The gritty discount shops have been replaced with gourmet restaurants and bars with bouncers.

– Susan Carpenter, “The hipster haven I call home,” LA Times (March 10, 2020)

Roughly speaking, grit is sand. When something is “gritty,” there are hard, coarse granules in the mix. Cornmeal is gritty; it’s not as refined as cake flour.

Figuratively, people who have grit may be crude, unpolished, lacking manners, unfashionable. But there is hard truth in them and strength of character. Like it or not, they are gritty night and day, never ground down by adversity or social pressure, not interested in smoothing things over.

When grittiness seems admirable, it is in contrast to fickleness or fatuity: in the dandy, the windbag, the high-society matron, or the hipster who has heard about everything already and liked it before you did, especially the early stuff.

Without hipster fatuity as a contrast, the old Highland Park was merely hardscrabble, trying to stay afloat, keeping the wolf from the door. The charming “rough edges” surrounded a material culture that was threadbare, chintzy, tacky, seedy, trashy, cheesy, like a cheap suit.

Grit is how you get by without wealth, social status, or education. Grit is truth without beauty.

Image: Adapted from Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of M. Delaporte (1893) via Wikimedia

Even in spring, the smog sits on the city like moldy orange juice.

– Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973)

Air is not the same as water (we can’t breathe water), but air and water are both fluids (they flow). Air is the “water” we swim in, and at sunset it may have the color of orange juice.

Orange juice turns a darker orange when moldy and gets a fizzy taste. Air turns darker shades of orange when laced with carbon particles from combustion. Severe smog stings your eyes.

When air is laced with water, it becomes thicker — though not as “thick” as blood, since blood is thicker than water (see note). In any case, when air is humid, everything slows down. Everything is more difficult to push through. Even inhaling gets to be exhausting. About the thickness of humid air, Margaret Atwood says:

The summer heat has come in earnest, settling down over the town like cream soup. (The Blind Assassin, 2000)

Note: Blood plasma at body temperature is 1.8 times more viscous than water.

Photo: NOAA

The waters of its consciousness — so to speak — are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions…

– Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man (1964)

A college student asks a professor: what is the meaning of life? What is the Philosophy that explains the many mysteries in many realms, from the personal to the political to the cosmic?

The professor says: Life is an ocean, and each person is a tide pool.

The waters of its consciousness — so to speak — are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light.

When the tide comes in, we die, and the peculiar mixtures in individual pools are carried back to the wide ocean of consciousness, “which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything past, present, and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars.”

Isherwood’s “single man” (George ) thinks like an Emersonian transcendentalist — a loner who feels the pull of “all is one”-ism. Alfred Tennyson says amen in “Crossing the Bar.”

Photo: San Juan Island (WA); National Park Service

Yet it was here in the Tivoli that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra.

– Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1960)

Okra looks like a dark-green bullet and slices into wheels with seeds between the spokes. It has an earthy, tending-to-bitter taste. The main thing about okra is its texture: slimy-sticky. As okra cooks, its goo spreads and thickens up a gumbo.

Okra is a background ingredient; noticing it in a crowded, spicy soup means you’re aware of the medium the shrimp is floating in. Life is like a gumbo, a chaotic mix, and the medium that swirls the shrimp is time. From one spoonful to the next, the essence is in the particulars: what, where, and when.

Without place and time, you are Anybody, Anywhere, and in despair, a mere consumer.

Walker Percy’s moviegoer, Binx Bolling, thinks like a French existentialist. He and Albert Camus might have had a very agreeable conversation over soup.

Photo by Jmprouty via Wikimedia

But now the freeways amputated the streets into stumped dead ends, and the lives of the neighbors itched like phantom limbs in Mama’s memory…

– Helena Maria Viramontes, Their Dogs Came with Them (2007)

Construction of the Long Beach Freeway cut through East Los Angeles, bisecting neighborhoods and pinching off streets too small to rate an underpass. Houses and shops that Mama remembers being down the street are no longer there, though she can see, hear, and smell them in her mind. These lost landmarks are like phantom limbs, still part of her, still felt, but also gone.

Metaphors typically draw on universal experience. A familiar image rings a bell. But the itch of phantom limbs asks you to imagine a strangeness, one that is so far beyond ordinary experience it is beyond extrapolation. Hardly a minute of your life goes by that doesn’t involve conscious control of your hands and legs. Trying to imagine ghostly after-effects of their loss — not like a pulled tooth, not like an itch under a plaster cast — is like imagining a color beyond violet. In a way, the effort to visualize an image beyond imagining mimics Mama’s disorientation, and casts a weird light on an experience that is pretty universal: returning to your old neighborhood.

Returning to your old neighborhood, you find a mall has replaced the meadow where you used to play. Children in the schoolyard are chattering in a language you don’t understand. You can’t go “home” again, because home has changed. And the young hopeful eyes you saw the world with back then — they too are gone.

Photo: Communities for a Better Environment (

England has escaped the blood-bath of a French Revolution…

– Thomas Carlyle, “Boswell’s Life of Johnson” (1832)

The term bloodbath has become trite: we hear it without picturing a tubful. Back when Carlyle was writing, blood-bath still needed a hyphen, and he expected his audience to be shocked.

A thousand years earlier, in the heyday of Vikings, bloodbath was a synonym for “battle” in Germanic languages. The sagas of big swords and mighty hacking had heaps of compound words with blood-this and blood-that (blódþigen/blood-tasting, blótspíung/blood-spitting, blódiernende/blood-gushing).

A half-century after Carlyle’s essay, when a health craze was sweeping Europe and the United States, spas offered blood baths as a special and very expensive treatment. The blood came from local slaughterhouses. There was not a lot of science to support claimed benefits, but advocates noted blood baths were prescribed for royalty in ancient Egypt.

Photo: Not a blood bath but Archimedes about to exclaim “Eureka!” (15th century)

You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

— General Francois Athanase de Charette (1796)

Charette’s famous answer to the charge that he caused many deaths in the French Revolution expresses a truth about war: there will be casualties. Still, there is something about the imagery that is troublesome; its claim to likeness falls short.

A general’s job is not like cooking an omelet. It’s more like setting fire to a rival chef’s kitchen and killing all his helpers. And soldiers are not a commodity, to be used up by the dozen.

The breaking-eggs maxim was a favorite with Lenin. In his view, a revolutionary’s job was to reorganize society; inevitably, people who were comfortable before the revolution would be less so afterward. Lenin and his successor broke tens of millions of eggs. The omelet declared bankruptcy in 1991.

It is often a metaphor’s job to make painful loss seem less of a big deal.

There’s no use crying over spilt milk.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.
There are other fish in the sea.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
April showers bring May flowers.

Painting: Detail from Egg Candling by Pehr Hilleström via Wikimedia

And I remember that the sounds they made reminded me of the squealing of pigs under the knife of the butcher, and I was struck with horror at the vividness of the analogy.

– Jack London, The Sea-Wolf (1904)

This passage compares the cries of women and children on a sinking ferry in San Francisco Bay to the cries of animals about to be slaughtered, and calls the comparison an analogy. An analogy is a comparison based on factual or perceived similarity. Often it points to a “logical” conclusion (reasoning by example):

Spinach is a dark-green, leafy vegetable that is nutritious.
Chard is a dark-green, leafy vegetable. It is probably nutritious too.

On the ferryboat, the similarity of the human cries to pig squeals is literal — the way a cat’s yowl may be mistaken for a baby’s cry — not figurative, not imaginative, not metaphorical.

The analogy points to a conclusion that horrifies the narrator: people are like pigs, like animals that are sacrificed every day without a second thought, whose individual lives have no special value in the natural world. Soon afterward, the narrator meets a character who sees the human world in this very way, Wolf Larsen. The instincts for survival and dominance, which govern the lives of wolves in Call of the Wild, are the foundations of philosophy for ruthless Captain Larsen.

Anatomically, literally, Larsen is a human being. To call him something else — a sea-wolf — is an imagined comparison (literally untrue). It’s a metaphor.

Photo: Steamboat Sultana (1865) by Thomas W. Bankes via Wikimedia

Is the Standard Oil Company an octopus or a whale?

Harper’s Weekly (October 5, 1907)

Shy, mussel-eating octopi might have been surprised to learn that Harper’s Weekly considered the octopus a “deadly enemy” of humankind. In the “octopus or whale” question, America’s leading news/opinion magazine (from 1850 to 1916) assumed the whale was a large and mostly benign mammal. Apparently, Captain Ahab was not on the Harper’s editorial team.

The cephalopod community took a terrible hit reputationally in 1870 when Jules Verne published 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Among the imagined wonders and horrors of the deep was an attack by a giant squid that left a Nautilus crewman dead and others badly shaken. As to public perception, it was no use pointing out that Verne was a writer of fiction and the attack never happened.

Then came a single sentence in Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), a classic of exposé journalism. Tarbell said rival companies “fell shivering with dislike into the embrace of this commercial octopus.”

A metaphor force-multiplier — a cartoon by Udo Keppler — turned the “commercial octopus” into a supersize, dream-haunting kraken. The cartoon showed the octopus as … omni-dextrous. Instead of smothering victims in an eight-armed embrace, as is natural for an octopus, Standard Oil was doing eight acts of evil in all directions at once, with arms reaching to Congress, state governments, other industries, and overseas.

Today we take a more cheerful view of our round-headed, eight-legged friends. In kindergarten, alphabet graphics show O is for octopus. Squid, however, must fend for themselves.

Illustration: Udo J. Keppler (1904) in Puck magazine, via Wikimedia

UPDATE: Well before Tarbell and Keppler, an 1882 cartoon by George Frederick Keller depicted Railroad Monopoly as “The Curse of California” — a many-legged monster able to squeeze and strangle several victims at once. Thanks for this note to Karen Cunningham, scholar and friend.

Illustration: George Frederick Keller, “The Curse of California,” The Wasp (August 19, 1882) via Wikimedia

each city window sent its teeth to her strut … onto her scales / bricks / tiles, magnetized / snapped to her skin

– Judith Emlyn Johnson, The Ice Lizard (1992)

In this collection, subtitled Poems 1977–88, Johnson seeks to reconnect with her inner lizard. After years of storage in a root cellar in upstate New York — along with ice skates, torn curtains, broken necklaces, and lots of sports gear — the lizard is frozen and starting to fossilize.

          The air held
                    a limestone sweat smell.
          Her coiled, knotted backbone beaded

under the etched scales. Above the bony knots, folded
from browbone to tailspines, flat against her scales,
rested her knife-edged backridges. Her green, thick
          ridged tail stretched miles
into the ice age under us, grew into that rock.
As she opened one yellow eye and saw me, her backplates sprang up like sails.

The Ice Lizard wants to dance — or rather stomp. When a glacier-size beast starts to boogie, there is a tremendous cracking and gushing of ice. When her tail starts swinging to the beat, windows shatter, chimneys fall, tiles lift and spin away, and with no thought of harming anyone or any thing, the lizard shouts, “WHOOPEE!”

This is why the Ice Lizard had to be put away in the root cellar in the first place, for the sake of “making no waves.”

In formal terms, the Ice Lizard is an allegorical character (representing an abstract principle, Joy of Life). The imagery that describes the Ice Lizard is metaphorical (involving comparisons that are figurative/nonliteral).

  • Joy of Life is pre-human ==> like a lizard
  • In civilized society, Joy of Life must be deactivated ==> “frozen,” put in deep storage

The long-neglected Ice Lizard asks when she is awakened, “Do you need me?” The wife, professor, pillar of the community, and the poet all answer: yes.

Photo: Mysterious Pearl ice sculpture at the 2006 World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, AK, via Wikimedia; courtesy G. Goodwin Jr. and Snark