As viewed by physicists, a solid “consists of a pattern of atoms repeated over and over again…like a large hotel with floor upon floor of identical rooms, identically furnished.”

– Alan Holden and Phylis Singer, Crystals and Crystal Growing (1960)

Waldorf_Astoria_1899Wikipedia

Waldorf-Astoria, 1899, via Wikipedia

This passage asks you to visualize something no human has ever seen – the atomic structure of a molecule – in terms of something invented by humans: a skyscraper. As a description, it would be wholly self-referential, and useless as a unicorn, if the imagined hotel did not connect in some way with real solids in the observable world.

Happily, the image agrees with results from scientific experiments. Materials that physicists classify as solids test positive for hotel-ish qualities: uniformity of material, repetitious structure, and interlocking connections. Experiments would yield very different results if it turned out solids were really more like a loose pile of clothes in a hamper than like the Waldorf-Astoria.

In most ways, admittedly, the hotel comparison is bogus. Atoms are subject to vibrations and attracting forces that would make a hotel uninhabitable. But this is how metaphor works: by describing a thing as if it were something else, which it is not. This is what poets mean when they say they tell “lies” to reveal a truth. This is what fiction is. We imagine what the eye literally cannot see, and sometimes there is truth in it.

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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.

Pope calls for concrete steps to stop abuse.

LA Times headline (February 22, 2019)

The steps metaphor – deriving from the path/journey/travel metaphor – is so well-worn the headline writer isn’t aware of its imagery and doesn’t consider that most papally commissioned steps are made of marble, not concrete. Or that there is a paradox in taking steps to stop.

Oddly, the word in the headline that is most loaded with meanings is the one devoid of imagery. Abuse in today’s English refers not only to pedophilia and other sex crimes but also to drug or alcohol addiction, wife beating, and name calling. Having such a wide range of meanings is only possible because the word abuse refers but does not describe. You don’t see betrayal, violation, or deceit – as in back-stabber, for example.

The word abuse is transparent. Or maybe it’s opaque.

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

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.

And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.

Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.

Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”

Soak the soil well, like a thunderstorm would.

– Care instructions for a potted cactus

It’s strange how we live with plants yet have so little understanding of what they want. We use metaphors to visualize what we cannot see, what’s happening with them beneath the surface.

The “water like a thunderstorm” principle has two compelling components: 1) easy to do, and 2) endorsed by Mother Nature. But we should keep in mind that Mother Nature is usually not a nurturing parent. Ninety-five percent of species under her care have gone extinct. If one of her babies can’t make a go of it, her strategy is to produce a lot more babies. Or, if conditions are too harsh, she may give up and allow an environment to become a desert.

In contrast, members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America are helicopter parents, hovering over their little ones. They advise against watering like a thunderstorm, because over-watering may “drown” the roots. This imagery helps us conceptualize the needs of plants as similar to our own: humans need water every day and air every minute. But there must be something not quite right about the “drowning roots” metaphor. Ask a hydroponic tomato.

Photo: Hydroponic onions, NASA/Wikipedia