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/

Advertisements

He’s going mad cooped up here, like a wasp inside a beer glass.

– A gangster in Peaky Blinders (S4, E4)

Lying low during a gang war, Tommy Shelby grows restless and frustrated. He is indeed a dangerous, inhuman being, held in by circumstances that are invisible and toxic.

Yet the metaphor’s impact comes not from its applicability to Shelby but from the fact that you – in a lifetime of summer afternoons – have seen a bug trapped in some similar way and you have given a moment’s thought to the vast incomprehensibility of the universe. You ask, “What does an insect know about glassmaking or brewing or the chemistry of his own body, succumbing to fumes that are no part of the life he was designed to live?”

In asking such questions, you come to the core of Greek tragedy: we think we know what our existence is all about, but we have no better idea than a wasp in a beer glass. As Sophocles says in Antigone, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make opinionated.”

Photo: Classics Dept/University of Reading post on Archaeology & Arts /https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2017/01/20/greek-tragedy-small-screen/

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

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

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

Up the ladder

As he has followed the siren song of his shiny modern gadgets of food preparation up the ladder of ease, man has lost something. – Marshal South, primitivist, Desert Refuge magazine (July 1942)

For Marshal South, the ladder of convenience is a slippery slope in reverse. We go up instead of down, but still fail to see the unhappy consequences of taking that first step. Upgrading from a fireplace to an electric stove, we celebrate not having to collect fuel each day, and little notice how we’ve lost the scents and flavors that come from local wood.

The slippery slope is a naturalistic metaphor, using gravity to explain why we keep taking the next steps. On South’s ladder, we ascend because of evil singing mermaids.

The idea of a ladder as a fast track to ruin is built into the military sense of escalation ­– as a series of steps that turn a minor conflict into all-out war. We escalate because the alternative to going up is backing down.

Photo: Bandelier National Monument by Daniel Mayer; Wikimedia

Back to top

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); albertapolitics.ca

Back to top