a shift from one side to another, from front to back, from the back to the left, from the left to the front (as understood by designers dreaming up the fashion for next season) … Imagologues create systems of ideals and anti-ideals, systems of short duration which are quickly replaced by other systems but which influence our behaviour,our political opinions and aesthetic tastes, the colour of carpets and the selection of books ... (Immortality,129 - 130)

Now we no longer fear change, we fear being out-of-fashion, out of step, not politically correct, and imagology, which has given us a way to cohere, to be in community with ever-changing, fashionable identities, is a new, more effective form of ‘democracy.’

  • “Imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology. All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously. For example, communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would gradually grow poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, they felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stronger than reality…” (Immortality,127-8)

While ideologists theorise, plan and create structure upon structure to implement democracy, imagologues with no bureaucratic controls to impede their progress, have, with the aid of the media, immersed us in a practical form of democracy that has spread throughout the world – a form of democracy that is ‘kitsch’:

  • The most pernicious metaphorical constructs of reality are those which consciously set out to exclude the negative aspects of life. Kundera calls these constructs ‘kitsch.’ (A self-referential Paradox, 3)

Imagologues have ensured the support of the people for kitsch democracy through their powerful means of consultation:

  • Public opinion polls are the critical instruments of imagology’s power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people… Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth and although I know everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power … the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth.” (Immortality, 128-9)

Unlike politicians, whose allegiance is to other politicians, as party conformity and floor crossings show, imagologues keep in touch with the people and supply even before demands are articulated. Imagologues, who know what we want/need even before we do, have gone beyond responding to our needs, they are in the business of creating needs. Thus their ability to deliver seems magical and makes us impatient with politicians who have disappeared into bureaucracy, and seem indifferent to service delivery.

Politicians, though equally adept at abstraction – election promises, have a problem with delivery and are unable to win the kind of support that we give to imagologues. Only when elections are to be held, is there a connection between governors and governed. After elections democracy devolves into metaphor, and power, into vested interests. It is amandla without awethu, cratos without demos and democracy assumes a lightness of being that floats without the weight of the people. When the masses shout amandla awethu, they believe it to mean the Freedom Charter – the land belongs to all who live in it, education and decent living standards for all. But people-power is a metaphor and freedom charters are kitsch.Asrights and responsibilities are not goods bought off shelves, the exchange is not in concrete terms (money and goods), but in terms of trust, which is abstract, therefore easy to ignore in practice. So we place on high, plaques and banners that read, ‘A person is a person through other people,’ ‘Motho ke Motho ka Batho,’ that reveal ubuntu as kitsch.

Unfortunately for politicians, they are required to deal with empirical reality. If, like imagologues, they could generate needs, they would be able to fulfil them too and still get rich. Then, like imagologues, they would also be involved in a totalitarian fantasy of democracy and would not be under constant fire for poor delivery.

Having turned supply and demand into a metaphor for democracy, imagologues propagate it through the media.

  • “The imagologue is a person of conviction and principle: he demands of the journalist that his newspaper (or TV channel, radio station) reflect the imagological system of a given moment. And this is what imagologues check from time to time when they are trying to decide which newspaper to support.” (Immortality, 127)

The globe has thus become the constituency of imagologues who are homogenising the planet while we, in our designer jeans, embrace this new form of totalitarianism, and simultaneously lament the loss of diversity and cultural uniqueness. Though imagologues, with their swiftly changing metaphors, demonstrate that there are no absolutes and existence in an infinite universe is transient, we cling to their metaphors as our reality because they are absolute in the moment. Thus they become coping mechanisms for being-in-the-world. And imagologues, working in the moment, have found a way to resolve the absolute/relative paradox by making change consistent.

But constantly changing metaphors do not remove the paradox. Our relative existence is still ruled by ‘absolutes,’ – the rules and regulations that we devise to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty. Society, an extended metaphor, is in itself a reaction to arbitrary existence. Its institutions present the absolute in opposition to the relative. In the justice system, for instance, court cases are about determining whether events and happenings are coincidental (relative truth) or whether they are causally linked through intent (absolute truth).

  • Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic[1] and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: … This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. (The Art of the Novel, 7)

But in daily interaction people are forced to translate the ‘language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse’; they are forced into reduction. Even Hamlet, who put off making decisions because he didn’t have conclusive proof, eventually had to act. ‘To be’ means to live in the world, in a practical situation; if we do not act, we cannot be. Decisions and actions are based on definition. And we are not unaware, though our awareness may be subliminal, that our definitions are reductionist. Why else are capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia, such dilemmas? Why else, even after a judge has made up his mind, are there appeal courts? Why else do we have such contradictory views on how to treat AIDS?

Though we set up rigid institutions in our societies in order to eliminate uncertainty, the quest for certainty is a forlorn quest, a tilting at windmills. in the practical world, where ‘truth’ is relative. Consequently, it takes courage to make decisions and declare the rightness or wrongness of a situation when we know full well that the ‘truths’ we declare are compromises based on overwhelming but not necessarily conclusive evidence. That is why we need confirmation from others; that is why we have majority decisions and consensual decision-making and the opinion poll. But our courage in making decisions can blind us to the dangers of totalitarianism that peek from behind consensus.

When we still believed in the dichotomy of good and evil, it was easier to make categorical judgments. But after Einstein, we could no longer be in denial. Perhaps, it was to overcome the horror of uncertainty, the unbearable lightness of being, that led to the mass psychosis that gave rise to the atrocities of the holocaust. Perhaps by demonstrating that they had control over life and death, the SS sought to wipe uncertainty out of consciousness, impose certainty on the world, make truth and knowledge absolute and remove ambiguity from our existence. Their actions fit into Professor Anthony Giddens’ description of fundamentalism:

  • Fundamentalism is not about what people believe but, like tradition more generally, about why they believe it and how they justify it. Fundamentalism can develop on the soil of traditions of all sorts. It has no time for ambiguity, multiple interpretation or multiple identity – it is a refusal of dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it. (1999 Reith Lecture 5, p.6)

And fundamentalism, as the Nazis have shown, is powerful. It has its roots in the reductionism to which we resort because we cannot function in uncertainty. And reduction is most clearly manifest in the work of journalists and judges who in their search for categorical truth, must reduce infinity to the finite, the relative to the categorical. This form of fundamentalism, the identification of ‘absolutes,’ has given journalists tremendous power. According to Kundera,

  • The whole moral structure of our time rests on the Eleventh commandment [Tell the truth]; and the journalist came to realise that thanks to a mysterious provision of history (Woodward and Bernstein) he is to become its administrator. (Immortality, 123)

But, unwittingly, journalists are involved in another paradox. Journalists, as Woodward and Bernstein have shown, are ‘defenders of democracy’, and democracy, which means individual rights and freedoms, translates into myriad truths – relativity. But the journalist’s pursuit of ‘categorical truth’ being reductionist, denies relative truth and becomes undemocratic and punitive. And journalists, living in the karmic world, embroiled in its uncertainty, have made the ‘Eleventh Commandment’ their weapon against relativity. Truth, a philosophical inquiry for the novelist, is a battlefield for journalists and in their demand for ‘absolute truth,’ they uncover what Kundera calls,

  • … purely positivist[2] factual truth: what did C do yesterday? What is he really thinking deep in his heart? What does he talk about when he gets together with A? and does he have intimate contact with B? (Immortality, 124)

The following are a few newspaper headlines that appeared in August 2007, about problems in the Health Department:

    • The Sunday Times, 12 Aug 2007:
    • Pretoria News, 17 August 2007
    • Minister in urgent bid to gag Sunday Times after its claims of her ‘boozing’
    • The Sunday Times: Aug 19, 2007     MANTO: A DRUNK AND A THIEF
    • Sowetan: 21 August 2007        
    • ‘MBEKI ORDERED MANTO LIVER’: DA wants public protector to probe claim that president used his power to get ailing minister rare life-saving organ.

And what are the facts? Abuse of alcohol. “Purely positivist factual truth” is mundane, but the metaphors abstracted from such demonstrable facts move ‘truth’ from the absolute to a superstructure of relative truths that can topple politicians from positions of power. Some put the facts together to form a picture that exposes dangerous incompetence and apathy; others find in them a conspiracy aimed at toppling the President. These are metaphors. There is no way to establish the absolute truth or falsity of metaphors, but we accept one or another in order to make decisions and take action.

Where a crime has been committed, for example, opposing metaphors are put to the test at a trial. The defence puts one construction on the facts; the prosecution another and whichever has the most sway is declared the truth. In countries where trials include juries, juries represent public opinion and the meaning that is accepted as truth is the result of consensus, and has the weight of a majority decision. In our country, which does not use the jury system, a judge weighs up the evidence and makes a decision. But his decision, based on his construction of the facts, is still a metaphor.

And judgments are not final. Decisions of juries or judges are subject to appeal at higher levels. Thus, despite our striving for the absolute, we demonstrate through our judicial processes that we can only produce relative truth. It can change from High Court to Supreme Court and needs further consent for a perception to become ‘the truth’.

In the end, what we accept as ‘truth’ depends on consensus: if a meaning carries the weight of numbers or power, it becomes ‘the truth’. Dependence on consensus has made the public opinion poll the arbiter of truth; has made journalists the administrators of the ‘Eleventh Commandment’, and imagologues more powerful than politicians.

Despite their power, however, journalists are unable to penetrate the labyrinths ofbureaucracies so they demand transparency, which Kundera declaims as naïve and abusive:

  • TRANSPARENCY: A very common term in political and journalistic discourse in Europe. It means: the exposure of individual lives to public view … Axiom: the more opaque the affairs of State, the more transparent an individual’s affairs must be; though it represents a public thing, bureaucracy is anonymous, secret, coded, inscrutable, whereas private man is obliged to reveal his health, his finances, his family situation, and if the mass media so decree, he will never again have a single moment of privacy either in love or in sickness or in death. The urge to violate another’s privacy is an age-old form of aggressivity that in our day is institutionalized (bureaucracy with its documents, the press with its reporters), justified morally (the right to know having become first among the rights of man) (The Art of the Novel, 150)

The quest of the journalist, frustrated by the opaqueness of bureaucracy, is deflected from the public to the personal, to the individual in her private capacity, a realm in which categorical judgements can be made in conformity with accepted norms and values that reduce the individual to a fixed identity, a categorical self. But the scientist asks,         

  • What exactly do people mean when they speak of the self? Its defining characteristics are fourfold. First of all, continuity. You’ve a sense of time, a sense of past, a sense of future. There seems to be a thread running though your personality, through your mind. Second, closely related is the idea of unity or coherence of self. In spite of the diversity of sensory experiences, memories, beliefs and thoughts, you experience yourself as one person, as a unity. (Ramachandran, Lecture 5, p. 6)

Is this unity a metaphor, an abstraction, a reduction? Buddhists have no doubt:

  • We have seen that the abiding self or soul we commonly assume we are is an illusion, a figment of imagination. (Hagen, 134)

and when Kundera says,

  • To apprehend the self in my novels means to grasp the essence of its existential problem. To grasp its existential code … (which) is not examined in abstracto; it reveals itself progressively in the action, in the situations. (The Art of the Novel, 29 - 30)

he rejects abstraction – the metaphor that turns the self into a stereotype.

Ramachandran states:

  • (in) the Hindu philosophical view there is no essential difference between self and others … the self is an illusion,” … At a very rudimentary level this is what happens each time a new-born baby mimics your behaviour. Stick your tongue out next time you see a new-born-baby and the baby will stick its tongue out, mimicking your behaviour, instantly dissolving the boundary, the arbitrary barrier between self and others. And we even know that this is carried out by a specific group of neurons in the brain, in your frontal lobes, called the mirror neutrons. The bonus from this might be self-awareness. (Reith 2003, Lecture 5, p.7)

There seems to be consensus among those I have quoted that there is no categorical self. Though consensus does not necessarily mean ‘truth,’ this view of the self accounts for the difference in modes of operation between journalists and novelists. Journalists, demanding consistency of behaviour, take for granted the fixity of identity, which forms the basis for questioning the morality of actions. Novelists on the other hand, examine actions as coping mechanisms and are interested in facts, only in so far as they illuminate a character’s reason for being and her struggle to make sense of life. The novelist does not impose or demand consistency of behaviour and the novel pursues the “wisdom of uncertainty.” (The Art of the Novel, p.7)

If a novelist took events surrounding the Health Minister and placed them in a novel, he would not be concerned to verify or deny facts. His concern would be to examine the actions and situations in which she is involved without forcing them into a conventional pattern. The novelist searches for understanding from within, from subjective consciousness, the heart of relativity and does not judge. The journalist, however, searching for ‘incontrovertible truth’, finds and strings empirical facts together to create metaphors, and, assuming that she (the journalist) is objective, makes categorical judgments. The journalist demands commitment to the worldly ‘absolutes’ of regulated living: to fixed identities and conventions; whereas the novelist invites us to contemplate the unbearable lightness of being (that denies definition) in a world that has become a particle in the ever-expanding wave of the universe.

  • “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’ That is the novel’s eternal truth.” (The Art of the Novel, 30)

Reading Tutu as I know him, in the midst of my discovery of Kundera, I, like a journalist, made my own cross-modal abstraction. Though both the Archbishop and Kundera gained their insights from experiences in oppressive totalitarian situations that demanded uniformity and conformity, existence is clearly defined for one but not the other.

For Kundera, in a situation from which God has withdrawn, there is no absolute knowledge, no dichotomy between good and evil, no absolute truth, as we shape-shift our way through existence. The lightness of being, in its fearsome ambiguity, as oppressive as it is liberating, detaches sex from reproduction, being from identity and consistency from commitment, leaving the individual free to rise/fall in her efforts to find a way to be.

As a loving God is with the Archbishop, the universe maintains its order, and allows the Archbishop to accept that though truth in this world is relative, there is also absolute truth. Justice Edward Cameron commenting on the Archbishop’s lecture at King’s College, London, on Thursday 22 January 2004, indicates that convention (fixed structures for truth) can lead to “immoral moralism”:

  • We cannot toady to political power any more than we can submit ourselves unquestioningly to derived convention in morality. Unexamin- ed invocation of immoral moralism is a form of toadying to power. And in both spheres, Desmond Tutu calls us to better.
  • Tutu’s life has questioned power, and it has questioned received moral precepts. In embracing full human citizenship for gays and lesbians, and in insisting on full justice in a sexually-transmitted epidemic, Tutu offers us a vision of true individual autonomy. (Tutu as I know him, 208)

But being a man of God, Archbishop Tutu is anchored in absolute truth. Motho ke Motho ka Batho (Ubuntu) which, I assume, he translates as “love thy neighbour as thyself”, is for him a way of being-in-the-world. Pieter-Dirk Uys says of him;

  • Desmond Tutu has proved one thing. Practice makes perfect. You practise humanity long enough, you become a perfect human being.(Tutu as I know him, 115)  

For Kundera there is no absolute truth and uncertainty is hidden under fixed definitions (metaphors) on which we build our existences. For him perfection would be  a finite state, a metaphor, not real – kitsch.


1. Čulik, Jan. “A Self-referential paradox: Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being,”

2. Kundera, Milan. Immortality, 1991. London: Faber & FaberLtd.

3.Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. 1988. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

4..Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1985.London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

5.Tutu, Desmond. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, (2004),” The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. 2007. Johannesburg: The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

6. Crawford-Browne, Lavinia. Ed. Tutu as I know him: on a personal note. 2006. Umuzi (Random House): Houghton, Johannesburg.

7.Reith Lectures: 1999 Giddens, Anthony. The Runaway World.  2003 Ramachandran, V. The Emerging Mind.

8.White, Michael. The Pope and the Heretic: A True Story of Courage and Murder at the hands of the Inquisition. 2002.   London: Little, Brown and Company. (The story of Giordano Bruno)

9.Wiesenthal, Simon. The Murderers among Us edited by Joseph Wechsberg, 1967. London: Heinemann.

  • [1] apodictic – clearly demonstrably true, necessary truth,   absolute certainty -- factual
  • [2] empirical




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