Conceptual metaphors in “Empty Words” by Death

Hello, dear friends. In my August post I am happy to offer you an analysis of yet another gem of Chuck Schuldiner’s creative genius. This time we will deal with the song called “Empty words” (by Death; released as the third track on “Symbolic” LP, 1995).

“Symbolic” is my favorite album of Death and undoubtedly the peak of Chuck’s musicianship. This piece of art marked the switch to higher vocals and the extensive use of prog elements. The very latter, in my opinion, were the key factor for shaping this music masterpiece to perfection, providing it with certain degree of unique flavor (however, some purists of death metal may accuse me here of being blind to all the influences of early Pestilence on this album). Lyrically, Chuck continued his venture into the realms of ‘individual thought patterns’, societal and behavioral issues. Take a glimpse of the lyrics now, before we set out to dig deeper. Note that I had to put some punctuation marks in the song to ease the text comprehension and make the narrative flow more logically for those folks, who might have never heard the track.

  1. Ashes and promises share a bond
  2. Through the winds of change
  3. Words are blown away;
  4. When visions that should be
  5. Are tattooed in your mind
  6. The power to let go
  7. Is sometimes hard to find;
  8. The answer cannot be found
  9. In the writing of others
  10. Or the words of a trained mind;
  11. In a precious world of memories
  12. We find ourselves confined.
  1. Claws so razor sharp
  2. Ripping at the spirit
  3. Promises a potential to hurt
  4. Is anything real?
  5. When forever is to be until
  6. Deep inside, in the world of empty words…
  7. No escaping from those haunting
  8. empty words…
  1. Do you ever feel it?
  2. A craving that is so strong
  3. To, by thought, rewind in order to find
  4. Expectations that shined through the doubt
  5. That soon would turn into the price
  6. Of what a word will be worth;
  7. When tomorrow comes
  8. To be and we are left
  9. Standing on our own
  10. And seeing what is real…

I hope you have already figured out what the text is about. The song exploits the very common narrative of a person, splitting up with his/her life partner after giving him/her promises to stay and love forever. In our case, it is the protagonist, who was left behind and who reflects on this bitter life experience.

Ashes of the promises

Let us now take a closer look at the lines and try to discover and investigate some of the metaphors in them.

  1. Ashes and promises share a bond
  2. Through the winds of change
  3. Words are blown away;
  4. When visions that should be
  5. Are tattooed in your mind
  6. The power to let go
  7. Is sometimes hard to find;

Consider lines 1-3 above. Some time ago I had been beating my brains out trying to provide a reasonable explanation to the obvious metaphors in them. The answer was on the surface – I simply had to pay attention to the cause and effect construction, which lines 1-3 were based on.

Let us first focus on “through the winds of change …” part (Line 2). The metaphorical winds of change are the cause for the words being blown away. The latter, in turn, is the effect of the force, exerted on the words by this cause. Words are clearly objectified here: seen as physical objects in the real world. Hence, if any external event exerts a force on them, the words may be manipulated in a certain way. In the case in focus, this external event, which is forcing the words to be blown away, is the event of changing life circumstances, figuratively described as the “winds of change”, as large moving air currents. The line is constructed on the metaphor EXTERNAL EVENTS ARE LARGE MOVING OBJECTS (i.e. event of change – external event – is the wind; other examples include the flow of history, tide of events etc.), which can act upon physical objects or humans both in positive and negative ways (helping or hampering). This metaphor is a part of the Event Structure Metaphor complex; to be more precise, its “Location” variety. The core metaphor of this complex is STATES ARE LOCATIONS, like in the sentence I am in trouble.

I am sorry I cannot allow myself to explain the thing in more detail here, because it would take too much space. You can read more about the issue in “Philosophy in the Flesh” by Lakoff and Johnson (1999: 170-234). What I can do for you now is to explain very briefly how these two metaphors above (STATES ARE LOCATIONS and EXTERNAL EVENTS ARE LARGE MOVING OBJECTS) are related. If you are in a state of something, you can reason about it as if you are physically in a certain location. Take the example above: You are in trouble. There is no movement involved here – the situation is static. You are in a state of trouble. If you want to change the situation, you can act on your own, e.g. I have pulled myself out of trouble (ACTIONS ARE SELF-PROPELLED MOVEMENTS); or an external event may force a change upon you: The fresh winds has brought big changes into my life and pulled me out of trouble (EXTERNAL EVENTS ARE LARGE MOVING OBJECTS). In any of these two cases, the change is conceptualized as a movement from one state to another and we reason about that in terms of location change.

Going back to ashes and promises. “Ashes and promises share a bond” in line 1 clearly indicates that both have something in common. What they have in common may be inferred from line 3: “words are blown away” like ash when the fire dies out. What we have here is a tacit comparison of ash and words. Ash is a product of combustion of a physical substance. Words here are a ‘product of combustion’ of promises – the certain meanings, put into words, their inner substance, their essence. Going one step deeper from here: if life is conceptualized as a flame and death, consequently, as fading of the flame till it dies out (there is really such a pair of metaphors), then the objectified promises with their own life span can be thought of as ‘burning’ when ‘alive’, which consequently means they ‘naturally die’ at some point. What is left is ‘ash’: just ‘empty’ words, words without any meaning (the Conduit Metaphor involved – see below).

Simply put, what is said in lines 1-3 is that promises are worth nothing in the changing course of life.

By the way, the title of the song – “Empty Words” – is a metaphor as well. It is a straightforward case of the Conduit Metaphor (Michael Reddy, 1979). It views the words as containers, where humans store meanings. Communication is an exchange of containers with packed meanings along a conduit between the speaker/hearer or writer/reader. I have been talking about this elsewhere. For your convenience, I provide a sketch of the Conduit Metaphor structure here again (taken from Kövecses “Metaphor: a practical introduction” 2002:234):

  • THE MIND IS A CONTAINER
  • MEANINGS ARE OBJECTS
  • LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS FOR MEANING OBJECTS
  • COMMUNICATION IS SENDING THE MEANING-OBJECTS FROM ONE MIND-CONTAINER TO ANOTHER MIND-CONTAINER ALONG A CONDUIT.

The concept should be rather simple to grasp.

When visions that should be are tattooed in your mind” in lines 4-5 must be a case of conceptual blending. To be more precise, its single-scope network type: the final, blended, skeletal structure is provided by one of the inputs, not both. When compared to the conceptual metaphor, it would be the source domain, of course: the one, available to direct perception through senso-motoric experience and, thus, more clearly structured. Kövecses in “Metaphor and culture” (2005) points out that this type of blend has very much in common with conceptual metaphor.

How is this applied to our example? The structure of the blend clearly derives from the domain of tattooing. Let’s present it schematically:

Generic space (skeletal information, common to both inputs):

Long-term image acquisition

Input 1

Input 2

Ink image

Vision

Skin

Mind

Tattooing an image into the skin

Developing and keeping

a vision in the mind

Blend:

(vision-image, mind-skin) Visions are tattooed in the mind.

Here, the cognitive parts of the blend are borrowed from input 2 (target domain) and the action of tattooing – from input 1 (source domain). The set of possible correspondences (mappings) makes it possible for the brain to blend both domains and develop an understanding of the expression, provided you know what tattooing is.

Lines 6-7 – the power to let go is sometimes hard to find – is again the instance of the Event Structure Metaphor complex. However, this time it is not its “Location”, but “Object” variety. The core metaphor of the latter is ATTRIBUTES ARE POSSESSIONS: I have a trouble. This very metaphor is at work here, in our case of “the power”, which is hard to find. The metaphor operates on the premise that any attributes of a human may be conceptualized as his/her possessions. They can be acquired or lost (CHANGES ARE MOVEMENTS OF POSSESSIONS, e.g. I have gathered enough power), given or taken (CAUSATION IS TRANSFER OF POSSESSIONS, e.g. All my powers were taken away, which means, somebody or something caused my powers to abandon me). I refer the reader again to the Lakoff & Johnson book, mentioned above to get acquainted with the Events and Causes metaphors.

In the world of memories

The song flows. The rhythm slightly changes. Here are the closing lines of the first verse.

  1. The answer cannot be found
  2. In the writing of others
  3. Or the words of a trained mind;
  4. In a precious world of memories
  5. We find ourselves confined.

Lines 8-10 feature the Conduit Metaphor again. “Writing of others” stands for the written materials, composed of linguistic expressions (words), which are the ‘containers’ for meanings. Answer, which is searched for, is a certain kind of meaning, ‘packed’ into words-containers. The very Conduit Metaphor gives us a possibility to reason about a communication process in a way so familiar to us: His words don’t provide any answers; he hid from us what he really meant by using many pompous expressions, I cannot receive any answers from him etc.

A trained mind” in line 10 is the MIND IS A BODY metaphor, which has supposedly come to being through the process of metonymy: body à brain à mind (part-whole and object-function relations). This metaphor is a foundation element of a very extensive body of figurative thought, involving the concepts of mind, thinking and ideas. As we train our bodies to improve their performance, so we can improve our cognitive abilities, ‘training’ our mind. This is a rather straightforward thing.

Line 11 – “In a precious world of memories” – shows us that we are not fully done with the mind yet. Memory is the ability of a brain to store and retrieve the processed information. The mind is what the brain does (thanx, Hank Green). Thus, memory is a cognitive process and, thus, we are dealing with the mind again. So, “world of memories” is presumably the MIND IS CONTAINER metaphor. Why? As I have pointed out, actual memories are the results of the memorizing processes, which are the cognitive processes, which are brain’s activity – the mind. What we have here is a metonymic relation of a kind organ-function-result. So much for “memories”. Then the word “world” brings into the spotlight a concept of “habitat”, populated by memories. Finally, line 12 – We find ourselves confined – puts the containment constrains onto the memories’ world. Please, note that it is not this way of thinking that fits the metaphor into the context we have, but the already existing metaphor gives us a possibility to reason about the mind in this way, e.g. I keep it in my mind or I store my memories carefully etc. Of course, the metaphor cannot develop itself out of nowhere. Supposedly, we reason about the mind in terms of container, because our head and our body are types of containers too. There exist even the corresponding metaphors. Metonymy does the rest. Try to come up with the examples of your own to illustrate the point.

Empty Words

We reached the refrain. Notice the double change of the rhythm and the general tempo: first, at the beginning of line 13 (refrain intro) and then suddenly slowing down at the beginning of line 15 (refrain proper). Musically, the song was constructed in a way as if Chuck had been hurrying up to get enough desperate feelings throughout the verse and when he reached the peak, he abruptly stopped and unleashed it all out on the listener. Here we go:

  1. Claws so razor sharp
  2. Ripping at the spirit
  3. Promises a potential to hurt
  4. Is anything real?
  5. When forever is to be until
  6. Deep inside, in the world of empty words…
  7. No escaping from those haunting
  8. empty words…

Claws so razor sharp ripping at the spirit” in lines 13-14 may seem to be a bit out of the pattern here, yet line 15 “Promises a potential to hurt” clarifies the matter. Apparently, it is about words again. To be more precise, about the unfulfilled promises/empty words that hurt like sharp claws. This is my second Death song and second time I come across the WORDS ARE WEAPONS (LANGUAGE IS A WEAPON) metaphor in Chuck’s lyrics. In “Scavenger of human sorrow” I argued that this metaphor may be an entailment of the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor on the premises that arguments are carried out by means of language. If you reason about them in terms of war, then your opponent would be your enemy and the words addressed to your opponent would be weapons, which you use to win the argument. It is mere guesswork of mine, but it holds water, I believe.

Chuck elaborates the metaphor in a masterly fashion, depicting the words as sharp claws, which hurt the spirit of a person. Why is that? How language can hurt? Again, I suppose it is possible to say things like that and many others (e.g. “Your words hurt my heart” etc.), because of the following. Language operates in a sensation-perception link. It is sensed as audio waves when spoken and as visible symbols when written. The sensation input of the brain is the perception (and, subsequently, conception) output of the mind. The latter, being the function of the brain, is an abstraction, not an object. As is language – abstraction (here I mean the system of meanings, arbitrarily tied to the symbols (lexemes) and not the symbols themselves, either written or pronounced). Here we come to the point. Weapons as physical objects can hurt a body – a physical object. If words (meanings they carry), which are abstractions, are conceptualized as weapons, they can hurt the abstract ‘body’ of a person, its abstract “self”, which is usually believed to be a spirit or a soul. What does heart from the example above have to do with that? In the Western culture heart is considered to be a place in the body, where the soul rests. Again, this all is just my conjecture.

The last case to pay attention to in this refrain is line 18: Deep inside, in the world of empty words. It takes us back to line 11 “In a precious world of memories”. I suggest it is based on the very same metaphor: THE MIND IS CONTAINER, because “empty words” – the ‘ashes of the promises’ – are simply an instance of a particular information, memorized in the past and stored in the mind. They are the memories. The rest of the explanation follows the pattern above (line 11).

Seeing what is real

I hope you made it so far and enjoyed what you have just read. I also hope it made you think about language issues and prompted you to come to some conclusions of your own. Anyway, the rest of the song is below. I will not split it at this point.

  1. Do you ever feel it?
  2. A craving that is so strong
  3. To, by thought, rewind in order to find
  4. Expectations that shined through the doubt
  5. That soon would turn into the price
  6. Of what a word will be worth;
  7. When tomorrow comes
  8. To be and we are left
  9. Standing on our own
  10. And seeing what is real…

The last verse contains rather interesting metaphors in lines 23, 24 and 27. Let’s take a closer look at those.

To by thought rewind in order to find (expectations)” (line 23). For a second I had an idea of a blend, but then I opted for a simpler explanation, which is the MIND IS MACHINE metaphor (e.g. I have experienced a mental breakdown etc.). In the context in focus the metaphor is a bit elaborated, presenting the mind as a… video recorder! What is fascinating about it is the fact that it makes perfect sense. The input from outside is the data, recorded by the machine on a cassette similar to how the mind processes the information and stores it in memory. The recorded data is available whenever you rewind the cassette as the memorized information is available if you rummage in your memory for a while. The set of mappings has perfect matches here.

Then, I claim the “Expectations that shine through the doubt” in line 24 to be a conceptual blend, however the temptation to call it an image metaphor is very strong. This blend features absolutely the same structure as the one in lines 4-5 about visions, tattooed in the mind. Just replace the input contents with the relative words from line 24, thinking of the source domain, and bind the two together by the generic space. (I can suggest the following: the sun – expectations, clouds – doubt, weather-life; generic space: awaiting/hoping for a certain improvement).

The last metaphor we will investigate today is the one so well-known to us from almost every previous song. “When tomorrow comes (to be)” from line 27 is our omnipresent Metaphor Deity: the TIME IS A MOVING OBJECT. Honestly, I had to explain this one in almost every song on my web site. Please, go to the previous one and simply read through the first 5-6 paragraphs.

Some bragging. Again

Now, I cannot be silent of the fact that I own the first-press of “Symbolic” from Roadrunner records. It is a real treasure of and one of the most valued and admired CDs of my small collection. First time I heard ‘Symbolic” about five years ago on a very old cassette. It took me some time to develop an attitude to it and realize its weight. The pearls of metal, you should dive deeper and be patient in order to discover them.

I hope you enjoyed the reading! Don’t forget to give some feedback or say hello. I will be back in a month with a new post. A.K.

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About Andriy Karamazov


2 responses to “Conceptual metaphors in “Empty Words” by Death

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