…the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room.

– Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)

Nothing beats a waiting room for banal. From body language, it’s clear people feel their lives are on hold, their emotions sidelined to boredom and irritability. Young passengers feel excitement (or fear) about the adventure of travel aboard a roaring, whistling monstrosity. The grownups are just waiting for their lives to resume.

In Camus’ metaphor, the city of Oran (Algeria) comes to resemble a waiting room, with people’s lives on hold, because of bubonic plague. There is an uproar when the plague first arrives, but the city adjusts resentfully to a new normal: restrictions, shortages, losses of loved ones, a “for the duration” feeling in relationships, difficulty finding anything meaningful to do. Another name for this waiting-room state of mind is despair: I’m stuck. Nothing to be done. Is there anything on TV?

The plague of despair is endemic in the everyday life of a wage-earner/consumer society: symptoms are detachment, helplessness, paranoia, self-absorption. Voting against rather than for. Having no serious work to do. Wearing ear buds while waiting for real life to happen.

Photo: Railway waiting room at Kazan, Russia (500 miles east of Moscow); Adam Jones via Wikimedia

Like trying to drink water from a fire hose

– D. E. Rogers, “Some Musings on Medical Education” (1982)

Too much, too fast: the water is liquid but might as well be solid. It is undrinkable.

Water in a less energetic state represents knowledge in Norse mythology when Odin drinks from Mimir’s well. In British history, the scholar-king James I was said “to drink indeed of the true Fountain of Learning” (Wm Sanderson, Compleat History…, 1656).

Many teachers have noted that knowledge-water can’t just be poured in:

It would be wonderful if our guardian angel could open a sort of trap-door in our head and pour in even a small part of the knowledge…
The Liguorian magazine (1951)

The strangest of all knowledge-drinking metaphors was developed by Robert Browning in Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), based on an ancient Greek party game called kottabos. In Browning’s kottabos, you are inside a rolling ball that has two holes: one hole is called High and Right and the other Low and Wrong. Wine dribbles in through the holes as the ball turns, and if you position yourself to drink only from High and Right, then you are like Euripides. If you drink regardless of where the wine comes from, you are like Aristophanes and can:

…drink knowledge, wine-drenched every turn,
Equally favored by their opposites.
Little and Bad exist, are natural:
Then let me know them, and be twice as great
As he who only knows one phase of life!

Ordinary kottabos is simpler, requiring only that you toss your almost-empty goblet across the room at a target that does ding!

Image: Young man playing kottabos. Red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, via Wikipedia

I want a new drug, one that won’t spill, / One that don’t cost too much / Or come in a pill.

– Huey Lewis, “I Want a New Drug” (1984)

From the long list of effects Huey does not want, it’s clear he doesn’t actually want a drug. What he wants is to “feel like I feel when I’m with you.” So this is a love song, an upside-down update of a Shakespearean sonnet. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Naw, that’s been done. Shall I compare thee to feel-good drugs (of which I have no personal knowledge but have heard about from others)?

Love is often compared to a temporary madness – as if it were caused by a psychotropic drug. That is the satire enacted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when a few herbal eyedrops make Titania infatuated with a village idiot – and not just any village idiot but a village idiot with a donkey head.

In “Love Potion # 9” (The Clovers, 1959), a folk-pharmacologist mixes an elixir that smells like turpentine, looks like india ink, and produces cognitive and emotional disturbances:

I didn’t know if it was day or night.
I started kissing everything in sight.

Technical note: In the Huey Lewis song, “drug” is understood to be a metaphor only because of a simile (“like I feel when I’m with you”). It’s a curious combo: a metaphorical charge with a simile igniter.

Illustration: Library of Congress

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

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

I would single out / For you the choicest brides, from Athens, Sparta, Thebes, / That such alliances, like stout stern-cables to a ship, / Might keep you safe and prosperous.

– Euripides’ Heracles, translated by Philip Vellacott (1963)

Arranged marriages are parental tyranny, or so we’ve been led to believe. When children come of age, they should be free to marry for love and make their own way in the world. At least, that is how we’ve seen it in the movies.

In an era when children are staying home after college, and a quarter of today’s jobs may be gone in ten years, it makes sense to re-think parents’ responsibilities for getting their children set up in life.

In Euripides’ metaphor, spoken tenderly by a grieving mother, the purpose of an arranged marriage is to establish inter-family connections for a little ship that is setting out to sea. Well-chosen in-laws can offer the financial backing any ship will need for new ventures and repairs along the way, and also protection against social storms and pirates. In this traditional view – and perhaps it should be our view too – arranging a good marriage is as fundamental to child care as mother’s milk.

Illustration: Romeo and Juliet arranged their own marriage, and look where it got them. H.C. Selous via shakespeareillustration.org

Like a fickle paramour, El Niño is visiting California again – but the weather pattern is weak this year and its relationship with the state is tenuous, experts say.

– Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, “Weakened El Niño returns to state,” LA Times (February 16, 2019)

California is like a woman with a secret lover. When El Niño is with her, the weather is warmer, and we can expect more rain than usual. When he is away, she doesn’t know for how long.

Poets have long associated the heat of passion with tumultuous weather. Shakespeare says of Cleopatra’s sighs and tears: “they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” (Antony and Cleopatra, I.2.149–150).

In mythology, the Sumerian goddess of grain Ninlil was made pregnant by the wind god Enlil, who sneaked up on her when she was bathing. Similarly in Greek mythology, the north wind Boreas and west wind Zephyrus swept their brides off their feet. The princess Danae, imprisoned like Rapunzel, was impregnated by a golden rain – Zeus swimming in through the security.

El Niño is fickle, and California did not feel the full warmth of his embrace in 2019. There is nothing more changeable than love, except the weather.

Painting: Francisco Goya, The Maja with Clothes On (1798–1805), via Wikipedia. The image has been flipped horizontally for comparison. Map: Adapted from a teacher resource at csun.edu

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

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

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