The right to vote and trial by jury “are the heart and lungs, the mainspring and the centre wheel….In these two powers consist wholly the liberty and security of the people.”

– John Adams, Boston Gazette (January 27, 1766)

It’s a jolt to see biology and technology put together this way by one of the Founding Fathers, but Adams may well have viewed the ticking of a heart and the ticking of a clock as two sides of the same coin. Physician William Harvey described the heart as a mechanical pump in 1628, dispelling earlier views of that organ as a magic bag of courage.

In a clock, the center wheel acts as a regulator, metering energy out to the gears in small, steady pushes. Similarly, the heart pushes units of energy (red blood cells, laden with oxygen) through the human body.

In a democracy, voting delivers life-sustaining energy throughout the body politic.

Painting: Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart via Library of Congress

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It’s a war. I view it as a – in a sense – a wartime president.

– President Donald Trump, March 18, 2020

“It’s a war” is the mother of all metaphors when people talk about disease. Patients, doctors, and fundraisers for charities vow to fight an “invisible enemy.” Who is the enemy? Mosquitos and bacteria might qualify with diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, but the most potent killers in societies like ours are heart disease and cancer, and the enemy is us – our own clogged plumbing and cells gone haywire. With pop-up viruses like COVID-19 and flu, the “enemy” is a protein blob, not a living thing in the usual sense: more like a self-propagating chemical than a bug.

Might as well declare “war” on lime scale or rust.

The war metaphor is first declared in primary school, where children learn the immune system is an army that attacks invaders with an array of specialized weapons – white blood cells, fever, and a flood of fluids. In action, the immune system could just as well be compared to a mob of villagers with pitchforks, torches, and too many tankards of ale – sometimes killing the patient along with the germ.

In the context of a life-threatening disease, such as cancer, the war metaphor is meant to affirm the value of a human life. Never surrender. The “fight” is stubborn resistance – against the pain of scorched-earth treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Victory is a Korean standoff called remission.

In the context of a pandemic, “war” means casualties piling up in hallways and hospital staff under constant threat. Chaos and waste: 21st century diagnostic machines and not enough cotton swabs.

COVID-19 killed more Americans in three months than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Throughout history, deaths from plague, smallpox, cholera, meningitis, and other diseases have far outrun military casualties. The “war against disease” is a tail wagging the dog.

Humans have the instinct for fight-or-flight, and we are fascinated by battle to the death, so the appeal of the war metaphor is understandable – even though most of our accomplishments and well-being arise from purposeful work: cleaning, patching, lacing, fencing, planting, pruning, digging, damming, etc. The cure for rust is preventive maintenance, not micro-ninja commandos equipped with tiny missiles.

Illustration: Immune system during flu season by Dan Page, Purdue University newsletter (January 15, 2020)

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He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.

– Michael Santiago Render (Killer Mike), May 30, 2020, on the torture-murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police

In ancient Rome, lions symbolized the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. The donkey seems to ask, “Does it have to be this way?” The lion, king of beasts, takes no notice of the question. Mosaic from Tunisia (AD 150–200), Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades (CA); courtesy Getty Open Content Program.

In the Roman Empire, the lion was a symbol of the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. Later, the British Empire adopted the lion as its emblem. Today, The Lion King is a Broadway show.

Where the ancients saw a comparison

lion : other animals = Romans : other peoples

Render’s metaphor draws a line that separates humans from animals. The line is empathy. Video of the nine-minute death on a Minneapolis street shows a strangely calm, animal indifference to the suffering of another. Lack of concern for whether or not a pinned prey is dead yet will be all too familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom.

The role of zebra is not easy for a man to accept, much less deliberately adopt. Nevertheless, submission is the survival tactic taught by black parents to boys coming of age. A moment of unmanning is put on a microscope slide in lyrics from “Early,” Run the Jewels 2 (2014):

Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids
And in front of my wife, man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
’Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son

Submission may or may not be enough, depending on the situation and officer. Some police come to the job with a “hunt-and-capture-prey mentality,” Render said in a Billboard op-ed in 2014. These are “thrill-seeking cops.” Their drive, in President Trump’s phrase, is to “dominate the streets.”

Reference
“Killer Mike on the Problems Underlying the Chaos in Ferguson,” Billboard (Aug 19, 2014). https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6221865/op-ed-killer-mike-on-the-problems-underlying-the-chaos-in-ferguson)

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Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.

– Grace Slick, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The idea that knowledge is something you can eat like food goes back to the Garden of Eden, with the stipulation that some knowledge is better left on the Tree. In 1741, Isaac Watts insisted there was no merit in reading all day long, because food was worthless without proper digestion.

As a Man may be eating all Day, and for want of Digestion is never nourish’d; so these endless Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food, and without real Improvement of their Minds, for want of digesting it by proper Reflections. (Improvement of the Mind)

For most of us, digestion comes automatically after eating, no conscious effort required. So Watts may be right about the need for proper Reflections, but his comparison is “hard to swallow.” (See the index, Meta-failed images, for familiar expressions that seem to make sense but don’t.)

The idea that wisdom could be ingested conveniently in pill form took hold in the 20th century – when vitamins, antibiotics, and The Pill offered “better living through chemistry.” Aldous Huxley described instant access to enlightenment through mescaline (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and a few years later pop radio was celebrating the extraordinary mental experiences available through sublegal pharmacy: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small.” Grace Slick’s lyrics drew on imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which included a cake with “Eat Me” spelled out in currants on top. But it was Slick, not the Dormouse, who advised feeding your head.

Photo: Adapted from Wikipedia

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Like two balls in a nutsack.

Breaking Bad, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” (Season 1, episode 6)

“We’re close” is what Skinny Pete means to say. He and Tuco hang together all the time.

A G-rated script might have said “like two peas in a pod,” an expression that sounds as old as the Appalachian hills but is first noted in 1924 (Bartlett J. Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Provervial Sayings, per Google Books). On the other hand, “nuts” meaning testicles is sesquicentennial – soldiers’ slang from the American Civil War (OED).

Soldiers, like sailors, are segregated from polite society for long periods and have opportunities to formulate and field-test new varieties of colorful language. To “curse like a sailor” is to practice the art of profanity with imagery, elaborations, and sustained vehemence no landlubber can match. The international drug trade, established in the 1700s by the British commercial fleet, is yet another seminal source of uber-exuberant English.

Photo: Wikipedia

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As they cooked his remains – some of it / Gasping in bronze pots, some weeping on spits, / A feast followed.

– Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1999)

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

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Bright God, / you came to me, sunburst / in your hair, in the fields / where I was plucking / soft yellow petals / that fluttered to my lap / and sang back dawn’s bright gold.

– Euripides’ Ion, translated by W.S. Di Piero (1996)

Recalling what happened and how she felt when she was raped by Apollo, Creusa describes terror and helplessness – crying out for her mother, feeling her wrist seized in a powerful grip. She was carried to a hidden place, a cave known to Athenians as the Long Rocks. Overcome with shame, she told no one and returned in secret to the cave when her pregnancy came to term. She went into labor, a frightened girl, with no women to help, and bore a son. There is abundant detail in Creusa’s recollection that accords with the psychology of rape as it is understood today. She says, “you yoked me to darkness.”

At the same time, her memory includes awareness of cosmic power at work in the worst moment of her life, cementing bricks in a path determined by the Fates. Her son would bear sons who would become famous kings.

Rough handling of human beings by gods is a fundamental theme in Euripides. Heaven has its decrees, and mortals had better adjust. It isn’t personal (though the pain certainly is). Even the attacker in this case – a god of light, music, medicine – seems drafted into his role by still higher powers. And somehow, on a scale far above our concerns, there is beauty in the uses to which we are put – the sunburst in a god’s hair and the answering flowers in a maiden’s lap.

Photo: Statue of Apollo in the Belvedere courtyard, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican; via Wikipedia

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The makeup in “Bombshell” is a striking metaphor for how the women of Fox News – particularly the up-and-comers striving to fit the Barbie doll mold – submit themselves to a contrived aesthetic that is forced and not particularly beautiful, but is meant to convey the idea of beauty.

– Robin Abcarian, “We are in the midst of an epidemic – of false eyelashes,” LA Times (February 12, 2020)

 

An eagle and the idea of an eagle. The idea stylizes some features, doesn’t bother with others.

 

The distinction between “beauty” and “the idea of beauty” is arresting. It suggests that anyone, even a plain james, can pass for good-looking by applying beauty symbols in key areas around the face and body. Other examples of beauty icons that are not beautiful in themselves include:

  • Glue-on moles on the cheeks of ladies in the 1700s
  • Bustles under dresses of the late 1800s
  • Clairol blonde hair with dark roots

Not to be confused with falsies, these beauty apps are not meant to fool anyone about breast size, eye size/color, etc. As Abcarian makes clear, false eyelashes are obvious fakes. They don’t mind if you notice. They are there to remind you of a certain ideal – such as an imagined Cleopatra. The ideal might be tinged with just a dash of trash and a possibility of reckless sex.

We may never know who was the vamp queen of the silver screen who haunted the mind of young Roger Ailes. But we see her invoked every day on Fox.

Images: Eagle by Saffron Blaze (2012), emblem of the 101st Airborne Division, and Theda Bera as Cleopatra; all from Wikipedia

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At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Blood on a soldier’s chest looks like a medal – if not for valor, then at least for being on the battlefield and not being a coward. The unhappy anti-hero in Red Badge of Courage wants desperately to avoid reproach. Any number of heroes might advise him to be careful what he wishes for.

Every day people wish for things that they shouldn’t, as moralized in the story of King Midas. Midas failed to anticipate the consequences of a golden touch, as Marilyn Monroe and others learned too late that stardom would come at a terrible cost in self-worth.

Self-loathing is rife in everyday life too. Ask anyone who wishes hopelessly not to be fat. It’s all the worse when you agree in your heart of hearts with your accusers: “All you have to do is not eat.” To avoid being a coward, all you have to do is not run away. And so forth.

The most extreme form of self-loathing is universal, with nearly every person alive at one time or another having thought: “I wish I were dead.”

That wish will be granted.

Illustration: store.doverpublications.com

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He’s not hurt much; I just winged him.

– 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)

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