This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.


…hunger swallows all other feelings.

– William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49 (1894)

A too-clever writer might have said “devours.” But Manly was educated on a frontier farm and had few literary pretensions.

On his way to the Gold Rush, he hired on as a wagon driver with a group that tried a southern route around the Sierra Nevada. When the wagons broke down and food ran short, the group sent Manly ahead to find help. He walked across Death Valley, over the Panamint Mountains, and across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, where he loaded up supplies and returned to the stranded wagon train. They were still alive.

Manly noticed that “something” disappears in people who are desperate for food. They have a frightened, distant, menacing way of looking at one another – as rivals, potential threats, or weaklings. The look was “devoid of affection, reason, or thought of justice.” Humanity is gone in a gulp.

Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.

– John McCain, on CNN’s State of the Union (March 16, 2014)

Often a metaphor asks you to see a thing as greater than the sum of its parts. Ronald Reagan called America “a city on a hill,” an example visible to all the world. McCain’s metaphor takes Russia in the other direction, reducing it to less than the sum of its parts, comparing it to a roadside operation run by swindlers.

Obviously, the homeland of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Andrei Sakharov has more to offer the world than oil and gas. McCain was making a point about the current regime: i.e., that sanctions against individuals are effective when a government is run by gangsters.

When enemies of the U.S. look for a metaphor that reduces us to our worst traits, what do they come up with? Soviet-era propaganda featured bankers with top hats and bloated bellies (less lovable versions of the figure in Monopoly). They hit closer to home when showing the Statue of Liberty in chains or hanging her head in shame.

Islamic militants refer to the Crusader – a figure we see as an ideal, the knight in white with a red cross. The militants see him as a gangster masquerading as a pilgrim.

Pope calls for concrete steps to stop abuse.

LA Times headline (February 22, 2019)

The steps metaphor – deriving from the path/journey/travel metaphor – is so well-worn the headline writer isn’t aware of its imagery and doesn’t consider that most papally commissioned steps are made of marble, not concrete. Or that there is a paradox in taking steps to stop.

Oddly, the word in the headline that is most loaded with meanings is the one devoid of imagery. Abuse in today’s English refers not only to pedophilia and other sex crimes but also to drug or alcohol addiction, wife beating, and name calling. Having such a wide range of meanings is only possible because the word abuse refers but does not describe. You don’t see betrayal, violation, or deceit – as in back-stabber, for example.

The word abuse is transparent. Or maybe it’s opaque.

The contact lens for your ear.

– Advertisement for a miniature hearing aid

If this is your first time reading about a contact lens for the ear, you might wonder how a device to improve hearing can be like a device to improve eyesight. Hearing and seeing are both sensory experiences but not at all alike. Seeing a cello is not the same as hearing one.

So this is a comparison that, rather than explaining, works by demanding an explanation. Certain jokes use the same trick – for example, Ben Franklin’s assertion that houseguests are like fish. (They begin to smell after three days.) Metaphors are usually meant to clarify but sometimes they mystify on purpose – so the audience will be curious and pay close attention.

Lyric hearing aids – much smaller than conventional hearing aids – are implanted inside the ear, so they are invisible to the public, like contact lenses. People judge you to be younger and more attractive.when you are not wearing bulky apparatuses, such as bifocal glasses or boxy earplugs.

Metaphor is a contact lens for your mind.

A river of water cannot be altered by the man on the bank. But thought and reason and curiosity do cause the stream of consciousness to alter its course and even change its content completely.

– Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (1975)

As a neurosurgeon in the 1930s, Penfield was applying a 2-volt electrode to various sites in an epileptic patient’s brain when he discovered a problem with the stream of conscious metaphor.

The patient, who was conscious during the procedure, reported that she was re-experiencing a remembered scene in which she was looking at her young son in the yard. The memory included sensory inputs from different sources – in addition to what she saw, she also heard neighborhood sounds, such as car traffic – and it was clear from events within the memory that it was a record in which time was passing (it was not a still picture). Being both a convergence and a flow, the memory was very much like a stream or river.

However, the patient was aware at the same time that she was in an operating room and talking with a neurosurgeon. The consciousness embedded in the memory was her own, experiencing the scene as real, but some other aspect of her consciousness was like the man on the riverbank, watching it all go by, knowing it was not happening right now. The man on the bank changed the content of the river, polluting it with self-aware self-awareness.

Alternatively, there is no man on the riverbank; memories may instead be undercurrents in the overall stream of consciousness. Currents and undercurrents may interact and change the course and content of streams.

Like a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.

– Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2017)

Trouble getting to sleep is a nightmare, except that you have to be asleep to have a nightmare. Towles compares the activity of the mind when it is trying and failing to fall asleep to a reel – a form of line dancing for lords and ladies. Worries take turns stepping forward, then retreat to the end of the line as the next worry comes up.

A dance is an orderly presentation. What goes on in the mind of a would-be sleeper is more a meandering, tumbling, often discontinuous succession of excerpts from the day, scripts for what might have been, feelings relived over and over, and details to be dealt with in the morning. Pre-sleep mental activity could be compared to the surging and swirling of seawater in tidepools, but the widely accepted metaphor is stream of consciousness.

Psychologist Alexander Bain coined that expression in 1855, describing how various sensations come together in “one common stream of consciousness – in the same cerebral highway” (The Senses and the Intellect). As the highway reference makes clear, the stream that Bain had in mind was a stream of traffic – a convergence of horse-drawn carriages.