All of us are trim tabs, man.

– Jeff Bridges on Real Time (October 5, 2018)

Jeff Bridges credits the trim-tab metaphor to Buckminster Fuller, who compared social reform to steering a supertanker. The rudder on a vessel that size is so large it can’t be turned by ordinary means. The engineering solution is the trim tab, a mini-rudder that steers the main rudder, which then turns the ship.

From this principle, it follows that small groups and even individuals can influence the behavior of a mass society – turning it away from traditions of racism, for example.

While supporting the hope that a few good people can bring about good on a grand scale, the metaphor includes a stern requirement, that trim tabs do their work in conjunction with a rudder. Random acts of kindness do not turn the ship; turning the rudder turns the ship.

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…we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching…

– Addie Bundren, in William Faulkner’s As I lay Dying (1930)

Spiders have gotten stuck, as it were, in their own web, as an icon for wrongful use of language. The famous quotation from Sir Walter Scott –

O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive! (Marmion, 1808)

– is terribly unfair, because spiders don’t weave. They string nets. They are fishermen of the air. It’s an honest living, sort of – no worse than netting fish in the sea.

In The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift demeans the Spider for work that is drawn from within, in contrast to the sweet constructions of the Bee, who gathers material from flowers throughout Nature. What’s within the Spider? Digested flies – yech!

Even Charlotte, the most beloved literary spider (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, 1952), must own up to using words for PR purposes. If one were to compile a list of 100 truthful words to describe Wilbur the pig, not one of them would be RADIANT.

Words are spider silk, according to Addie Bundren. Words form an invisible “shape” that can trap and hold others, so they cannot escape and do what they want to do. The shape is tenuous, only as real as the sound of the uttered words, yet sticky. Love is the biggest word-shape of all, keeping family members dangling separately but together from a beam.

Postscript: Spiders don’t typically hang together in a line. As I Lay Dying is full of improbable metaphors, some of them hilarious. Addie’s son Vardaman says, “My mother is a fish” (realizing that death is like a carp coated in dust). His brother Darl says of yet another brother, “Jewel’s mother is a horse” (recognizing that Jewel gave up his freedom for his mother’s sake). This novel is a northern Mississippi restatement of the truism at the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The wall has become a metaphor for border security.

– Senator Lindsay Graham, CBS News video at the White House (December 30, 2018)

Many people, especially in Congress, were unsure about how literally to take President Trump’s vision of a “big, beautiful wall.” Confusion of this kind is addressed in Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver visits Lagado. In that city, he meets innovative thinkers at work on language reform. Their idea is that words only get in the way of communication.

…since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on (III.5).

Want to talk about french fries? You pull some french fries out of your backpack and show them to your interlocutor. If you are talking about a wall…

if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in proportion to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him.

The system works best when people do their conversing at home, where the parlor “is full of all things ready at hand.”

Gulliver remarks that a thing-based language has the advantage of being universal. No need for translators, because there can be no uncertainty about what the other fellow has in mind.

Most people call it razor wire.…The US military prefers a less menacing name: concertina wire.

– Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Communities on Border Seek to Lose Barbed Wire,” LA Times (March 24, 2019)

In fairness, the military has been calling it concertina wire since World War I – not for euphony but because a flat coil of wire stretches to a great length, like unfolding bellows of an accordion. In those days, barbed wire was sometimes compared to a prickly vine, such as blackberry. One of the major manufacturers was the Thorn Wire Hedge Company.

H. G. Wells called it “an ugly and vicious plant that trailed insidiously among its fellows” (The Wonderful Visit, 1895). In another Wells novel, a Mr. Benshaw uses barbed wire to discourage country walkers from taking shortcuts across his property. “But it was not a very satisfactory sort of barbed wire. He wanted barbed wire with extra spurs, like a fighting cock; he wanted barbed wire that would start out after nightfall and attack passers-by” (Bealby: A Holiday, 1915). Sixty years later came razor wire, designed to lacerate like a knife rather than puncture like a thorn.

There is an unforgettable image of barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). A French soldier, killed by nonstop machine-gun fire, falls into a “cradle” of wire: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

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)

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