What Happens When a Metaphor Becomes Real?

The humanities can reveal the truth of the world’s crises, everything from contagions like the pandemic to apocalypses like right-wing violence.

With the deliberate explosion of a central power station that leaves a city in darkness (an act of “terror”), Salman Rushdie’s Abdullah Noman, the village headman in Shalimar the Clown, experiences “the bizarre sensation of living through a metaphor made real. The world he knew was disappearing; this blind, inky night was the incontestable sign of the times.”1 What Abdullah Noman feels resembles the sensation of crisis—literally, a turning point in which change is at once inevitable and uncertain.

Originally a medical term denoting the point when an illness will resolve either in a patient’s recovery or in death, a crisis often includes the sense of suspended time and the potential for great insight. Noman’s bizarre sensation is the feeling of that insight as the familiar world disappears and language seems more real than the material world. The intensity of living through this moment of change is like looking blindingly into the sun and therefore “must,” Rushdie’s narrator explains, “be looked at indirectly.”2

Rushdie captures the intensity in the taunting regression of a metaphor of a metaphor, as though language itself is in crisis, which it is. The experience may well be familiar to anyone who has lived through a pandemic—COVID-19, for example—in which the metaphoric power of contagion almost makes the experience unreal. Until it isn’t.

Because the connection between terror and contagion is the explicit subject of Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020 and an implication of Jerome Tharaud’s Apocalyptic Geographies: Religion, Media, and the American Landscape, both have much to contribute to an understanding of Abdullah Noman’s sensation (Raza Kolb quotes the passage) as well as of the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. The metaphoric connection between contagion and terror became all too literal on January 6, 2021, when domestic white supremacists stormed the US Capitol. While Epidemic Empire elucidates the relationship between a pandemic and a terrorist attack, Apocalyptic Geographies—a study of 19th-century American landscapes—explains the saturation and legacy of a terrifyingly revelatory evangelical apocalypticism that underpins that intersection. Together, these works illuminate the experience of living through a metaphor made real.

Metaphors abound in crises amid efforts, as Raza Kolb puts it (following Susan Sontag), “to liken the unknown to the known, … to domesticate and cognize it.” In the case of epidemics of catastrophic communicable diseases and the nonstate violence labeled “terror,” Raza Kolb sees the metaphor “binding one terrifying unknown to another, creating all manner of epistemic and hermeneutic confusion that ossifies into policy and shapes the world order in ways that are scientifically, analytically, and morally incoherent.” The political logic of the contagion metaphor comes into focus for her, however, through a consideration of the historical role of public health as a justification—typically benevolent—for European colonialism, depicted as bringing salutary (civilizing) hygienic practices to the benighted heathen. Contagious diseases in the ostensibly unhealthy colonies represented both a population in need of the colonists’ aid and an urgent health threat to the rest of an increasingly globalizing world.

Both Raza Kolb and Tharaud document metaphors’ metamorphic power to alter epistemologies, and even cosmologies, for good or ill. As such, they show the important contribution the humanities can make in assessing the historical roots of contemporary social inequities.

In the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Raza Kolb finds both the metaphoric connection of contagion and terror and the particular demonization of Islam. Both are disturbingly familiar in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Then as now, she observes, Islam is considered “not a religion or a culture, not a set of beliefs and practices, not a history, not the Qur’an or the Hadith”; instead, it is viewed as “a dialectical foil for the West, and a racial category stitched loosely together from the remnants of an Orientalism requisitioned in the service of resource-exploiting colonialism.”

The logic of the contagion metaphor—its domesticating and cognizing effect—inheres in how it carries the political work of colonialism (framed in the language of public health) into the contemporary moment: the “figural operation that seems to obscure meaning and understanding through ‘randomness’ also serves extraordinarily stable goals, namely the abandonment of the poor, the racially othered, the disabled, the surplus of the global body politic.”

Tharaud similarly chronicles how metaphors shape epistemologies. The 19th-century Protestant evangelicals at the center of Apocalyptic Geographies “invest[ed] particular places and landscapes with value and map[ped] moral categories and conceptions of obligation onto physical space.” In so doing, he continues, they turned the 19th-century American landscape into a “moral geography.”

As a form of sense making, metaphor is always a simultaneous process of revealing and obscuring; as a receptacle of cultural values, assumptions, and beliefs.

Terror infuses that landscape, but it is not the disorienting political action Raza Kolb describes. Rather, it is apocalyptic terror: revelatory rather than annihilative. The Christian evangelism Tharaud traces transforms the American landscape into the medium for the dissemination of a sacred geography—and complementary sacred history—that reimagined the experience of community and the terms of selfhood in an increasingly globalizing and secularizing world. Tharaud’s evangelicals created global networks through publishing societies, designed “to teach readers to use the landscape to understand their own spiritual lives and their role in sacred history.” By gradually “infus[ing] popular literature, art, and politics,” they not only shaped the experience of the landscape but also sacralized an ostensibly secularizing cosmology.

Evangelical apocalypticism proved powerfully—and intriguingly—appropriable. Summoned by both proponents of slavery and abolitionists, it cast the struggle over the peculiar institution as a holy war and “spiritual crisis.” Tharaud explains that “where a democratic world of mass print met the prophetic fervor of evangelical piety, the antebellum mediascape assumed its most world-shaking, apocalyptic power.” And it was readily exportable in the circulating cultural forms, from political speeches and journalism to sentimental novels and landscape paintings, that cemented “America’s role in the rise of global modernity.” In presumptively secular mediascapes, Tharaud finds that a “spiritual significance has slipped the strictures of theological utterance to infuse the everyday.”

Unlike political terror, the terror of 19th-century evangelical apocalypticism most resembles the terror the early 20th-century German philosopher Rudolf Otto associates with the irrationality of being: “the mystical awe” or “‘creature-feeling’ … of personal nothingness and submergence before the awe-inspiring object directly experienced.”3 The self-annihilative experience of this terror is not death, but the ultimate fulfillment of being—self-realization—in a transcendent union.

Yet, this terror is not entirely distinct from the political terror Raza Kolb describes. The contagion metaphor in “the figure of the terror epidemic” imports, she notes, “the mythopoetics of infectious disease from the Abrahamic scriptures to the present,” which “also point[s] toward the divine, the occult, the unknowable, gaps in data and textual lacunae, and the inevitability of natural forces of destruction and sublime phenomena, even when they are cast in explicitly nonreligious terms.”


Like Sands through the Hourglass

By Marisa Parham

Metaphors are, of course, bidirectional. While Raza Kolb focuses on the grounding of a contemporary discourse of Islamic terrorism in 19th-century colonial public-health practices, no one during the COVID-19 pandemic can miss the proliferation of military metaphors in the mainstream media and popular culture that have us “at war” with the “enemy” virus. This contemporary metaphor of microbial warfare displaces human responsibility for the conditions that produce outbreaks, turning them into pandemics, onto crafty enemy microbes. It promotes a mindset that exclusively seeks weapons for attack. In the midst of a pandemic, population quarantine, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines are crucial public-health measures. But the war metaphor helps to obscure the long-term immunological measures that can strengthen humanity’s natural defenses and prevent or contain outbreaks (including universal access to primary health care, adequate nutrition and shelter, and a salubrious habitat).

History has shown, moreover, how language can stigmatize populations, shifting the blame from enemy microbes to ostensible human “collaborators.” When, for example, the science writer Barbara Culliton refers to “Seoul virus, a cousin of Asian Hantaan virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever,” as “another unwelcome immigrant”—or observes that “most of these ‘threatening’ viruses have an African or Asian heritage”—the stigmatizing effect extends both to places and to populations associated with them.4 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the irresponsible use of such expressions as “the China virus” and “the Kungflu” at the highest levels of government demonstrably led to anti-Asian violence in the United States.

Considering the disorientation and anxiety pandemics produce, it is not surprising that metaphor exchanges amplify and circulate with the microbes. Contagion and political unrest have a long history of affinity, in which microbes and ideas (and ideologies) are mutually defining. Among its earliest appearances, in the 14th century, contagion was used interchangeably for the dangerous circulation of ideas and attitudes, as well as disease, commingling moral corruption and illness. Although salutary ideas could be contagious, the term more often connoted danger: circulating widely, for example, during the French Revolution to convey the contagion of revolutionary ideas. As an invisible threat with material consequences, contagion readily crystallizes consternation about amorphous threats to the body politic. Microbes are “border crossers” and “unwelcome immigrants”: “no barriers prevent their migration across international boundaries.”5 They are “great innovators.”6

The September 11 events turned them into terrorists, as in the science writer Madeline Drexler’s characterization of them as “nature’s undercover operatives … hijacking the cell’s metabolic machinery,” complete with “a wireless communication system, called ‘quorum sensing,’ [that] enables microbes to coordinate their activities.”7

Metaphors abound in crises amid efforts “to liken the unknown to the known, … to domesticate and cognize it.”

With etymological roots in snake venom, viruses have a long history of serving in particularly potent metaphoric exchanges that predates their microbial identification. In the 1950s, new technologies afforded scientists a clearer view of viruses and their mechanisms. Science writers found a powerful metaphor in these strange organisms, which did not fit conventional definitions of life or death but existed in the “twilight zone” between them.8

Journalists depicted viruses as communist fifth columnists, sneaking into cellular nuclei and subverting the body’s mechanisms from within.9 Conversely, as “the communist virus” infiltrated the “nuclei” of democracy—the schools, the news media, the culture industry—it vividly undermined America’s healthy way of life. The widespread availability of the metaphor is evident in the USSR’s analogous use of “the virus of capitalism.”10 And in both cases, these viruses turned their subjects into unfeeling automata, unable to think for themselves: in effect, zombies.

It may be too simple to say that Cold War metaphors produced the shift in prestige and, consequently, funding for research from immunology to virology in the mid-20th century. Even so, they surely contributed to the visceral concept of a communist threat to the US body politic.11 Conversely, the idea of communism as viral registered and likely promoted the hawkish strategy of rooting out the virus of communism, which replaced an earlier goal of “immunizing” the American public against that ideology.

As a repository of memory, metaphor is also a form of time travel. That is, in moments of crisis, metaphors orient experience historically, as well as conceptually. Raza Kolb invokes the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin in her reading of the “literary recourse to a mythopoetics of disease and to the concept metaphor of epidemic … as a portal to a variety of histories on a range of different scales” through which “epidemic fiction always draws into its orbit the cultural and social memories of outbreaks and crises past.” In his lyric last meditation, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin embeds his messianic-materialist theory of history in the image of a “memory … flash[ing] up at a moment of danger.” The danger, for him, marks a revelatory moment, a flash of insight into the way a recursive historicism subordinates the promise of change with conformity to unaltering power structures. The “danger” comes simultaneously from this flash of insight—danger, in this case, to the power structure that relies on its obscurity—and from the elusiveness of the insight, which promotes its foreclosure, hence the danger of conformity (“becoming a tool of the ruling classes”).12

The contemporary crisis prompted by the pandemic has sparked a flash of insight into the fundamental conditions of its possibility, including climate change, structural racism, and the threat to democracy in the United States (which has further revealed the radical tenuousness of American democratic institutions). In their different ways, Raza Kolb and Tharaud have both seized hold of the memory of those conditions, flashing up in the alchemical metaphors as they become “markedly material.” Those metaphors are more than analogues; they mark powerful epistemologies, ways of knowing and acting in and on the world.

In the United States and elsewhere, COVID-19 sparked slogans assuring citizens that “we are all in this together.” The ambiguity of the phrase summarizes the revelatory terror of the metaphor of contagion. “We” are at once all facing the same threat (although, as statistics and experience show, very much disproportionately), and “we” pose threats to one another for that very reason. As contact tracing makes clear, contagion chronicles the many ways in which human beings come into contact with one another, not always knowingly or even directly. Pandemics dramatize how contagion is an analogue for being human: as social beings, we need one another, and that very need is the source of the threat we pose to one another. If that awe-full paradox might in fact be the definition of earthly being, it is resolved, however imperfectly, as Tharaud shows, by the kind of apocalypticism disseminated through the media of 19th-century US evangelical Protestantism.


Pandemic Syllabus

By David Barnes et al.

Epidemic Empire and Apocalyptic Geographies offer valuable lessons in the importance of metaphor to cultural analysis: as a form of sense making, metaphor is always a simultaneous process of revealing and obscuring; as a receptacle of cultural values, assumptions, and beliefs, it can also provide insight into a cosmology. Chronicling the metaphoric histories of contagion and apocalypse, each work offers a Benjaminian glimpse into the human grappling with “terror,” in Otto’s sense, which includes the often unacknowledged desire for transcendence and the sacred, or enchanted, world it implies.

In showing how we disseminate cultural biases and the social and geopolitical inequities they perpetuate, both works open this process to inspection. Their astute insights prompt me to wonder whether the “crisis in the humanities” that some pundits fashionably (and all too familiarly) pronounce is not because humanities scholarship does not sufficiently help us address the crises of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps, instead, it is because the humanities offers us a lens through which to look into the sun.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown (Random House, 2005), p. 88.
  2. Ibid., p. 309.
  3. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, translated from the German by John W. Harvey (1923; Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 17.
  4. Barbara J. Culliton, “Emerging Viruses, Emerging Threat,” Science, vol. 247, no. 4940 (1990), pp. 279–80.
  5. “Unwelcome immigrant” in Culliton, “Emerging Viruses,” p. 279; “no barriers” in Richard M. Krause, foreword to Emerging Viruses, edited by Stephen S. Morse (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. xvii.
  6. Richard M. Krause, “The Origin of Plagues: Old and New,” Science, vol. 257 (1992), p. 1073.
  7. Madeline Drexler, Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections (Penguin, 2002), pp. 8, 9, 11.
  8. William L. Laurence, “New Leads Given by Virus Studies,” New York Times, September 11, 1952.
  9. Ibid.
  10. For a fuller discussion of this metaphor exchange, see my Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Duke University Press, 2008), chap. 4.
  11. On the competition for resources and prestige between immunology and virology during this period, see Cindy Patton, Inventing AIDS (Routledge, 1990); Daryl Ogden, “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America,” Literature and Medicine, vol. 19, no. 2 (2000); Emily Martin, Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS (Beacon, 1994).
  12. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated from the German by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1969), p. 255.
Featured-image photograph by Edwin Hooper / Unsplash