As viewed by physicists, a solid “consists of a pattern of atoms repeated over and over again…like a large hotel with floor upon floor of identical rooms, identically furnished.”

– Alan Holden and Phylis Singer, Crystals and Crystal Growing (1960)

Waldorf_Astoria_1899Wikipedia

Waldorf-Astoria, 1899, via Wikipedia

This passage asks you to visualize something no human has ever seen – the atomic structure of a molecule – in terms of something invented by humans: a skyscraper. As a description, it would be wholly self-referential, and useless as a unicorn, if the imagined hotel did not connect in some way with real solids in the observable world.

Happily, the image agrees with results from scientific experiments. Materials that physicists classify as solids test positive for hotel-ish qualities: uniformity of material, repetitious structure, and interlocking connections. Experiments would yield very different results if it turned out solids were really more like a loose pile of clothes in a hamper than like the Waldorf-Astoria.

In most ways, admittedly, the hotel comparison is bogus. Atoms are subject to vibrations and attracting forces that would make a hotel uninhabitable. But this is how metaphor works: by describing a thing as if it were something else, which it is not. This is what poets mean when they say they tell “lies” to reveal a truth. This is what fiction is. We imagine what the eye literally cannot see, and sometimes there is truth in it.

The principal figure is Minerva, with her spear and Gorgon shield, typical of the manner in which California was born, full grown…

– Bayard Taylor, describing the California state seal, in Eldorado: Or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1860)

CaliforniaSeal

Just as Minerva had no childhood, but sprang full-grown from the forehead of Jupiter, so California skipped the territorial stage of development and joined the Union immediately upon application, with a voter-approved state constitution already in hand.

The Jupiter from whose forehead California statehood sprang was General Bennet C. Riley, who in April 1849 became commander of the Military Department of Upper California (including today’s Nevada and Arizona). Riley had responsibility for law and order in the region but not nearly enough troops, as the Gold Rush boosted the California census from around 10,000 to a quarter-million in two years. Most of the new arrivals were adult males with pickaxes, guns, and a dream of quick riches. There was a corresponding rise in frustration, desperation, soured hopes, and lawlessness. California needed governments, courts, and sworn police officers in a hurry.

General Riley issued a proclamation for a constitutional convention, held in September 1849 in Monterey. In ordinary circumstances, it would be Congress that would invite a territory to draft a consitution. Seeing gridlock on Capitol Hill, where the priority was balancing the number of free states versus slave states, Riley acted on his own authority. In Roman mythology, Minerva is the armed goddess of wisdom.

We had a leash of hares, which being skinned and cleaned were impaled on withers and placed at the fire to roast, where they looked like three martyrs flayed alive, and staked.

– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)

MarryatThreeMartyrs

Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental pictuere. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).

A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.

In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.

Got a rocket in your pocket. / Keep coolly cool, boy.

– “Cool,” West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” This quip is universally credited to Mae West, from as early as 1936, and there have been variations: pipe, rod, banana. As a device that emits, a pistol is metaphorically more descriptive than a banana. A man who is sterile is said to be firing blanks.

Arising from the same general shape and location, the rocket metaphor takes the penis beyond sex to other realms of male excitability. The Jets want revenge, and testosterone urges action. Hence the call to be cool (heat being a metaphor for emotion).

The timeliness of Sondheim’s rocket metaphor is noteworthy. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, and the rivalry for turf in outer space was on.

…and then charging out of these flames comes this bear on fire. That was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen.

Only the Brave (2017)

The bear on fire is a sudden, spectacular movie effect. It fills the eye, and before you can think about what it might mean you’ve already understood the speed, power, and impulsiveness of fire – how it runs over anyone who stands alone in its path. Josh Brolin’s character describes the bear as “hard-charging into the darkness.” Then he adds, “I’m feelin’ a lot like that bear, Duane.”

The bear is a manifestation of the fire (spirit of the fire) but is also a creature caught in the fire, running for its life. Like a firefighter when the operational plan has gone wrong.

Two of the firefighters, the chief and the recruit, have come to their job after drug addiction, drawing a line against lives gone out of control. They have been in the kind of trouble where you can lunge to the left or the right but cannot get free. The beauty of the bear on fire is that of the tragic hero, a doomed creature struggling to the end to be free.

All of us are trim tabs, man.

– Jeff Bridges on Real Time (October 5, 2018)

Jeff Bridges credits the trim-tab metaphor to Buckminster Fuller, who compared social reform to steering a supertanker. The rudder on a vessel that size is so large it can’t be turned by ordinary means. The engineering solution is the trim tab, a mini-rudder that steers the main rudder, which then turns the ship.

From this principle, it follows that small groups and even individuals can influence the behavior of a mass society – turning it away from traditions of racism, for example.

While supporting the hope that a few good people can bring about good on a grand scale, the metaphor includes a stern requirement, that trim tabs do their work in conjunction with a rudder. Random acts of kindness do not turn the ship; turning the rudder turns the ship.

But where have we an academy for teaching the polite and useful arts of killing time, spending money, living fashionably?

– “Proposal for a New University,” Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1793)

Killing time may have gotten started as an expression without an underlying image. That is, killing just meant “getting ride of” without any imagined ax falling, no bullet fired, no poison pellets sprinkled in the garden against the hateful snails of time. In the context of killing time, Time is not so much a creature as a circumstance – like winter in Siberia or a train ride across Nebraska. It is a tedious emptiness, “a vast wasteland” (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously said of television). Kids of the first TV generation used to say, “There’s nothing on.”

Religious writers in the 1800s railed against killing time. Daydreaming, card playing, and following the latest fashions were a sinful waste, they said, when you didn’t know how many days you had left in this world to seek salvation. Waste is easy to visualize: a spoiled crop, a village fallen to ruin, a treasure buried and forgotten.

Shakespeare’s Richard II makes the metaphor personal: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V.v.49).