Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.

– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

References to sand castles and their temporariness go back at least as far as 1843 (Memorials of Miss Mary Fishwick, of Springfield, Near Garsfang). Jimi Hendrix observed more recently that castles made of sand “fall in the sea, eventually” (1967).

In Atwood, the sand castle undergoes a double transformation: it is re-imagined as a doll made of sand, and as a toy brought to life. The latter is a familiar theme in children’s stories, from The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) to Corduroy (1968), not to mention “Puff the Magic Dragon” (1963):

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.…
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.

The plight of the toy who is brought to life and then abandoned seems pitiable because of an old storyteller’s trick. In fact, it’s the oldest trick in the book: persuading an audience to suspend disbelief and accept an imaginary life as real. The woman made of sand was never real; she existed only in the mind of the narrator in The Handmaid’s Tale – who herself was never real but only imagined by Margaret Atwood and her readers.

Photo: Cannon Beach (Bellevue, WA) by Curt Smith, via Wikipedia

Poirot, Holmes, Wimsey, Marple, Morse… What was it like for them? A slow process like constructing a jigsaw? Or did it come in a rush, one last turn in a toy kaleidoscope when all the colors and shapes tumbled and twisted into each other, forming a recognizable image?

– Anthony Horowitz, The Magpie Murders (2016)

For Sherlock Holmes, discovering the solution to a mystery was like completing a jigsaw puzzle. His method was to rule out ways the pieces of evidence could not possibly fit together:

It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”)

For most of us, the search for a right answer is less systematic. Often, there is an “Aha!” moment when a seeming mess of facts resolves into a clear pattern. The revelation happens all at once, as with the crank of a kaleidoscope.

But no one cranks a kaleidoscope just once. With every turn, the kaleidoscope presents the same set of facts in a new order of dazzling possibility. And the game is afoot again, Mr. Holmes.

Video: See how a triangle of mirrors will produce kaleidoscope effects –   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxdGpXSTc0Q

…we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching…

– Addie Bundren, in William Faulkner’s As I lay Dying (1930)

Spiders have gotten stuck, as it were, in their own web, as an icon for wrongful use of language. The famous quotation from Sir Walter Scott –

O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive! (Marmion, 1808)

– is terribly unfair, because spiders don’t weave. They string nets. They are fishermen of the air. It’s an honest living, sort of – no worse than netting fish in the sea.

In The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift demeans the Spider for work that is drawn from within, in contrast to the sweet constructions of the Bee, who gathers material from flowers throughout Nature. What’s within the Spider? Digested flies – yech!

Even Charlotte, the most beloved literary spider (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, 1952), must own up to using words for PR purposes. If one were to compile a list of 100 truthful words to describe Wilbur the pig, not one of them would be RADIANT.

Words are spider silk, according to Addie Bundren. Words form an invisible “shape” that can trap and hold others, so they cannot escape and do what they want to do. The shape is tenuous, only as real as the sound of the uttered words, yet sticky. Love is the biggest word-shape of all, keeping family members dangling separately but together from a beam.

Postscript: Spiders don’t typically hang together in a line. As I Lay Dying is full of improbable metaphors, some of them hilarious. Addie’s son Vardaman says, “My mother is a fish” (realizing that death is like a carp coated in dust). His brother Darl says of yet another brother, “Jewel’s mother is a horse” (recognizing that Jewel gave up his freedom for his mother’s sake). This novel is a northern Mississippi restatement of the truism at the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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

The marshmallow is melting.

– Martha Walton, Vermont resident, on early spring weather

People have been awed by the beauty of snow and ice for millennia, but we have only been comparing it to confectionery since the late 1600s, when cookbooks first described “icing” as a sugary syrup poured onto a cake and hardened in the oven. References to cake “frosting” began in the mid-1700s, and “marshmallow” became the name for a puffy-gummy candy by 1857.

The edible cottage in the story of Hansel and Gretel, with its boiled-sugar windows (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812), helped popularize gingerbread houses as a baking specialty. The E.T.A. Hoffmann story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), which became Tchaikovsky’s perennial Christmas ballet, did the same for confectionery landscape. Hoffmann’s story features a Candy Meadow, a Lemonade River, an Almonds and Raisins Gate cemented with sugar, and the original chocolate city, Bonbonville. Penny-candy stores, opening their doors on Main Street in the 1830s (thanks to new manufacturing technology), and mass-marketing of Santa Claus led to sugar-plum visions of the North Pole as a sucro-delic paradise.

What-if ideas about a world where everything is yummy go back to medieval poems and songs about the Land of Cockaigne, a legendary country where sinful pleasures are available every day – gluttony, sex, sloth on demand. The streets, to borrow a phrase from Encyclopedia Britannica, are “paved with pastry.”

Photo: Sperry Chalet, Glacier National Park; nationalparkstraveler.com

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Drink the Kool-Aid.

More than 900 people drank the Flavor Aid in Jonestown (Guyana) in 1978 and died, a third of them children. Flavor Aid was the usual soft drink at the commune, and it was used to mix tubs of a grape-flavored cocktail, with sedatives and cyanide, at the mass suicide.

If people now say “drink the Kool-Aid” rather than “drink the Flavor Aid,” the marketing folks at Kraft Foods have only themselves to blame. Thousands of hours of television advertising (jolly pitcher of punch bouncing in on a children’s party) prepared a generation to hear the irony in today’s intonation of “drink the Kool-Aid,” describing innocents who have been programmed to follow the party line against their own interest. As the jolly pitcher used to say, in that rumbly, let-the-good-times-roll basso: “Oh, yeah!”

By definition, metaphors are fast and loose with facts.

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House of cards by the seashore

While loading cargo on the beach at Santa Barbara, Richard Dana noticed how the crest of a breaking wave spilled along its length like a row of dominoes – except he didn’t say dominoes. The year was 1835, when the game of dominoes was only beginning to gain popularity in the US. So Dana described breaking waves like this:

their tops would curl over and turn white with foam…as a long card-house falls when the children knock down the cards at one end (Two Years Before the Mast, 1840).

Falling dominoes became a political metaphor during the Cold War, describing how unstable nations in Asia and Africa might fall one after another to Communist insurgencies. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest reference to political dominoes falling is attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower (1954).

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A beloved poem with a lot of metaphors

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding — riding — riding —

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

–Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”

(Posted on FB June 22, 2015)

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Hill of beans

[The] problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Casablanca

The expression “hill of beans” has been around since the mid-1800s, and beans have been a metaphor for near-worthlessness since the Middle Ages. (You  may remember how upset Jack’s mother was in the fairy tale: “Five beans? You sold our cow for five lousy beans?”)

In war, “hill of beans” is an appropriate image for the devaluation of individual  lives, and never more so than during World War II, when concentration camps became mass-production factories for murder.

(Posted on FB June 15, 2012)

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