Once upon a time there was a man who said he was and indeed he WAS a literalist. This means, according to him, that he couldn’t see pictures in his head or understand metaphors. He couldn’t imagine abstract things, he said.
“Well that’s not so weird,” I told him at the bookstore where we came to hear a mutual acquaintance who was a poet read from her works.
“No, it IS weird, “ he said. “It means I can’t appreciate poetry, because it’s all image-y and metaphor-y and that thing where things get compared to other things.”
“A simile,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I hated all that abstract-y stuff in high school.”
I wrinkled my forehead, which my mother told me never to do, because it causes literal lines, but I can’t help it so I do it anyway.
“So – if you can’t think imagistically or abstractly — what do you think about when you lie in bed at night?”
“Chores,” he said with a s shy smile. “And sex, and numbers.”
“Well, two of those are good.”
“Which ones?” he said.
I threw up my hands at that one.
“Chores and sex of course! Not numbers.”
Now it was his forehead’s turn to wrinkle.
“Not numbers,” I said. “I can’t even imagine numbers.”
“But they’re always there!” he exclaimed. We both leaned forward to have an argument, but the poet cleared her voice. She was getting ready to read from her latest opus. The dogs in the bookstore quieted down because even they understood what a simile was. A bone was like a yummy treat, and that was almost but not quite like hamburger and so on and so forth. It’s a chain of thinking, imagery is. On and on it goes, even if you’re a canine.
The poet read and the man who was the literalist thought about the laundry he had to do, and the boxes he needed to fill with numbers on his computer screen. The poet’s voice was pleasant and he found himself thinking about emptying the garbage and how recycling containers were blue and green. He found himself thinking about ironing his shirts for the job at the bank — the hissing sound the iron made on the cotton blend — and he thought about the computer screen blinking at him in its many colors, which was probably an improvement over the black and green screens of the olden days.
Eventually the poet stopped talking, and the man saw a copy of her book lying on the table. It was black and green and had an ISBN number on it. He bought it. He stood in line for the poet to sign. She looked at him expectantly. I came up and whispered in her ear about the figurative impediment.
The poet nodded.
For the literalist she wrote, and showed it to the man. He felt a prickly unexpected pleasure running up and down his stomach, groin and legs when he saw the poet’s handwriting. She wrote in a primitive fashion and had an extremely messy signature.
So clearly, knowing what a simile means isn’t everything.