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

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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

Saying goodbye is kind of like pulling a Band-Aid off the hairy part of your arm.

Playgirl (1977)

The Band-Aid, invented in 1920, is a classic example of how solving one problem may create another. The quick-and-easy bandage protects a small wound against infection, but after the wound is healed the wearer must choose: peel off the adhesive flaps slowly, uprooting arm hairs one at a time, or rip away with one yank?

How do you like your pain: in a slow progression of predictable agony? Or in a flash of torment followed by dazed shock? Opinion is divided, along the same lines as in the swimming pool conundrum. Some prefer to dip a toe in the water and immerse gradually. Others dive in.

The Playgirl quote is interesting for its frank wording (hairy-arm references were rare back then) and for the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessarily a emotional wound but rather an event to be expected in a life that spans many relationships.

Photo: Ellen Limeres

No, you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

Bronte scoffs at the idea that girls need to be sheltered more than boys from the evils of the world, because of the presumption that females have less capacity for moral judgment. The truth is we all need all the sheltering and nurturing we can get, regardless of gender. At least, that is the view taken by Bronte’s protagonist Helen Huntingdon, on the run from an alcoholic husband.

A couple of years earlier, Charles Dickens used hot-house imagery to comment on another theory of cultivating young minds: accelerated education, as practiced at Doctor Blimber’s school in Dombey and Son:

All the boys blew [bloomed] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons…. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. (ch. 11)

Greenhouses became a hot topic after the 1830s, as scientific breeding of plants converged with improvements in iron and glass manufacturing. Greenhouses were the first buildings made in factories. The first public greenhouse opened in Regent’s Park, London, in 1846.

Photo: Otto Eerelman, “In the Greenhouse”: http://www.artnet.com/artists/otto-eerelman/in-the-greenhouse-oiYeMedzQfuSwIBX2od_kA2

Don’t ride an emotional roller-coaster.

– Esther Eberstadt Brooke, You and Your Personality: A Guide to Effective Living (1949)

There is no option to get off a roller coaster before the ride is over. So a decision not to ride has to be made in advance. Brooke urges readers to stay on an “even keel” – apparently unaware that even ocean liners must climb and plunge with every wave in a storm.

On an emotional roller coaster, the feel-good part comes first, then the steep fall. On a real roller coaster, the thrill of not having died afterall comes at the end. The beginning is when, during the slow-cranking period of ascent, you experience dread and regret and ask: “How did I let myself get talked into this?” Thus, the real roller coaster brings complexities of human psychology to light: our thirst for intense experience, the way we use extraordinary experiences (e.g., initiation rites) to bond with others, or set ourselves apart. The metaphorical roller coaster seems never to mean anything more than going up and down compulsively – like a yo-yo, as Allan Sherman observed in  A Gift of Laughter(1965).

Stoics have said for centuries we should avoid extremes, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that medicine recognized the causal link between emotional highs and lows: what goes up must come down. In 1854, Jules Baillarger identified a mental illness he called “folie à double” (a madness in two parts), which we now call bipolar disorder. Independently, in the same year, Jean-Pierre Falret proposed a similar new diagnosis, “folie circulaire.”

Photo: Canobielakepark at English Wikipedia

Headache roameth in the desert, blowing like the wind / Flashing like lightning…

– Babylonian tablet, circa 700 BC

In Babylon, and throughout human history, people have pictured evil spirits as the cause of headaches. Even today, a lot of headache imagery supposes an external agent inflicting pain – often with tools from the carpenter’s shop:

A giant wields a rusty saw. He gloats and hums as he works, slicing through my forehead and into the mind behind it. – E. Lockhart, We Were Liars (2014)

His headache was still sitting over his right eye as if it had been nailed there. – Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955)

When the tools are not piercing or cutting, they may be squeezing or pounding:

…it is sometimes said that the “top of the head appears to open and shut,” or that someone seems to be “holding the head in a vise,” or “pushing a screw into the top of the head,” or that the head feels “as if it were swollen,” or “bursting.” – Harry Campbell, Headache and Other Morbid Cephalic Sensations (1894)

The pain is generally referred to the top of the head, and is frequently described as resembling a “ticking,” or the beating of a small hammer on the skull. – Henry Goode Wright, Headaches (1867)

The opposite of the “head in a vise” headache might be the “splitting headache,” an expression that is sometimes connected playfully to the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. In one version of the story, Zeus asks Hephaestus to crack open his forehead with an ax to relieve his Olympian headache. Novelist Mortimer Collins uses the expression less loftily in Sweet Anne Page (1868),describing a hangover:

…he awoke with a headache – a splitting headache, that seemed capable of splitting a tough planet into infinitesimal fragments.

A throbbing headache, though it keeps time with the body’s own pulse, may evoke hammering, splitting, or shattering. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says: “Lord, how my head aches!…It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces” (II.5.48-49).

When a headache is very bad, the sufferer may think of surrendering his or her head altogether. In Egyptian mythology, Horus prays for his head to be taken off and exchanged with a new one. In her 1992 memoir Woolgathering, Patti Smith recalls a pounding headache that “got into that crazy realm where the guillotine seems like a good idea.”

Rarely, headache imagery is animal rather than mechanical, and native to the mind rather than imposed by a torturer. In Erika Swyler’s “The Mermaid Girl: A Story” (2016), headache is a disturbance in the landscape inside one’s head:

Headaches were like birds. Starlings. They could be perfectly calm, then a single acorn could drop and send the entire flock to the sky.

In Excedrin commercials from the 1960s, a crusty old man compared his headaches to “two bull goats” ramming each other. He put the knuckles of his two fists together to illustrate.

Credits
Babylonian tablet translation by R. Campbell Thompson (1903), quoted in Mervyn J. Eadie, Headache through the Centuries (NY : Oxford, 2012).
Horus story from Papyrus Leiden I 348, cited in Karenberg and Leitz, “Headache in magical and medical papyri of Ancient Egypt.” http://docshare01.docshare.tips/files/29412/294122655.pdf
Goodreads.com, Quotes about Headache

Photo: H. Daumier (1833); Wellcome Library/Wikimedia

Every instrument, a drum.

Get On Up (2014)

A banjo is a drumhead with strings.

In an early scene, James Brown explains to bewildered reporters what his new style of music is all about. Instead of being built on a melody, it’s built on a groove – a rhythmic environment that brings the mind and body to a state of readiness for feeling good. Later, Brown has to re-explain the principle to his musicians in the studio. Their training tells them, “It doesn’t work musically.” Brown insists: “Now we all got our drums.” Some may be guitars, some may be keyboards, but all should be doing the same work as drums: adding to the groove. “And when you’re playing a drum,” he says, addressing issues of music theory, “it don’t matter what key you in, what bar you in, what planet you on…” All that matters is: “Does it feel good?”

The metaphors for what music is and does are many. A traditional melody is a progression (travel) through notes and chords beginning at a root. The melody grows from the root like a plant.

In jazz, groove is said to trace back to phonograph records, on which a phonograph needle follows a track that keeps coming back around. If the needle is the band, the groove is their shared sense of direction.

Photo: Karl Stull