Metaphors are “often goofy, if forced into the ice-cube tray of logic.”

– K. C. (personal email, July 7, 2020)

Long ago, ice cube trays were made of metal. They came with a contraption in the middle that had an 8-inch lever and a dozen or so flaps, which divided the tray into compartments. After the water in the tray froze solid, you pulled the lever — with about the same force you would need switching track in a railyard — and the flaps cracked the ice. Mostly regular-shaped blocks slid out of the tray. Logic at times may seem cold, compartmentalizing, and forced.

Metaphor is a warmer form of rhetoric: intuitive rather than inevitable. Metaphor brings you to “I see” in an “aha!” moment, where logic takes you from point A to B step by step by step. Anyone struggling to pass Calculus will agree the path to clarity by rigor is full of hardship.

Metaphor IS goofy. Calling snow a blanket, a river a snake, or the world a stage… How can we hope to arrive at truth by comparisons that are literally untrue?

Paradox is indeed a tough nut to crack.

Image: Detail from a 1955 magazine ad via

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The smooth brown haft stood out from his body like a cattail from a pond.

– Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

The observation that the haft, or handle, of a butcher knife stuck out like a cattail would not have much value in a coroner’s report. It tells us nothing about the victim or why he was killed. But it tells us a little about the private investigator who found the body, starting with the angle of view when he examined the murder weapon.

Seen from the side, a butcher knife stuck in a chest would have a contour like a skinny hand with a thick accusing finger. Edge-on, the contour of the blade would be like a thin stalk, swelling at the handle to a shape like a sausage — or a cattail. The mental picture of a cattail in a pond reminds us that a few pages ago Easy Rawlins was thinking of his boyhood days fishing on the Gatlin River. Those halcyon days contrast with the gore of the murder scene, where there is so much thickened blood you could spoon it like Jell-O.

Rawlins has been called a successor to Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled private detective created by Raymond Chandler, famous for a prose style that comes as close to poetry as anything in this weary world comes to justice.

Rawlins is different, a Black man in 1940s LA, working a side of town Marlowe never saw. He’s got his own point of view, his own obstacles to overcome, but a few things in the PI business never change — the ambiguous clients, the cops with too much personality, and the metaphors splayed like dead bodies on mean streets.

Drawing: Karl Stull

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A dark pearl in his shirt-bosom, twinkling in the fire’s glow as he moved, was like a red eye winking.

– Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key (1930)

The glass key in the title of the novel is a metaphor for lobbying in municipal politics. The key can unlock government coffers, but the wrong kind of pressure will shatter it. Apart from being on the cover, the metaphor stands out because it is one of only two in the entire book. Hammett’s prose style is conscientiously clean and free of ornament. He reports actions, objects, and spoken words. Thoughts and impressions register only in a tightening around the eyes or a curl of the lip. Hammett was the acknowledged father of hard-boiled-detective fiction. If the genre is now fondly parodied for the stink of too much metaphorical perfume, the blame belongs with Hammett’s successor, Raymond Chandler.

The Glass Key’s other metaphor occurs in the story’s most unsavory moment, as Ned Beaumont cozies up with the too flirtatious wife of the publisher of the local newspaper. While Ned and the wife open more wine in front of the fireplace, the publisher retreats to his office upstairs, signs a document that blows the case wide open, and shoots himself dead.

No twinges, no tears, no pangs of guilt. Ned Beaumont is investigating a murder, and he’s not doing it for the law, for justice, or even for money. Ned Beaumont’s commitment is to his ally Paul Madvig, who might be nothing better than a political boss, but he lives by the same kind of loyalty to Ned Beaumont. If there is another, possibly higher, morality that human beings must answer to, it is acknowledged only tacitly in the hellishly merry twinkle in the eye of the pearl.

Photo: First edition book cover via Wikipedia

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The gaudy birds burst the colored air into a thousand glittering particles like metal confetti.

– Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (1939)

Tod Hackett is a university-trained artist working in Hollywood in the 1930s. It’s spring. As the sun sets, he walks up a canyon not far from the Hollywood sign. He observes, mentally collects the colors of the landscape. “The air itself was vibrant pink.”

When the air bursts into shiny confetti, he observes with the eye of a pointillist such as Georges Seurat. For a pointillist, color is not a solid stroke of blue, red, or green but an aggregation of shades of colors, assembled as pixels. Tod sees the trail he walks on as stippled — “silver, grained with streaks of rose-gray,”

He is preparing for his great painting, The Burning of Los Angeles:

He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and thereby appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust…. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.

The people setting the fire are thwarted souls from the middle of the country, the masses not brought into the glamor economy. The painting prophesies others across the country will follow suit, beginning a civil war.

Painting: Georges Seurat, Bridge at Courbevoie via Wikimedia

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Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.

Cabaret (1972)

The Gay Nineties, the Roaring Twenties, and a decade so notorious it is still known simply as

            the Sixties

were exuberant periods of worldliness and pleasure-seeking — in contrast to penitential periods of strict morals, social vigilance, and focus on an afterlife, as in the Great Awakening (1730s), the Second Great Awakening with its mass meetings (early 1800s), and the anticommunist era of Billy Graham Crusades and McCarthy hearings (1950s).

On one extreme, life is a party and you should enjoy yourself. On the other, life is a test of virtue and you should prepare yourself to be judged.

In the US in 2021, whether you are Republican or Democrat, it appears we are solidly into an era of the puritanical, judge-thy-neighbor type. It will be a while before our lives are anything like a cabaret.

Illustration: “At the Moulin Rouge” by P. Vidal, from Tableaux de Paris (1893) by Emile Goudeau; British Library via Wikimedia

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His final crossing, spanning the tenterhooks of time and history.

– Lester Holt, NBC Nightly News, tribute to Rep. John R. Lewis (July 27, 2020)

A tenter is an upright framework, like a fence, used in olden days to keep newly manufactured cloth from shrinking as it dried. Tenterhooks were nails, holding the cloth taut. The expression “sharp as tenterhooks” is known from 1529. Later OED examples continue to portray the tenter as a metaphorical torture rack for textiles. To be on tenterhooks is to be in painful suspense.

The particular significance of John Lewis as a Civil Rights leader was that he both suffered and stretched. He was among the marchers ferociously beaten by police in Selma in 1965. And he went on to serve in the House of Representatives for 34 years, a living reminder to colleagues of the courage and commitment it took to move toward social justice. He was known there as the “conscience of Congress.”

The metaphor of a life being a woven fabric is ancient. In Greek mythology, the Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) spin, draw, and cut the thread of each life. Threads are woven on a loom with a shuttle that is “adamantine” (unchangeable). The fates of gods and mortals may be retold afterward as stories by skillful weavers, as in the weaving contest of Arachne and Athena. Folk traditions around the world use pictorial weaving as a record of myth, lineage, and history.

Photo: White House meeting with President Kennedy (August 1963); John Lewis is second from left, behind Martin Luther King Jr.

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And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (V.1.373–374)

A whirligig in medieval days was a toy like a spinning top. Calling time a whirligig would seem to say time goes in circles, but “goes in cycles” is closer to the way they thought back then. The seasons of the year form a cycle, repeating year after year, but history in the medieval Christian view was moving forward on a path from the Creation to the birth of Christ to the Apocalypse. From this perspective, if time is a wheel, it is rolling on a road to a destination.

The philosopher Boethius adapted the classical idea of the goddess Fortuna and her wheel of fortune to Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages. A man who enjoys wealth and fame today should be spiritually prepared for poverty and disgrace tomorrow, Boethius advised, because Fortune’s wheel never stops turning.

So when Shakespeare compares time to a child’s toy, it means that fame and fortune and other concerns of this world are temporary, trivial. Feuds and passions may loom large in our daily lives, but they count for nothing in the eternal scheme of things. Our parade of petty revenges goes round like a sad carousel.

In “The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats envisions cyclic history as a death-spiral. With twenty centuries passed since the coming of Christ, we find ourselves in an era of reversed polarities: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” and the times are “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.” The cycle of history that began with Christ’s birth has reached its conclusion, and a “rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

See the Yeats poem at

Painting: Pieter Breughel the Elder, Children’s Games (1560) via Wikipedia

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There’s no spin on a knuckleball, but you still can’t tell which way it’s going to break.

The Wire (season 4, episode 5, “Alliances”)

In politics, “spin” means putting bad facts in a favorable light. The disreputable aura of “spin”  accords with our ancient idea that straight = honest, bent = dishonest. Spin is bent, bent, bent. Spin doctor emerged as a term around 1984, describing a specialist in political hocus pocus, probably an echo of witch doctor.

In baseball, the fastball is the straight, honorable pitch – testing the hitter’s strength against the pitcher’s. The curve is the deuce, the devil, a deception. Yes, a fastball has rotation, but not the nasty spin that makes a ball veer down and away from the batter, like “English” on a cue ball.

Problematically – both metaphorically and homerically – the knuckleball has the least rotation of any pitch and yet has the un-straightest trajectory. It dodges, dances, and flutters up to the plate. It’s the stitches causing the chaos, rippling the flow of air around the ball – like a paddle dragged alongside a fast-moving canoe. Its nickname, the butterfly, suggests the knuckleball is a thing of beauty, but hitters hate it. In fairness, the knuckleball is not at all deceptive; it’s just unpredictable. Even the pitcher doesn’t know which way it will break.

A few pitchers have made careers throwing the knuckler. In contrast, no major league pitcher lives by fastballs alone. They all need a little “spin” in their mix of pitches. Politicians – facing diverse constituents, crafting bills with multifarious characters – cannot hope to thrive without the deuce.

Photo: Hoyt Wilhelm via Wikipedia

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You never know your luck until the ball stops rolling.

The Pallisers (1974), screenplay by Simon Raven, based on novels by Anthony Trollope

George Vavasor likely had billiards in mind when he spoke these words, and what he meant was: “Don’t give up too soon.” Did he see himself as a billiard ball, driven in a certain direction of life by chaotic collisions in a society of fellow billiard balls? Absolutely not – he was no Lord Fawn, pushed this way and that. George Vavasor was a rakish gentleman with the cue stick in hand.

The shot he had to make was difficult but not beyond his abilities: he had to persuade his wealthy cousin Alice to marry him for love. In the end, she refuses him. The ball definitely stops rolling. But in George’s mind, his game of life is not over yet. He heads off to America to take his next shot from an altogether new angle. There is courage in that kind of self-responsibility, or maybe it’s just impudence.

But what about the mentioned element of “luck”? Physicists and philosophers love to use the billiard table – with its groomed and leveled surface — as an example of clearly defined forces at work, with no biases or uncertainties to complicate the question. So, if Vavasor missed his shot, it must have been due to a failure in himself, which he denies vehemently. Instead he blames the balls (John Grey and Alice) for behaving in ways he did not anticipate. Conclusion: If humans prove unpredictable, it is because they are not very much like billiard balls.

Golf offers a better fit for George’s maxim about the rolling ball and luck. Though none of Anthony Trollope’s novels mentions golf (checked via Google Books), golfers are notorious for attributing success to skill and knowledge, while blaming failures on the lay of the land. A golf course is not like a billiard table.

Photo: Siddarth Patil via Wikimedia

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Here you’ve got fear and greed driving that baby to the moon. That does qualify as frothy.

– Bryce Doty, portfolio manager, quoted in “Bitcoin…’the mother of all bubbles’” LA Times (January 12, 2021)

“Frothy” in this context means bubbly; i.e., Bitcoin looks like a market bubble. To an investment analyst, a bubble is recognizable by a too steep rise in price, followed by a catastrophic decline. On a year-by-year price chart, a bubble looks like a lonely, skinny peak on a horizon, or a hoodoo in Bryce Canyon National Park.

The rounder, shinier image of a soap bubble, expanding until it bursts, goes back to the early 1700s, when “stock-jobbers” were first learning how to dazzle investors. In “The Bubble,” a satire against the notorious South Sea Company, Jonathan Swift invites readers to behold how the lensing power of liquid seems to magnify and activate your money. It swims!

Thus in a basin drop a shilling,
Then fill the vessel to the brim,
You shall observe, as you are filling,
The pond’rous metal seems to swim:

It rises both in bulk and height,
Behold it swelling like a sop;
The liquid medium cheats your sight:
Behold it mounted to the top!

 … So cast it in the Southern seas,
Or view it through a jobber’s bill;
Put on what spectacles you please,
Your guinea’s but a guinea still.

A pyramid scheme is a different kind of bad investment but is like a bubble in its promise of exponential expansion and temporary ability to defy financial gravity. New investors are the source of dividends for past investors, so the pyramid has to keep getting wider and wider, adding new tiers of participants. Eventually, recent investors are unable to sign up enough new investors, and the wide part of the upside-down pyramid falls apart. Where a bubble pops and leaves investors empty-handed, the metaphorical pyramid leaves a heap of rubble.

Photo: Jeff Kubina via Wikipedia

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