– 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.
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– Jackson Gregory, “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch” (1917)
In fact, Judith “winged” Trevor a couple of times: in the right arm with her first shot; after the second, his “left arm hung limp like the other.” The obstreperous Trevor was escorted off the ranch, and Judith went on with her breakfast.
It’s hard to imagine a gunshot wound being so lightly dismissed, even if it was to a mere “wing.” For a bird, a limp wing would amount to a death sentence. For a cowboy, in the days before doctors washed their hands and gave antibiotics, an infection could mean the same thing.
Yet the first OED example for “wing” in this sense is from a comedy, The Poor Gentleman (1802), by George Colman, in which the cantankerous Sir Charles complains about greenhorn hunters hitting everything but what they aim at: “What are the odds now, that he doesn’t wing me?”
Illustration: W. Herbert Dunton for “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch,” Everybody’s Magazine (vol. 37, 1917)
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– 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.
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– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)
As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.
Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.
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– Esther Eberstadt Brooke, You and Your Personality: A Guide to Effective Living (1949)
There is no option to get off a roller coaster before the ride is over. So a decision not to ride has to be made in advance. Brooke urges readers to stay on an “even keel” – apparently unaware that even ocean liners must climb and plunge with every wave in a storm.
On an emotional roller coaster, the feel-good part comes first, then the steep fall. On a real roller coaster, the thrill of not having died afterall comes at the end. The beginning is when, during the slow-cranking period of ascent, you experience dread and regret and ask: “How did I let myself get talked into this?” Thus, the real roller coaster brings complexities of human psychology to light: our thirst for intense experience, the way we use extraordinary experiences (e.g., initiation rites) to bond with others, or set ourselves apart. The metaphorical roller coaster seems never to mean anything more than going up and down compulsively – like a yo-yo, as Allan Sherman observed in A Gift of Laughter (1965).
Stoics have said for centuries we should avoid extremes, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that medicine recognized the causal link between emotional highs and lows: what goes up must come down. In 1854, Jules Baillarger identified a mental illness he called “folie à double” (a madness in two parts), which we now call bipolar disorder. Independently, in the same year, Jean-Pierre Falret proposed a similar new diagnosis, “folie circulaire.”
Photo: Canobielakepark at English Wikipedia
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– 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
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To be keyed up is to be in a state of tension, like the strings of a musical instrument. If you ever tuned a guitar, you’ll recall the squinting sense of dread beginners feel as they crank the high E string, one excruciating quarter-turn at a time, expecting the wire to snap any moment and whip out an eye. The tuner, like the string, is under a formidable strain.
Americans began using “keyed up” in this psychological sense around 1885, probably with a wind-up toy or music box in mind. Musical-mechanical associations with “key” go back to the 1600s, when a key was a wrench for tightening harpsichord strings (or a similar device for winding a clock). The musical scales sense of key – as in the key of G – is from the 1400s, according to the OED. The oldest references to keys on the keyboard of an organ are from the 1500s.
Another tensioning image from music – “tight as a drum” – evokes no anxiety. It means supremely secure in all directions, with no possibility of a rumple. Things that are sealed off perfectly are tight as a drum.
Photo: Lute Player (1620) by Theodore Rombouts; Philadelphia Museum of Art
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