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A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness

Christopher Benfey
Jesus tries to teach his disciples this other way—this metaphorical way—of talking and seeing. But he fails repeatedly. And he is thrilled when he encounters someone who does know her way around metaphors.

Violet Foncé/Fromanger, Gerard/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

From the series “La Couleur des Villes et la Couleur des Champs,” by Violet Foncé, 1991; click to expand

“We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.”

—Ludwig Wittgenstein


Among the many healings and exorcisms recounted in the Gospel According to Mark is one that is remarkable for taking place in two stages.

And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.

Jesus again puts his hands on the man’s eyes, “and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mark 8:23–25 KJV).

The customary gloss on the passage is that the blind man is only partially healed the first time around, and that it takes two treatments for him to see fully. (The oculist slides another lens into the apparatus: “clearer?”) But this seems to me a misreading of the miracle. The blind man is actually taught to see twice. Or, to put it differently, he is taught to see in two different ways. After Jesus spits on his eyes and puts his hands on him, the man says, “I see men as trees, walking.” After a second laying on of hands (but no additional spitting), he sees “every man clearly.”

What, then, are these two ways of seeing?


In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein identifies “two uses of the word ‘see.’” He asks us to imagine two men looking at two different faces. One sees a likeness between the two faces; the other does not. “The one man might make an accurate drawing of the two faces, and the other notice in the drawing the likeness which the former did not see.” Wittgenstein calls the experience of seeing a likeness “noticing an aspect.” A drawing of a triangle, Wittgenstein notes, “can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid… as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer,” and so on. He gives other examples of this distinction between the two ways of seeing. “I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape.”

One way of seeing, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, is what we might call accurate seeing. This is how the blind man sees after Jesus touches his eyes for a second time, and he sees “every man clearly.” The other way of seeing is more like seeing men as trees walking. Wittgenstein calls this metaphorical way of seeing “seeing as.” He tells us, for example, that he “may well try to see” the letter F “as a gallows.”

“Could there be human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something?” Wittgenstein wonders. He suggests that this condition might be called  “aspect-blindness” and compares it to “the lack of a ‘musical ear.’”


When Jesus isn’t busy healing the sick, he teaches his disciples. And what he teaches them is almost always, in Mark, expressed in parables. Jesus often seems frustrated that his disciples don’t “get it.” (Frank Kermode writes of the “gloomy ferocity of Mark’s Jesus.”) Jesus tells them about the sower and the seed. They ask for an explanation. “Know ye not this parable?” he answers. “And how then will ye know all parables?” (It is easy to imagine Jesus saying, “You idiots! I didn’t mean the bread was literally my body!”) Notoriously, Jesus tells his disciples that he has to speak in parables so that the rabble won’t know what he’s talking about: “That seeing they may see, and not perceive.” As Robert Frost puts it in “Directive”: “So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.”  

Jesus tries to teach his disciples this other way—this metaphorical way—of talking and seeing. But he fails repeatedly. And he is thrilled when he encounters someone who does know her way around metaphors. Just before the blind man is brought to him, Jesus is accosted by a Greek woman, who asks him to cure her daughter of an unclean spirit. Jesus says to her, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” The woman answers, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” Jesus is delighted with this answer. “For this saying [logos in Greek] go thy way,” he says, “the devil is gone out of thy daughter.”

Why is he so pleased? Because the woman understood the metaphor and, even better, answered him in the terms of the metaphor. She doesn’t ask—like the tiresome disciples—for an explanation. She is, one might say, at home in the metaphor. If the disciples demanded an explanation, Jesus would presumably say something like this: the children are the Jews; the dogs are the Greeks; the Jews should be saved first; but this woman says there is enough salvation for all, Jews and Greeks, children and puppies.



“Unless you are at home in the metaphor,” Robert Frost wrote, “you are not safe anywhere.” Frost gives an example of metaphor-blindness in his great poem “Home Burial.” A young couple has lost a child. The wife is in prolonged mourning. The husband thinks it’s time to move on. The wife is outraged that her husband, after burying their child near their house, and with dirt still on his shoes, could speak of “everyday concerns.” “I can repeat the very words you were saying,” she says:

“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor.

The answer she expects to her question (which Frost doesn’t grace with a question mark, since it’s not a real question) is: nothing. The husband can hardly say, in his own self-defense, “I was speaking metaphorically. By the birch fence, I meant our family.”


Macbeth offers another version of metaphor-blindness. After he has murdered Duncan to win the Scottish throne, Macbeth seeks the advice of the Weird Sisters, whose previous prophecies have set him on his violent course. They show him three “apparitions”: a helmeted head, a bloody child, and “a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand.” Each apparition delivers a short speech. The first is “Beware Macduff!” Macbeth interprets the second and third as similarly straightforward. When the Second Apparition announces that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth assumes he is invulnerable. “Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?”

Macbeth finds the Third Apparition equally reassuring: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him.” “That will never be,” he concludes, for “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earthbound root?” Imagine an idiom: “That will happen when trees walk.”

What Macbeth fails to understand is that the second and third apparitions are actually framed as riddles. Like many riddles, they have a double meaning, a trick meaning. What is a man who is not of woman born? Macbeth assumes the answer is no one. But the trick answer, as Macduff reveals to him later, is a man born by Caesarian section, “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” (Wittgenstein on the riddling nature of the Gospels: “If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning?”)

The Third Apparition carries its trick answer openly in its hand—a child Crowned, with a tree in his hand—but Macbeth still fails to get it. How can a tree unfix his earthbound root? Answer: when an army of men is disguised with cut boughs as trees walking.

Why is Macbeth so obtuse? You might say that he is blinded by ambition. He reads the apparitions as he wants to read them, as most of us read the evidence when seeking support for our favored course of action.


One of the most influential twentieth-century poems in English appeared in Poetry magazine in April 1913. It is two lines long, or three, if Ezra Pound’s title is counted.  

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Yet again, we see people compared in some way to trees. And as in Macbeth, the notion of an “apparition” seems to be doing essential work. It is as though we are being asked to think about appearance, about how faces might be seen as something else. Pound summarized the chain of thought and feeling that went into “In a Station of the Metro”:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation.

It is the suddenness of the impression that Pound insists upon: “saw suddenly,” “that sudden emotion,” “I found, suddenly, the expression.” For Wittgenstein, too, suddenness is part of this kind of seeing. “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another.” And again: “I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape.”


For Pound, suddenness is an essential attribute of the new kind of poetry he is calling for—is, in fact, inventing. It requires an associative virtuosity and lightning wit that recall the speed of the Greek woman’s response to Jesus. It is to be a poetry of “exploration,” Pound writes, a new “sort of knowing.” He compares it to the sudden revelations of Japanese haiku. “The fallen blossom flies back to its branch: A butterfly.” He says of the final version of his poem: “I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”


Imagine Jesus trying to explain his parables to his disciples in similar terms. “I take an outward thing like a sower sowing seed and I compare it to an inward thing, like the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples look confused. Jesus tries another tack. “Think about the ways in which men and trees are alike. They both have limbs. They both have trunks. They both grow upward and die. They can be tall or stunted. Now, try to visualize a tree uprooting itself and taking a few steps. Have you ever thought about how men resemble trees walking?”

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