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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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

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/

The conduit metaphor

People turn to the conduit metaphor in 70 percent of all discussions about how we communicate through language, according to linguist Michael Reddy. The conduit metaphor has four parts:

  • Communication = sending
  • Words = container that is sent
  • Intended meaning = thing put in the container
  • Received meaning = thing extracted by the listener or reader

The “gap” across which words are sent is important – the difference between the minds of the sender and receiver. The gap is the source of all misunderstandings and a lot of pain. It’s also where deception, creativity, and 88.5% of jokes come from.

If we lived in a world where sentences were not “containers” for ideas, we would certainly spend less time looking for hidden meanings in song lyrics. If communications were not so much “sent” as emitted, like pheromones (or even excreted, like spider silk), we might not take everything so personally.

Sci-fi movies about first contact help us consider alternatives to the conduit metaphor. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien shows up speaking perfect proclamatory English, but in Close Encounters of the Third Kind there is a shared-knowing style of communication. The invited see an image of a mountain and discover wordlessly where to go. The musical sequence D-E-C-low C-G is the DNA for understanding everything. Arrival offers another unmechanistic view, owing a debt to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, in which Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time.”

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Darmok,” 1991) features aliens whose language utterly befuddles the universal translator – because their vocabulary is based on metaphors.

Illustration: Garth Williams, from Charlotte’s Web; flavorwire.com

Reference

Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at http://www.reddyworks.com/reddy-writes/research/the-conduit-metaphor/132-orginal-1979-conduit-metaphor-article?showall=.

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[The soul] is no more than a pine nut in hot white bread.

– Luigi Pulci, satiric poet (d. 1484)

Give Pulci credit: the brain is more like a loaf of bread than it is like a machine or computer; at least bread involves biochemistry. But the soul as a pine nut seems a bit of a stretch. Or does it?

Pulci doesn’t try to explain what the soul is or how it works. He says only that the soul is a physical thing, like the loaf-shaped organ it is lodged in. If the brain can manage such intangibles as seeing and smelling, imagining, and remembering, then there is every reason to suppose that the soul too is a natural, physical object. There is no need to suppose the soul is a “ghost in the machine” (a phrase coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949).

Medieval medicine described three major areas of the brain (sense perception, imagination, and memory), and these functions were thought to be coordinated by central structures such as the pineal gland – named for its resemblance to a pine cone.

Image: Adaptation by Karl Stull of a portrait of Luigi Pulci, from a Filippino Lippi fresco at Cappella Brancacci, Florence; Wikipedia

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Well, that’s brothers for you: they always know which buttons to press.

– Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Spectre (2015)

Revealing to James Bond that they are long-lost brothers, Blofeld is rueful (“I’ve really put you through a lot, haven’t I?”) and uses a metaphor suggesting that the people who are closest to you – and best able to understand your humanity – are the very ones who can make you respond like a machine.

As if you were an emotional elevator to be sent up or down on command. Or an Osterizer with settings for SHAME, JEALOUSY, VANITY, FEAR, and FRENZY. Or a jukebox, playing a certain song every time somebody pushes B-4 or U-1.

The idea that humans are like machines took hold in the 1600s, after Hieronymus Fabricius discovered there are valves in veins and William Harvey showed that the heart – fountain of courage and love! – is a pump. In everyday metaphors, we speak of eating as refueling, of having a drink as oiling the machinery. People refer to the heart as a ticker or the lungs as bellows.

But we seem to use mechanical metaphors even more often when talking about our mental and emotional workings. People run out of gas, have breakdowns. They blow a fuse or gasket when under too much pressure, which builds when feelings are bottled up with no safety valve. People are subject to stress, like metal parts, and sometimes they snap. On the bright side, when people like each other, they click.

Photo: Scene from R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) by Karel Capek; Wikipedia

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