…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.

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The contact lens for your ear.

– 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.

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.

[I]nvolving yourself in the life of a great liar…is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool.

– WALTER KIRN, Blood Will Out (2014)

Behold Kirn’s triple metaphor – with three uncanny images in series. The notion of motion (falling through space) holds the images together. On the way down, the mirror reminds us of the backwards world of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There. Past the pane, a whirlpool swirls reality in yet another way – an aquatically plausible/psychologically inevitable end to a long, dangerous dive.

Triple metaphors are rare, and seldom elegant. Here is an example uttered by yours truly in the heat of discussion in January 2017:

We’re trying to unravel this puzzle with the wrong tools.

Next level: Is a quadruple metaphor possible in real-world English? Considering the swan in “swan dive” as an embedded metaphor, you could credit Kirn with a quad.

Photo: R.M. Stigersand at the 1948 Olympic Games, National Media Museum (UK) via Wikipedia

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Argument is war.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

It often feels like war, with two sides attacking each other’s positions, using facts as ammunition, blowing holes in the other’s logic, giving ground when it’s strategic to do so. (But never admitting defeat.)

Lakoff and Johnson identify several core metaphors like “Argument is war” and list dozens of allied figures of speech – to illustrate how our understanding of the world may be shaped by the imagery in everyday language. Figures of speech prepare us to think in terms such as:

  • Ideas are food (food for thought, hard to swallow, etc.)
  • Love is madness
  • Time is a moving object
  • Big = important
  • Up = good

In a nutshell, their thesis is that language resorts to imagery when a topic can’t be examined directly or defined in concrete terms. We may not understand the stock market, but we can picture going up toward heaven as good.

These influential metaphors are “dead metaphors” (in George Orwell’s phrase), because we are usually not conscious of their imagery when we use worn-out expressions. It might be better to call them undead metaphors (zombie metaphors!), still walking around with their teeth sunk into our brains.

Illustration: Lady Macbeth and husband have a “spirited discussion” about the proper placement of knives; National Education Network (UK), http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset58044_75-.html

 

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Gardening metaphors

Wallflowers, such as Erysimum cheiri, have been planted in European gardens since the 16th century but are typically seen clinging to a stone wall or cliff. When people started using “wallflower” to mean a woman who stayed on the sidelines at a dance (1820), they were making a pretty metaphor, a gardener’s metaphor. When non-gardeners picked up the term, so to speak, never having seen a wallflower, the expression lived on but the metaphor died.

(Since a metaphor cannot in fact die, the term “dead metaphor” must be … er, a meta-mortaphor.)

“Urban blight” is another gardening metaphor that has turned into mulch. The head of a Detroit economic task force recently told the press: “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” Blight is a botanical disease with dracula-like tendencies. (New York Times May 27, 2014)

(Posted on FB June 29, 2014)

Pretty as a picture

As Professor Marvin Mudrick (UCSB) once remarked, it is strange that we say: “She’s pretty as a picture.” Shouldn’t the picture be as pretty as the girl?

Not if you’re a follower of Plato. He said all beautiful things in this world are imperfect copies of an ideal. The ideal is universal and eternal. The ideal beautiful girl, for example, has large, wide-set eyes…

Oops. The links I planned to use for imagery are not displaying as expected. So google them for yourself: Disney’s Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle, illustrating that the ideal beautiful girl has wide-set eyes, a vaguely defined nose, and a pointy chin to complete an egg-shaped face.

(Posted on FB June 23, 2014)