– 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.
– Advertisement for a miniature hearing aid
If this is your first time reading about a contact lens for the ear, you might wonder how a device to improve hearing can be like a device to improve eyesight. Hearing and seeing are both sensory experiences but not at all alike. Seeing a cello is not the same as hearing one.
So this is a comparison that, rather than explaining, works by demanding an explanation. Certain jokes use the same trick – for example, Ben Franklin’s assertion that houseguests are like fish. (They begin to smell after three days.) Metaphors are usually meant to clarify but sometimes they mystify on purpose – so the audience will be curious and pay close attention.
Lyric hearing aids – much smaller than conventional hearing aids – are implanted inside the ear, so they are invisible to the public, like contact lenses. People judge you to be younger and more attractive.when you are not wearing bulky apparatuses, such as bifocal glasses or boxy earplugs.
Metaphor is a contact lens for your mind.
– 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.
– The Times (London), May 20, 1972
Before the metaphorical hiccup came along in the mid-1960s, writing about hiccups was mainly about spelling and possible cures.
The hickop (1580), hikup (1581), and hecup (1635) must have all sounded more or less the same, as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton says the condition can be cured by a false accusation, which distracts the afflicted person from their hickehope. R. Bradley Chomel’s Dictionaire Oeconomique (1727) recommends suddenly pulling their ring finger.
Francis Bacon reports in Sylva Sylvarum (1626) that “Sneezing doth cease the Hiccough.” The hiccough spelling was a rationalization, based on the belief that inhalation and exhalation spasms were related. Philosophically and medically, the collision of a hiccup and sneeze in the windpipe is something too terrible to contemplate.
The advent of the metaphorical hiccup brought a fundamental change in concept and imagery, and much less attention to serial hiccups. The metaphorical hiccup is always a singular event, a momentary interruption that doesn’t need a cure. It’s an anomaly, a blip, a glitch, a one-off, a quirk, a freak, an outlier, nothing to worry about.
– Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
People hardly ever say “like the measles” anymore – first because this childhood ailment died out after the 1990s, thanks to vaccines, and second because it has come bounding back, thanks to fear of vaccines.
As the 1905 quotation shows, measles was once regarded as a childhood rite of passage – an unpleasant experience but not long-lasting. Measles was nothing next to other infectious diseases that were rampant in cities back then, such as whooping cough, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and the flu, which killed 50 million people in the outbreak of 1918.
Measles kills at the rate of one or two per thousand infections. For the US, that’s only a few dozen dead children per year when measles goes unchecked.
– Playgirl (1977)
The Band-Aid, invented in 1920, is a classic example of how solving one problem may create another. The quick-and-easy bandage protects a small wound against infection, but after the wound is healed the wearer must choose: peel off the adhesive flaps slowly, uprooting arm hairs one at a time, or rip away with one yank?
How do you like your pain: in a slow progression of predictable agony? Or in a flash of torment followed by dazed shock? Opinion is divided, along the same lines as in the swimming pool conundrum. Some prefer to dip a toe in the water and immerse gradually. Others dive in.
The Playgirl quote is interesting for its frank wording (hairy-arm references were rare back then) and for the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessarily an emotional wound but rather an event to be expected in a life that spans many relationships.
Photo: Ellen Limeres
– 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