If you’d have looked at Batman, you’d have never thought he was a stone-cold killer.

– quoted in Larry J. Siegel/Criminology (1986)

Batman was a 14-year-old Brooklyn gang member who wore a cape. Everyone was afraid of him because he shot people without provocation, and without emotion. He was as unfeeling as the most lifeless product of nature, a stone. Behind the stone comparison is another comparison: emotional warmth is like body temperature, with both being seen as defining characteristics of humanity. “He’s a cold fish” and “cold-blooded murder” are variations showing that, when it comes to being a human being, reptilians need not apply.

Emotional warmth becomes empathy when linked to human powers of imagination, as seen in the Henry James short story “A Landscape Painter” (1866), in which Mr. Locksley bares his heart to Miss Quarterman: “You have a great deal of imagination, but you rarely exercise it on the behalf of other people.…Your crime is, that you are so stone-cold to a poor devil who loves you.” You could say the same of Batman, if you weren’t afraid being shot.

Falstaff dies by degrees in Shakespeare’s Henry V. As recalled by the Hostess, he asked for extra blankets on his bed because his feet were cold. Just making sure, the Hostess says, “I put my hand into the bed, and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so up’ard and up’ard, and all was as cold as any stone.” With a groin gone cold, it was clear the drunken, gluttonous, cowardly parasite, and paragon of human flesh, was no more.

Photo: “Falstaff on His Death Bed,” George Cruikshank (1792–1878)

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Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

Photo: Karl Stull

C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

– Psalms 109:18 (New International Version)

Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:

May his days be few…
May his children be wandering beggars…
May creditors seize all he has…
May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…

This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.

The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.

Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab

At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull

America has been looking for a better mistress, and now Nixon has discovered China.

– Nguyen Thieu, president of South Vietnam, 1965–1975

For Americans, the top metaphors of the Vietnam War were falling dominoes and the light at the end of the tunnel. We were there because we had to be, not because we wanted to. Our concerns were strategic, practical, strictly unromantic. Yet we did think of ourselves as the good guys, doing a good deed despite considerable sacrifice.

So it comes as a shock that the president of the democracy we saw ourselves as defending saw us, the United States, NOT as a knight in shining armor but as a rich old man infatuated with an exotic beauty on the cheatin’ side of town. Of course, Thieu had grown to manhood in a country that was colonized – by France, no less, the European capital of the woman on the side. It must have seemed to him that the way of the world was for the strong to use the weak as they pleased. As he saw it, France and then the US were pleased to use Vietnam as an overseas resort for forbidden appetites.

Was Thieu wrong? The facts of history are verifiable as facts. Their meaning is subject to interpretation, often a matter of which end of the metaphorical stick you were on.

Photo: Woman opium smoker in French Indochina (1915) via William Black/Pinterest