At night such a fire is weird and beautiful,…one sees the tongues of flame as they leap and dance…and, if the wind is high, blowing forward advance guards and pickets of sparks and flakes of burning grass.

– Norman Garstin, “In C-P-Railia,” The Art Journal (vol 54, 1892)

Fire is dazzling, dangerous, out of control at times. It’s hard to understand what fire is, compared to a substance such as water or even wind, as observed in a dust storm. Fire is visibly active, but what is it doing? Flames leap as if driven by spirits, make mad gestures like dancers in a frenzy. Flames are sometimes forked and darting, like a snake’s tongue (ancient enemy in the Bible).

In fire, Garstin sees the main body of an army crossing the prairie (domain of the Central Pacific Railroad). It hurls sparks forward, advancing at breathtaking speed. This ability to spread rapidly gave rise to “catch fire” as a marketing metaphor. In the 1960s, surfing caught fire, mini-skirts caught fire, Tiny Tim caught fire.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, catching fire gave way to “going viral.” In 2020, the year of coronavirus, we have reason to reconsider “viral” as a metaphor for success.

Illustration: “Chicago in Flames – The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge” by John R. Chapin in Harper’s Weekly (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.

– Michael Santiago Render (Killer Mike), May 30, 2020, on the torture-murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police

In ancient Rome, lions symbolized the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. The donkey seems to ask, “Does it have to be this way?” The lion, king of beasts, takes no notice of the question. Mosaic from Tunisia (AD 150–200), Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades (CA); courtesy Getty Open Content Program.

In the Roman Empire, the lion was a symbol of the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. Later, the British Empire adopted the lion as its emblem. Today, The Lion King is a Broadway show.

Where the ancients saw a comparison

lion : other animals = Romans : other peoples

Render’s metaphor draws a line that separates humans from animals. The line is empathy. Video of the nine-minute death on a Minneapolis street shows a strangely calm, animal indifference to the suffering of another. Lack of concern for whether or not a pinned prey is dead yet will be all too familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom.

The role of zebra is not easy for a man to accept, much less deliberately adopt. Nevertheless, submission is the survival tactic taught by black parents to boys coming of age. A moment of unmanning is put on a microscope slide in lyrics from “Early,” Run the Jewels 2 (2014):

Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids
And in front of my wife, man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
’Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son

Submission may or may not be enough, depending on the situation and officer. Some police come to the job with a “hunt-and-capture-prey mentality,” Render said in a Billboard op-ed in 2014. These are “thrill-seeking cops.” Their drive, in President Trump’s phrase, is to “dominate the streets.”

Reference
“Killer Mike on the Problems Underlying the Chaos in Ferguson,” Billboard (Aug 19, 2014). https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6221865/op-ed-killer-mike-on-the-problems-underlying-the-chaos-in-ferguson)

 

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

Her words and looks “were stabs of a poniard – stabs, did I say? – they were tearing with hot pincers, and scalding the raw wound with burning sulphur…”

– Walter Scott, Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

Psychological pain is often compared to torture, because most of us think psychological pain isn’t quite the same as physical pain. And it’s not. Pangs of a guilty conscience fly out the window the moment you stub your toe.

So descriptions of psychological pain often overcompensate. Stabbing is not enough to describe George Staunton’s regret and embarrassment; there must also be tearing with hot pincers. Add the after-burn of sulfur. And though these sensations are distinct and can each be described in detail, the metaphors demur. We are merely to understand Mr. Staunton was made to feel very, very uncomfortable.

Physicians nowadays routinely ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10. The scale is uncalibrated, so it might be necessary at times (post-surgery) to peg your answer to a metaphor: “My pain is an 8, like stabs of a poignard. Did I say 8? It’s more of a 9, like the tearing of hot pincers, with scalding sulfur.”

Illustration: It appears the man on the table is being waterboarded (see funnel). Torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition, engraving by B. Picart, 1722. Wellcome Library no. 43213i

…and then charging out of these flames comes this bear on fire. That was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen.

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.

…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.

A river of water cannot be altered by the man on the bank. But thought and reason and curiosity do cause the stream of consciousness to alter its course and even change its content completely.

– Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (1975)

As a neurosurgeon in the 1930s, Penfield was applying a 2-volt electrode to various sites in an epileptic patient’s brain when he discovered a problem with the stream of conscious metaphor.

The patient, who was conscious during the procedure, reported that she was re-experiencing a remembered scene in which she was looking at her young son in the yard. The memory included sensory inputs from different sources – in addition to what she saw, she also heard neighborhood sounds, such as car traffic – and it was clear from events within the memory that it was a record in which time was passing (it was not a still picture). Being both a convergence and a flow, the memory was very much like a stream or river.

However, the patient was aware at the same time that she was in an operating room and talking with a neurosurgeon. The consciousness embedded in the memory was her own, experiencing the scene as real, but some other aspect of her consciousness was like the man on the riverbank, watching it all go by, knowing it was not happening right now. The man on the bank changed the content of the river, polluting it with self-aware self-awareness.

Alternatively, there is no man on the riverbank; memories may instead be undercurrents in the overall stream of consciousness. Currents and undercurrents may interact and change the course and content of streams.

Don’t ride an emotional roller-coaster.

– 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