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

Back to top

We had a leash of hares, which being skinned and cleaned were impaled on withers and placed at the fire to roast, where they looked like three martyrs flayed alive, and staked.

– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)

MarryatThreeMartyrs

Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental picture. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).

A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.

In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.

Back to top

…and then charging out of these flames comes this bear on fire. That was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen.

Only the Brave (2017)

The bear on fire is a sudden, spectacular movie effect. It fills the eye, and before you can think about what it might mean you’ve already understood the speed, power, and impulsiveness of fire – how it runs over anyone who stands alone in its path. Josh Brolin’s character describes the bear as “hard-charging into the darkness.” Then he adds, “I’m feelin’ a lot like that bear, Duane.”

The bear is a manifestation of the fire (spirit of the fire) but is also a creature caught in the fire, running for its life. Like a firefighter when the operational plan has gone wrong.

Two of the firefighters, the chief and the recruit, have come to their job after drug addiction, drawing a line against lives gone out of control. They have been in the kind of trouble where you can lunge to the left or the right but cannot get free. The beauty of the bear on fire is that of the tragic hero, a doomed creature struggling to the end to be free.

Back to top

But where have we an academy for teaching the polite and useful arts of killing time, spending money, living fashionably?

– “Proposal for a New University,” Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1793)

Killing time may have gotten started as an expression without an underlying image. That is, killing just meant “getting rid of” without any imagined ax falling, no bullet fired, no poison pellets sprinkled in the garden against the hateful snails of time. In the context of killing time, Time is not so much a creature as a circumstance – like winter in Siberia or a train ride across Nebraska. It is a tedious emptiness, “a vast wasteland” (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously said of television). Kids of the first TV generation used to say, “There’s nothing on.”

Religious writers in the 1800s railed against killing time. Daydreaming, card playing, and following the latest fashions were a sinful waste, they said, when you didn’t know how many days you had left in this world to seek salvation. Waste is easy to visualize: a spoiled crop, a village fallen to ruin, a treasure buried and forgotten.

Shakespeare’s Richard II makes the metaphor personal: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V.v.49).

Back to top

If you’d have looked at Batman, you’d have never thought he was a stone-cold killer.

– quoted in Larry J. Siegel/Criminology (1986)

Batman was a 14-year-old Brooklyn gang member who wore a cape. Everyone was afraid of him because he shot people without provocation, and without emotion. He was as unfeeling as the most lifeless product of nature, a stone. Behind the stone comparison is another comparison: emotional warmth is like body temperature, with both being seen as defining characteristics of humanity. “He’s a cold fish” and “cold-blooded murder” are variations showing that, when it comes to being a human being, reptilians need not apply.

Emotional warmth becomes empathy when linked to human powers of imagination, as seen in the Henry James short story “A Landscape Painter” (1866), in which Mr. Locksley bares his heart to Miss Quarterman: “You have a great deal of imagination, but you rarely exercise it on the behalf of other people.…Your crime is, that you are so stone-cold to a poor devil who loves you.” You could say the same of Batman, if you weren’t afraid being shot.

Falstaff dies by degrees in Shakespeare’s Henry V. As recalled by the Hostess, he asked for extra blankets on his bed because his feet were cold. Just making sure, the Hostess says, “I put my hand into the bed, and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so up’ard and up’ard, and all was as cold as any stone.” With a groin gone cold, it was clear the drunken, gluttonous, cowardly parasite, and paragon of human flesh, was no more.

Photo: “Falstaff on His Death Bed,” George Cruikshank (1792–1878)

Back to top

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), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

Back to top

Crossing out over the bar on a rough day bore an odd resemblance to entering a crab pot.

– Jon Humboldt Gates, “Lady Fame”/Night Crossings (1986)

Two jetties define the entrance to Humboldt Bay (Eureka, Calif.). Rough seas and occasional “sneaker” waves, cresting as high as 30 feet, have overturned fishing boats heading into or out of port, as told in the anthology Night Crossings (1986) by Jon Humboldt Gates.

A bar is a sand bank lying across the entrance to a harbor or river. The shallows around a bar can be perilous for fishing boats, especially when there is a strong coastal current. Once a boat enters the cross-current, there is no turning back. In effect, the current is like a one-way door. Crab pots also work by means of a one-way door.

It’s “odd” but understandable that crab fishermen and crabs face similar perils, both being driven by a daily need to gather food and living at the mercy of the sea. Hunters often come to a similar realization, because thinking strategically about your quarry – where he is likely to go, how he will respond to danger – is equivalent to seeing the world through his eyes. Native Americans used to offer prayers to appease the spirit of a slain animal, acknowledging that it treasured its life as much as a human does, and might want revenge.

This recognition – of how hunter and hunted are alike – comes out of a remarkable act of comparison. It has the category-busting power of metaphor but is, strictly speaking, an analogy. In an analogy, points of comparison are usually factual (or thought to be factual). In a metaphor, the resemblance is conceptual and contrary to fact – my love is a red, red rose. (See definition of analogy.)

A couple of famous quotations

Literature’s most quoted man-crab metaphor, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1920), takes an unsympathizing view of underwater bugs. For T.S. Eliot, a crab is the opposite of red-blooded manhood – obscure, furtive, pusillanimous, unpleasant to look at, and worthless except in a salad:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

“Crossing the Bar” (1889), the final poem in the collected works of Alfred Tennyson, is about the one-way passage from life to death. Tennyson envisions the soul being carried out by a tide that is beyond all particulars of time and place to an oceanic unknown:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Links
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock-56d2233846c6d 
“Crossing the Bar” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45321/crossing-the-bar

Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers/Wikimedia

Back to top

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

Back to top

Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

Back to top

We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass

– “Get Together” by Chet Powers (1964)

This line from a quintessential song of the hippie movement has a biblical ring, echoing “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6), but is quite opposite to the pessimism of the prophet. Temporary as grass may be, the lyric sees a brightness and beauty that is worth reverencing.

“Dust in the Wind” (1977) by Kansas is more biblically bleak. All we are is dust in the wind? Weather in the Midwest is nobody’s idea of a good time.

Metaphors highlighting the limitedness of life form a long (and not very varied) tradition in literature. In English, the tradition includes the Venerable Bede’s comparison of life to the random flight of a swallow through one door of a jolly mead hall and out the other. For a short while, the bird is in a place of warmth and fellowship; then back it goes to the chaos of a stormy winter night (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.13; AD 731).

Of a feather but from the other side of the world is this musing by Su Tung-p’o, written in 1061:

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?
A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.
In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,
but the swan flies away: who knows to east or west?

Translation by Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, 1994.

Photo: Karl Stull

Back to top