Carne Levare

Know Other People

“Big Fish” and the Triumph of Story

Posted by Remy on June 4, 2009

[originally posted 2003, then again in 2008]

It takes a certain amount of courage to believe a metaphor, a certain amount of recklessness to use them, a certain amount of panache to carry them, but beyond that the certainties end. Metaphors have the singular distinction of being preterlogical, beyond logical, true and untrue; where paradox is a capitulation of the mind, the line between reason and faith, metaphors work within reason, fuzzing the edges a little. When we say that God is a rock we mean, simultaneously, is and is not: God is like a rock in that He is unchanging, solid, faithful, but not like a rock in the sense of inanimate, voiceless, and somewhat brown.

“You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it,” he says wearily. “You’re just supposed to believe in it. It’s like– a metaphor.”

“I forget,” I say. “What’s a metaphor?”

“Cows and sheep mostly,”

The rationalist, if I may segue like a rock, hates metaphors, though they are inescapable. Metaphors are too messy, they go everywhere, those pesky words; lazy words, concrete words, literal words that’s what the rationalist needs, words that mean what we want them to mean, too dead to crawl away, words that make us feel like we are gods. But sadly, though we may think it, we do not make the words mean what they mean, there is a greater Word above all words, none other than the Name above all names.

Like metaphor, if I may segue with a simile, is myth, hated by the rationalist, feared and devalued, but myth is ultimately the deathblow to their worldview. Myth, to quote Christopher Vogler, “is not the untruth or fanciful exaggeration of popular expression. A myth…is a metaphor for a mystery beyond human comprehension…A myth, in this way of thinking, is not an untruth, but a way of reaching a profound truth.” These profound truths cannot be contained in propositions, measured and quantified, microscopically analyzed, dissected, or, in short, tamed. These words are like lions and we are reduced to sitting in the bush with telescoping camera lenses watching them stomp across the earth.

Big Fish, the new film by the visually talented Tim Burton, now available to rent or own, is balm for our antipoetic world. It takes the modern man to task for the flat literalism we insist on, the sort of smallminded thinking that keeps us immature. Mr. Burton, typically at the other end of rationalism, uses Edward Bloom to reveal the bankrupt, colorless boredom of mythless living, staving off his usual pitfall of high-gloss sentimentalism.

In it we are treated to Edward Bloom’s life, his mythical retelling, something his son has run out of patience for. Having since become a journalist, ruled by Almighty Fact, he wants his dad to tell his story straight, as it really was, not with –as he sees it– embellishing and outright lie. But what is at stake is a worldview, what is real, what constitutes reality.

Real is not what happens physically, or rather, not just what happens physically, for remember, where there is a physical there is a spiritual, a metaphysical under which the physical is subordinate; our world then is a metaphor for the spiritual world. Now, to draw a line in the sand, the way we use the word “metaphorical” today is closer to meaning “not really”, but this shouldn’t be the case. Metaphors are more physical than physical, the way heaven is portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” as more solid, earthlings walking around unable to make the grass of heaven bend under their feet. But if we have cowards afraid of myth on one side, we have self-murderers on the other, killing the body, disbanding reason, tossing science, and “OHM-ing” themselves into sensory coma. This accomplishes nothing but gnosticism, as dangerous as rationalism.

In Big Fish, slowly woven throughout, Story becomes the centerpiece, but the son rejects the story, “I don’t know who you are.” and his father responds, “What do you mean? I’ve been telling you who I am.” He wanted proven facts, historically verified, and documented by credible outside sources. But this is empty and ultimately meaningless unless it is connected to a greater story. It’s as if you went up and asked somebody who they were and they reply: “I’m a carbon based lifeform, bipedal, omnivorous, running a 98.1 temperature.” Left at that we’ve learned nothing about him. But if he states, “I’m proud as a lion, weak as a lamb, giggly as a jackal, dumb as a rock, and dreaming like a giraffe,” then we’re beginning to have some idea of who he is. Connecting with this “My name is Thus” and “I live Here” and “I’m this many days upon the earth” fleshes out (literally and figuratively) the person, but only if the facts are adorned with higher truth.

In the accounts of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness the Scriptures “contradict” themselves to the delight of impious scholars, with Matthew ordering the details differently than does Luke. Was this a mistake? A Divine typo? Can God not get the facts to His own story correct? Certainly not, it’s obvious that God places story over “facts”. God, the abundant storyteller, overflows with narrative, shaping the events as He sees fit, regardless of our rules of historical accuracy, scholarly humbuggin’, and footnote manic-impressive.

The father in Big Fish understands that he’s not relating facts, but myth, and myth is how we reach profundity. Consider our word symbol, arising from the Greek word symbolon, which means an object broken in two, half given to a friend or ally that would be used to verify messages. If we have half a ring and a messenger brings the other half we know that the message is in earnest. This world is a metaphor for the spiritual world and myth is part of symbolon.

Rejection of the story is essentially rejection of the faith; rejection of the story is ultimately the rejection of the ultimate Story.

But the reviewers of Big Fish missed this. They all sided with the son, even after the son didn’t side with himself. They saw the ending as paradox and, being without faith, paradox is ignorance. The son throws up his hands, joins the party, for as they say, agnosticism is bliss. Like true rationalists they prefer the safety of facts to the wildness of metaphor, they prefer only what they can touch, taste, see, hear, smell, and care nothing for the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Our facts are colored through with myth, our lives are richer than we can see, and we must grasp the symbolon and thrust it into Heaven; take the fact of the incarnation, the fact of the crucifixion, the fact of the resurrection, and go to God in earnest, that though the dust of our bodies withers and fades away, though science cannot find the soul, we can freely say: let God be true and every fact a liar.

Big Fish is a story about stories. It is the story of the triumph of story, the weight and ribs to our mathematics. Life is not like a dry erase marker board, without dimensions, it is like the waters of baptism, with depth greater than the wetness of its molecules. But when we reduce the world with the ax of logic it becomes dull, as storyfull and fascinating as a calculator.

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