Explain this saying: “Still waters run deep.”
The saying means that we shouldn’t put down people who are quiet. Their stillness doesn’t mean they lack depth. It compares such people to a river. When a river is shallow it runs quickly. A deeper river runs slower. Think about the people out in the middle of the Provo river in their hip waders. The water is shallow and you can see it running and flowing around the hip waders. Up in the reservoir, where it’s deeper, the water is still. Of course the depth of the reservoir and the speed of the water going through it is controlled by whoever runs the spillway. Going up the canyon you can see the water running very quickly down the spillway. Shallow water. As water gets deeper it can absorb things flowing in quickly, and slow them down.
This starts out all right, but then in gets bogged down in an unexpected and confusing discussion of differing water depths.
What my 11-grade English teacher didn’t understand, and what I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain, is that she had asked us to describe what a particular metaphor meant, and I had tried to describe how it meant. I knew a metaphor was an implied comparison, one not using like or as, so if I was going to explain the comparison between quiet people and a slow running river I had to explain how the comparison worked. But there was a problem. I wasn’t sure how the comparison worked.
Years later I read the comment, “Still waters don’t run at all.” But that wasn’t the confusing part of the comparison, for I had always assumed that run was not a synonym for flow, but referred instead to the nature of something: It is the nature of still waters to be deep. Except that I was talking about flowing water, flowing around hip waders, flowing down the spillway. I tried to think about the slower stretches of the Provo, but I couldn’t think of any. I knew there were wider rivers, deeper than any hip wader, but I didn’t have any experience with them.
A metaphor is supposed to be a way of taking something you know and using it to understand something you don’t know, but I couldn’t validate from my own experience the idea that still waters run deep, and nearly 40 years later I can still summon up the frustration I felt at trying to explain something I couldn’t be certain of from my experience.
But if I can’t validate a metaphor from my own experience, how do I know my understanding is correct? Look at context, in this case Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which I had seen a production of recently. In Scene IV Amanda Wingfield takes her son Tom aside and says she wants to talk about his sister, Laura. “You know how Laura is. So quiet but–still water runs deep! She notices things and I think she–broods about them.” There’s more depth to your sister than you think, Amanda is saying. Still water is a metaphor for Laura. Or is it just an image Amanda comes up with spontaneously, a handy cliche?
I recently heard another context for the statement, having to do with a conspiracy. “Still water runs deep, you know.” In that context it meant, “Be Careful. Things are not what they seem on the surface. There are undertows, undercurrents stronger and more dangerous than you might suppose.”
But context isn’t the only way metaphors make sense to us. The chief way metaphors make sense is through common sense, or through seizing common sense. Metaphors are most effective when they’re transparent, when we don’t have to think our way through the comparison.
When we have to think our way through a comparison we get stuck in unexpected and confusing discussions of water depth. That act of seizing common sense can make metaphors very compelling, give them coercive power. Resisting a metaphor can feel like resisting common sense, like raising your puny arm to stop the Mississippi in its course, or swimming against the current, fighting an undertow, swimming in deep waters. Of course, you might not be alone. See someone over yonder saying, “Deep water is where I am wont to swim.”
And because metaphors seem so common sensical to us, they can also be very seductive. The more transparent, the more seductive—and the more compelling, especially if we don’t realize the line of reasoning we just developed is a metaphor. Le metaphor juste can be worth a great deal of money, making product fly off the shelves and boosting sales into the stratosphere—getting us to spout all kinds of stuff we don’t think of as metaphors.
The right metaphor can be worth many votes as well, making a compelling case for some kind of public policy. Which raises a question. If influence rightly gained is supposed to flow to us not through undertows and irresistible currents, but “without compulsory means,” how do we avoid using compulsion? Aren’t writers in the busy ness of crafting the most vivid sentences we can, of making people want to keep reading, and reading, and reading?
But metaphor has a further power. Because we use metaphors so widely just calling something a metaphor can tap into all the coercive power of metaphors–as when someone says of a scripture story, “That’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s a metaphor.”
Recently on KUER’s talk show Radio West Reza Aslan made a claim about scripture stories as metaphor, which echoed a claim from John Dominic Crosson on Radio West a few years ago. Both claims were variants of the idea that the ancients thought differently about stories than we do, that truth for them was not tied to verifiable historical events like it is for us. The claim is worth thinking about, though the more I wrestle with it (water rising around us) the more it seems that if there was a change in the way we think about historical narratives the change means that for the ancients a narrative didn’t have to be either figurative or literal, it could be both at the same time.
That is, I suspect they saw comparisons more in terms of puns—where the two things being compared are both necessary for the comparison to work—than in terms of metaphors, where only the metaphorical meaning counts.