Procne was not so much a bad mother as an angry wife when she cooked and served her son to her betraying, cruel, lying husband for dinner. Hers is one of those stories from Greek mythology where people go through an ordeal so intense the only possible relief is to be turned into a bird, tree, or flower. Anything to escape being human, subject to human suffering.
Is human suffering worse than animals’ suffering? Maybe yes, if only because we start with the assumption that we deserve better.
In his telling of transformation stories, Ted Hughes focuses on passion – the misery as well as the delirium of love, or lust – with hyper-attention to ordinary sensations of everyday life. Your skin will prickle with recognition – for example, at the feeling of water encircling your knee as you step into a pool. Beware: listening to the shish kebob could transform you – into a vegan.
Photos: Pig roast via Wikipedia; book cover by Karl Stull
– Jackson Gregory, “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch” (1917)
In fact, Judith “winged” Trevor a couple of times: in the right arm with her first shot; after the second, his “left arm hung limp like the other.” The obstreperous Trevor was escorted off the ranch, and Judith went on with her breakfast.
It’s hard to imagine a gunshot wound being so lightly dismissed, even if it was to a mere “wing.” For a bird, a limp wing would amount to a death sentence. For a cowboy, in the days before doctors washed their hands and gave antibiotics, an infection could mean the same thing.
Yet the first OED example for “wing” in this sense is from a comedy, The Poor Gentleman (1802), by George Colman, in which the cantankerous Sir Charles complains about greenhorn hunters hitting everything but what they aim at: “What are the odds now, that he doesn’t wing me?”
Illustration: W. Herbert Dunton for “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch,” Everybody’s Magazine (vol. 37, 1917)
– “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.
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.
Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.
…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.
…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)
In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.
Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:
May his days be few… May his children be wandering beggars… May creditors seize all he has… May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…
This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.
The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.
Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab
Plunder used to be the soldier’s reward for risking his life. Running wild in a conquered town was the cathartic climax after the rage of battle. So trying to restrain troops after a victory was futile, like trying to talk a whale into coming ashore.
Or, as Shakespeare said in Henry V (III.iii.24-27): “We may as bootless spend our vain command / Upon th’enraged soldiers in their spoil / As send precepts to the leviathan / To come ashore.”
(A beached whale must have been a rare sight in Shakespeare’s time. Today the term beached whale is common enough that it inspires pity when used literally and hilarity when used metaphorically – i.e., for a corpulent sunbather.)
In Shakespeare’s play, the young monarch beseeches the town of Harfleur to surrender before it is too late, “Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command” (29).
If not — why, in a moment look to see The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; Your fathers taken by the silver beards, And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls; Your naked infants spitted upon pikes, Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. What say you? Will you yield and this avoid? Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (33-43)
In another play, Shakespeare compares a ravaging army to a pack of hounds, maddened for the hunt: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” (Julius Caesar III.i.273).
Charlotte Bronte sometimes got a little carried away. In her introduction to the second edition of Jane Eyre, for example, she decided to pay a compliment to a writer she greatly admired, William Makepeace Thackeray, and this is what came out:
His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.
Womb in a cloud? Yes, I can picture that. But a cirro-cumulus womb with a death-spark inside??? You do NOT want to see anything that comes out of there.
It’s wonderful to think of people getting so worked up they just suddenly take flight.
A related image is “flying off the handle,” which refers to an axe head coming loose in mid-stroke. This trite phrase becomes vivid when you visualize yourself as a bystander when a steel wedge goes ballistic.