This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– 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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…hunger swallows all other feelings.

– William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49 (1894)

A too-clever writer might have said “devours.” But Manly was educated on a frontier farm and had few literary pretensions.

On his way to the Gold Rush, he hired on as a wagon driver with a group that tried a southern route around the Sierra Nevada. When the wagons broke down and food ran short, the group sent Manly ahead to find help. He walked across Death Valley, over the Panamint Mountains, and across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, where he loaded up supplies and returned to the stranded wagon train. They were still alive.

Manly noticed that “something” disappears in people who are desperate for food. They have a frightened, distant, menacing way of looking at one another – as rivals, potential threats, or weaklings. The look was “devoid of affection, reason, or thought of justice.” Humanity is gone in a gulp.

In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

Photo: Karl Stull

He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

– Psalms 109:18 (New International Version)

Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:

May his days be few…
May his children be wandering beggars…
May creditors seize all he has…
May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…

This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.

The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.

Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab

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

You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

– Paul McCartney, “Two of Us” (1969)

The “Two of Us” lyric turned out to be literally true. The bullet that ended John Lennon’s life was eleven years up the road, while he and Paul looked back on a friendship that began in 1955. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they might have said, if the Grateful Dead hadn’t said it already.

The idea that a lifetime is a journey is as old as mythology. The stories of heroes – Theseus, Jesus, King Arthur – present themselves as adventures that occur during travels, revealing by stages the hero’s full power and true self. It’s interesting that life as a journey should take hold universally among humans, since most of us (historically) have lived all our lives within a few miles of where we were born. The journey is one through time rather than space and, arguably, from me-centered need to a sense of belonging in a community.

One of Paul’s worst songs, “Long and Winding Road,” pictures a meandering route of “many ways” that always returns “to your door.” The idea of losing one’s way and rediscovering the true path is a staple for sermonizers. But the journey metaphor allows for happy wandering too. In “Two of Us.” Paul recalls the best times were when he and John went “Sunday driving, not arriving.” They had fun as young criminals – mocking adults who insisted on the seriousness of life, cheerfully “spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”

Photo: Denali National Park; NPS

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I’ve got your back.

Hearing this makes you feel good, despite the underlying image: a world full of enemies lurking in alleyways, waiting to attack you from behind.

But here’s the thing: a person who stabs you in the back pretty much has to be someone you thought would have your back. Just sayin’.

(Posted on FB June 18, 2013)