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)

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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/

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

Headache roameth in the desert, blowing like the wind / Flashing like lightning…

– Babylonian tablet, circa 700 BC

In Babylon, and throughout human history, people have pictured evil spirits as the cause of headaches. Even today, a lot of headache imagery supposes an external agent inflicting pain – often with tools from the carpenter’s shop:

A giant wields a rusty saw. He gloats and hums as he works, slicing through my forehead and into the mind behind it. – E. Lockhart, We Were Liars (2014)

His headache was still sitting over his right eye as if it had been nailed there. – Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955)

When the tools are not piercing or cutting, they may be squeezing or pounding:

…it is sometimes said that the “top of the head appears to open and shut,” or that someone seems to be “holding the head in a vise,” or “pushing a screw into the top of the head,” or that the head feels “as if it were swollen,” or “bursting.” – Harry Campbell, Headache and Other Morbid Cephalic Sensations (1894)

The pain is generally referred to the top of the head, and is frequently described as resembling a “ticking,” or the beating of a small hammer on the skull. – Henry Goode Wright, Headaches (1867)

The opposite of the “head in a vise” headache might be the “splitting headache,” an expression that is sometimes connected playfully to the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. In one version of the story, Zeus asks Hephaestus to crack open his forehead with an ax to relieve his Olympian headache. Novelist Mortimer Collins uses the expression less loftily in Sweet Anne Page (1868),describing a hangover:

…he awoke with a headache – a splitting headache, that seemed capable of splitting a tough planet into infinitesimal fragments.

A throbbing headache, though it keeps time with the body’s own pulse, may evoke hammering, splitting, or shattering. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says: “Lord, how my head aches!…It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces” (II.5.48-49).

When a headache is very bad, the sufferer may think of surrendering his or her head altogether. In Egyptian mythology, Horus prays for his head to be taken off and exchanged with a new one. In her 1992 memoir Woolgathering, Patti Smith recalls a pounding headache that “got into that crazy realm where the guillotine seems like a good idea.”

Rarely, headache imagery is animal rather than mechanical, and native to the mind rather than imposed by a torturer. In Erika Swyler’s “The Mermaid Girl: A Story” (2016), headache is a disturbance in the landscape inside one’s head:

Headaches were like birds. Starlings. They could be perfectly calm, then a single acorn could drop and send the entire flock to the sky.

In Excedrin commercials from the 1960s, a crusty old man compared his headaches to “two bull goats” ramming each other. He put the knuckles of his two fists together to illustrate.

Credits
Babylonian tablet translation by R. Campbell Thompson (1903), quoted in Mervyn J. Eadie, Headache through the Centuries (NY : Oxford, 2012).
Horus story from Papyrus Leiden I 348, cited in Karenberg and Leitz, “Headache in magical and medical papyri of Ancient Egypt.” http://docshare01.docshare.tips/files/29412/294122655.pdf
Goodreads.com, Quotes about Headache

Photo: H. Daumier (1833); Wellcome Library/Wikimedia

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/

There’s never just one cockroach in the kitchen…

– Warren Buffett, interview on CNBC (August 30, 2017)

Buffett was not very horrified to learn there were a lot more cockroaches in the Wells Fargo kitchen than previously thought. When auditors revealed the bank had opened $3.5 billion in fraudulent accounts, rather than the $2 billion already acknowledged, the Sage of Omaha took the view that a swarm of disquieting details was only to be expected when cleaning out a mess. Otherwise, he said, “it’s a terrific bank.”

Cockroaches bring a high “eek!” factor (despite having mostly the same anatomical features as lady bugs, crickets, fireflies, and other beloved Insecta) because of a psychological affront:

Countertops, cabinets, drawers, and utensils, which you previously thought of as clean, and exclusively your own, no longer are.

By an act of imagination, your house is transformed. Walls that kept you safe are now teeming with squirmy life forms, which could at any moment rush from under the baseboards and overrun your shoes.

In literature, various authors have used the unhuman-ness of bugs to comment on inhumanity in human beings. In Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915), Gregor Samsa wakes one morning from troubled dreams to find himself transformed into a hideous insect. Gregor’s supervisor treats him like a drone with no worth apart from the revenue he brings back to the home office. His sister and mother lose affection for Gregor, despite his best efforts to keep out of their sight and out of the way of their housekeeping. In the end, Gregor himself gives up on being human, finding he feels free scurrying up walls and comfortable hanging from the ceiling.

Photo: Gary Alpert/Wikimedia

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