Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

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.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012),

Photo: Il Libraio


In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

Photo: Karl Stull

Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia

Slippery slope

Ought we not to try and stop them if we can, and get them off the slippery slope to the safe, level ground of abstinence?

The Adviser: A Book for Young People (1862)

The slippery slope was a favorite metaphor of the temperance movement in the 1800s. By the end of that century, the image of an unstoppable slide to perdition had made its way into politics, with advocates of free trade warning that one tariff would lead to another and another and then over the cliff to the economic rocks. In the years before World War I, a few voices in Parliament decried Britain’s stumbling on a slippery slope to international catastrophe.

After Prohibition, anti-alcohol rhetoric fell out of favor, but the slippery slope got a shot in the arm as society turned to the menace of non-bourgeois drugs: marijuana, amphetamines, heroin. The oft-told tale of descent into the underworld of addiction always began with: “The first one [first step] is free.” Over time, attitudes toward marijuana began to soften, but a new metaphor arrived in 1981 to re-emphasize the importance of the first step and the inevitability of further steps: marijuana became a “gateway” drug.

Photo: Devil’s Toboggan Slide (1887);

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You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

– Paul McCartney, “Two of Us” (1969)

The “Two of Us” lyric turned out to be literally true. The bullet that ended John Lennon’s life was eleven years up the road, while he and Paul looked back on a friendship that began in 1955. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they might have said, if the Grateful Dead hadn’t said it already.

The idea that a lifetime is a journey is as old as mythology. The stories of heroes – Theseus, Jesus, King Arthur – present themselves as adventures that occur during travels, revealing by stages the hero’s full power and true self. It’s interesting that life as a journey should take hold universally among humans, since most of us (historically) have lived all our lives within a few miles of where we were born. The journey is one through time rather than space and, arguably, from me-centered need to a sense of belonging in a community.

One of Paul’s worst songs, “Long and Winding Road,” pictures a meandering route of “many ways” that always returns “to your door.” The idea of losing one’s way and rediscovering the true path is a staple for sermonizers. But the journey metaphor allows for happy wandering too. In “Two of Us.” Paul recalls the best times were when he and John went “Sunday driving, not arriving.” They had fun as young criminals – mocking adults who insisted on the seriousness of life, cheerfully “spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”

Photo: Denali National Park; NPS

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“Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.

— Chuck McGill, character on Better Call Saul (season 1, episode “Pimento”)

Respected, principled, meticulous, Chuck McGill is the opposite of his brother Jimmy, who earned the nickname “Slippin’ Jimmy” by finding an easy way around every rule. For Chuck, the law is sacred. When Jimmy of all people passes the bar, it’s a catastrophe for the profession.

Like a bull in a china shop. Like a fox guarding the henhouse. Like a loose cannon on the rolling deck of a wooden ship.

These “recipe for disaster” figures of speech are fun to play with. Like a dessert cart in a diabetes ward. Like a tree huggers’ convention in Cactus Gulch. Like…


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Insomniac’s view of sleep

Macbeth does murder sleep — the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Macbeth II.ii.36-40

That’s a pillowcase-ful of metaphors for sleep. Sleep = innocent child, doting seamstress, daily death, nice warm soak in a tub, topical medicine for an owee, another entree after a big dinner, and — in a variation — the very food of waking life.

P.S. Mending the ragged cuff of your sleeve – there’s an image telling us that people of Shakespeare’s time experienced their everyday lives as we do, feeling the wear and tear of constant little worries.

(Posted on FB June 8, 2015)