September 25, 2012

Omens, Portents, and Metaphors


As I mentioned, I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings.

Night before last, I got to the part where Jon Snow, a brave knight of the Night’s Watch, and his knight brothers are camped on the Fist, a hill that rises like a fist that is a ringfort.  It is singularly creepy.  One brother “smells” the cold, and Jon’s direwolf Ghost refuses to go to the top of the Fist.  Ghost is known for sensing a lot more than everyone and helping Jon out of many scrapes.  The landscape is describes as dark and foreboding ~ standing on the top of the hill, the ancient dark forest goes on and on, and it’s wet and rainy.  What we know from before that here past the Wall are the Others, an army of zombie-like people who haven’t really surfaced in the narrative but who loom over it like dread from the very first page.

I don’t do it justice in my description.  But I tell you what, it creeped me out like any good horror novel.  I’d just been reading that part when I had to go downstairs for something, and I kept looking around thinking, “We have far too many windows in this house.  Far too many.”  I turned on a lot of lights as I did my errand, I can tell you, which is silly because then anything outside can see in.

Then, last night, I was reading along, a lot about weirwoods and the old gods and the magic returning because of dragons, about omens and portents and what the future brought.  Again, I had to go downstairs for something, but I didn’t turn on the lights. Our back door is glass to let in the light, and through it I saw moonlight bouncing off the tin roof of our garage and the black outline of our cottonwood tree.  I walked over and looked out.  There was a perfect halfmoon shining brightly and illuminating the small and narrow groups of cirrocumulus clouds that crowded around it.  The lights and faint noise of trucks whizzed by on the interstate next to our house ~ never wall to wall, but persistent, enough to remind you how busy we are as a species.  And then as I watched the blinking lights of a small plane popped out from the clouds, disappeared into the moon, and then popped back out the other side.

In my frame of mind, I couldn’t help but think of portents and omens, of metaphors and signs.  I’d just been reading about the red comet in the sky and everyone interpreting it for good or ill ~ mostly ill ~ and what it meant that the wargs and direwolves were much more plenty and so much more.  So as I watched the moon and the plane I immediately thought of omens and portents and metaphors.  The small blinking lights of the plane merging with the overweening light of the moon.  How small we are and how above ourselves.  We think we have these mighty machines yet the comparably weak light of a halfmoon has such power as to obliterate our evidence.  And the scurrying along the interstate ~ all this busyness to mask our baser natures, and our higher ones.  And the black outline of the tree, usually ignored and taken for granted, yet there it is, it always is, patient as death, as plants always are.

Usually I’m a good rationalist, scientific method and all that, but then I thought, what are portents and omens but just another form of metaphor.  What are metaphors?  One thing that stands in for another, so that by comparison its characteristics are illuminated.  They may be small and clever in literature, but I have long thought that science and religion too are nothing more than a huge structure of interconnecting metaphors.  Useful ones to be sure, but they are simply structures to help us understand the world around us.

So why can’t omens and portents be thought of as the metaphors of people much closer to nature?  They would not simply be based on guesses, but instead be based on long study like science.  Sure, they weren’t backed by the scientific method, but our instincts and our guts tell us many things that our heads won’t, and we express those in metaphors.  They show ourselves to ourselves.

Not only that, but omens are a grasping at trying to predict the future in a thoroughly unpredictable world for people who had much less control over it and much more dire consequences for the lack of it.  It gave an illusion of control, which we all need. 

It was not an altogether unpleasant feeling, this reminder of the ineffable.

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