Literally Metaphorically

Rush Limbaugh, modern Epimenides?

Wikipedia tells me that Limbaugh lives in West Palm Beach, FL. Yet for years now he has been telling listeners something different:

Now, look, folks, as I’ve told you countless times, I live in Literalville.    [Transcript, 10.9.2010]

It’s an outright lie, and I know this because Rush doesn’t do metaphor. In fact, that’s what he means by claiming Literalville residency:

If you tell me something, I take it literally. I believe that you mean it. I don’t dance around edges trying to figure out what you really meant. If you say it, I believe it. I live in Literalville […].    [Transcript, 10.9.2010]

There are only two possibilities here:

  1. Limbaugh literally lives in Literalville, FL.
  2. Limbaugh metaphorically inhabits a place devoid of metaphorical meaning or implication, which he describes figuratively as Literalville.

The first possibility is empirically false. There is no Literalville in FL, or in any other state. I checked (and no, Google, I did not mean Littleville, AL).

The second possibility can only be true if it is false. You can only live in Literalville in the metaphorical sense if you move away for a time (the time it takes to say, figuratively, that you live in Literalville), during which time you’re not a Literalville resident. It’s a neat version of the Cretan paradox: the Cretan says, ‘all Cretans are liars’. Neat, because it shares the element of local belonging as a logical class, but also because it shifts the dichotomy from Truth-Lie to Literal-Figurative. And because that shift, equating Truth to Literal and Lie to Figurative, is one that only makes sense if you live in Literalville. Note that this isn’t the same as the use of vacuous ‘literally‘ as a sort of intensifier in a metaphorical context (‘I was literally going to explode’) though maybe it’s related. Limbaugh is actually using figurative language to deny that he understands figurative language. Here’s another mini rant:

I’m weird. I live in Literalville. It is what it is, and no matter how mad I get, it isn’t gonna change, so I’m not gonna waste my energy getting mad about it. […] And, you know, when you live in Literalville, life is a lot simpler. It appears to be complex to people that don’t live in Literalville. But I live in Literalville, it’s very simple. You have to be able to accept things.      [Transcript, 4.11.2011]

There are parts of this I agree with. The first sentence, for one. And also that what he’s describing appears to be very complex to me. But I’m certain that moving to Literalville would make it infinitely more complex.  It’s my Metaphortown upbringing that’s allowing me to make any sense of it at all.

It gets even weirder. This is from yesterday:

Why do I care about the facts?  I know, it’s a failing of mine.  It’s a failing of mine.  See, I live in Realville.  I’m the mayor of Realville, or Literalville.  I’m stuck, I’m mired in logic, the quicksand of logic.  And I’m sinking.    [Transcript, 3.4.2012]

For someone who cares about facts so much, you’d think he’d get his literal, real town of residence straight. The mayor of Realville or Literalville? Can he be whichever he chooses? Apparently so, but not at the same time. This is from a few weeks ago:

And again, as the mayor of Realville, I live in Literalville. I’ll tell you what to do.      [Transcript, 15.3.2012]

Apparently, one of the perks of ruling Realville is that you live in the next town over (follow Non Sequitur Trail, take a left–no, right…). Perhaps when he is mayor of Literalville, he decamps to Realville.

Here’s how you can use the figurative idea of a Literalville without plunging yourself into a Rumsfeldian contemplation of your own self-annihilating metaphoricity:

Literalville is what I like to call the place where my son, Ramon, and other people with autism often reside, that place where everything is black and white.      [Kathryn Hutchinson, in Cope et al. A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism]

See how that works? You can describe someone else, figuratively, as living in Literalville, because you, as an alderman of Metaphortown, have no problem describing things as if they are something else. But you can’t describe yourself that way. And if you tell little Ramon that he lives in Literalville, he’ll think you’re bonkers or lying to him, or else ask you when his family moved there and why he wasn’t informed. Because he lives in Literalville.

Or, you can have fun with the difference between literal, metaphorical in a children’s poem. Note that the technique employed in that poem depends on creating a metaphor (or reviving a dead one) out of a lexical item before ‘literalizing’ it.


[UPDATE 1, 30.06.12: Reason to worry in Literalville:]

[UPDATE 2, 08.09.12: Things looking up for “the mayor of Realville, or Literalville”:]


Leave a Reply