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, 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.


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.

Mountains are the bones of the earth…

– John Ruskin, The True and the Beautiful in Nature (1843)

The bones of the earth are covered by thick layers of soil, which are like skin and muscle. When human bones and muscle move, you see outer surfaces of the body – shoulders, torso, thighs – bulge in some places and form hollows in others, like hills and valleys. Ruskin wants you to look at a landscape the way an artist looks at a living model, a subject “full of expression, passion, strength.”

Ruskin then notes: “But there is this difference between the action of the earth, and that of the living creature, that while the exerted limb marks its bones and tendons through the flesh, the excited earth casts off the flesh altogether, and its bones come out from beneath.”

In other words, the stony peaks and crags that inspire feelings of grandeur in alpine tourists may be seen as horrendous jutting injuries. As Maria might have sung it with the von Trapps, “The hills are alive with the screams of landforms.”

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

After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

Your body is a battleground.

Gulliver is a metaphor for France (a great nation tied down by petty factions) in this 1830 cartoon by Ferdinand-Philippe d’Orléans; Library of Congress

The idea that you are a battleground where good and evil clash is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and as contemporary as the image of a micro-devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In the song “My Body Is a Battlefield” (Tobias Jundt/Bonaparte, 2010), the devil versus angel conflict is expressed as a series of contradictory impulses and perceptions, negative versus noble, raising a question of true identity: Who are you really? The two sides shatter the self into “a thousand faces”:

In Barbara Kruger’s poster “Your body is a battleground” (1989), the inner devils and angels turn political and the question is not which choice to make but who has the right to make it. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates battle in the courts, legislatures, and streets to determine who will own the “territory” that is a woman’s body:

In the Book of Job, God and Satan use a man’s body as a battleground – leaving him with a bad case of boils.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus makes a battleground of his own body. He has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can experience the thrill of the Sirens’ song without being drawn to his death, like a moth to flame. Odysseus-minded people nowadays go bungee jumping.

When it’s compared to something other than a battleground, your body may be a temple, a nation, a house, a shell, a suit of clothes, a machine with a control unit upstairs, or a gross weight carried around by the soul. Duality (or multiplicity) is built into all these metaphors. When there is duality, there will be a battle.

Back to top

This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

– President Donald Trump, February 17, 2017

The image of a machine being “tuned” may have originated in the textile mills of 19th century Yorkshire. Workers there called it “tuning” when they did repairs on power looms, which looked somewhat like upright pianos and required tensioning of many strings. (Elsewhere this work was called “tackling,” according to the OED.)

By the 1930s, mechanics were “tuning” engines in cars, boats, and aircraft. There is nothing musical about internal combustion (unless you count the motor’s “hum”), but many sensitive adjustments are required to keep mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems performing in harmony – a challenge worthy of comparison to the exquisite tuning of a Steinway.

The term “fine tuning” took on a non-musical meaning in the early days of two-way radio and came into wider use after the 1950s, when TV sets had dials with an outer ring that you twisted back and forth in search of a better picture (like a piano tuner, in search of the right frequency).

Before long, any dynamic system with many small parts could be called “a fine-tuned machine”: the Army, the Dallas Cowboys, the human body, the economy, crop management… Niagara Farm and Garden News (1967) warned that using atrazine on corn crops at the wrong moment “would be analogous to throwing a monkey wrench into a fine-tuned machine.”

The Oldsmobile 98 Regency was a fine-tuned machine, according to magazine ads in 1978 – about the time Donald Trump launched his first big hotel project. Only three years later, General Motors demonstrated it was possible to run an Oldsmobile on coal dust. Here’s a three-minute video:

Photo: Dobby loom; (a teacher’s page)


Back to top