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)

 

But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.

– Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (1990)

If it’s like a tsunami, then justice is rare, an exceptional event. It comes after a sudden, earthquake-like downfall of tyranny – as in the French Revolution or the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Wrongs of the past are swept away all at once. Or that is the hope.

To make hope and history rhyme – so that a dream of justice becomes historical fact – there has to be a huge accumulation of pain and anger. Nothing less will move an ocean of inertia. And the wave, once it rises, must reach the shore. Most uprisings sink back into the sea.

In early 2011, known for a while as the Arab Spring, a wave swept across North Africa. It began with the despair of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in Tunis who set himself on fire in protest after callous persecution by a petty official. His story spread fast, stirring sympathy and outrage. People massed in public squares; governments fell. In Tunisia at least, a working democracy emerged and held on. Everywhere else, there was only wreckage and retaliation – still going on in Syria.

A tsunami leaves a terrible mess behind. There is no wiping the slate clean.

Progress, if not justice, is possible, and it may seem to come out of the blue. Harry Truman integrated the US military in 1948 with the stroke of a pen (Executive Order 9981). Oprah Winfrey won instant acceptance in American homes when her show premiered in 1986 – not as a picture-perfect “Julia” or one of the comical “Jeffersons” but as herself, talking about matters great and small that she personally cared about and that her audience of mostly white women also cared about. Barack Obama won presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, as if the country’s need for a wise leader were the only issue that mattered.

Postscript: A wave of protest against racial injustice swept across America in May-June 2020, after the torture-murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It remains to be seen whether history written in the next few months will at last fulfill the long-held hopes of millions of oppressed Americans – so that hope and history rhyme.

Photo: Trail up from the beach at Patrick’s Point State Park (California); Karl Stull

Like a fickle paramour, El Niño is visiting California again – but the weather pattern is weak this year and its relationship with the state is tenuous, experts say.

– Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, “Weakened El Niño returns to state,” LA Times (February 16, 2019)

California is like a woman with a secret lover. When El Niño is with her, the weather is warmer, and we can expect more rain than usual. When he is away, she doesn’t know for how long.

Poets have long associated the heat of passion with tumultuous weather. Shakespeare says of Cleopatra’s sighs and tears: “they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” (Antony and Cleopatra, I.2.149–150).

In mythology, the Sumerian goddess of grain Ninlil was made pregnant by the wind god Enlil, who sneaked up on her when she was bathing. Similarly in Greek mythology, the north wind Boreas and west wind Zephyrus swept their brides off their feet. The princess Danae, imprisoned like Rapunzel, was impregnated by a golden rain – Zeus swimming in through the security.

El Niño is fickle, and California did not feel the full warmth of his embrace in 2019. There is nothing more changeable than love, except the weather.

Painting: Francisco Goya, The Maja with Clothes On (1798–1805), via Wikipedia. The image has been flipped horizontally for comparison. Map: Adapted from a teacher resource at csun.edu

Okay, I think we took that subway one stop too far.

– Bill Maher, Real Time (May 3, 2019)

Maher was talking to Moby, who had just made the point that the third-largest contributor to global climate change is animal agriculture. Not addressing animal agriculture, Moby said, was like worrying about lung cancer and not addressing tobacco. This won warm applause.

On a roll, Moby went on. He didn’t like human beings very much (being a pro-animals activist), so maybe it would be just as well to ignore climate change and “you all keep eating beef and bacon until you die.” Everyone understood “you” was being used in the most general sense, but the second-person pronoun sounds personal, and the audience felt…thrown off the Moby train. The silence was like a tunnel with no light at the end.

Maher put the show back on track with his reference to subsurface transportation. In some ways, a lively conversation is very much like an unfamiliar route on a subway. You have a destination in mind but can’t see what’s ahead. Which is why not getting off the conversational train at the right moment is a mistake that everyone with the power of speech has made.

An unlively conversation, too, is like a ride on the subway – on a line that is all too familiar, rolling on rails to the same dreary platforms. As conversational commuters, we must mind the gap.

Most people call it razor wire.…The US military prefers a less menacing name: concertina wire.

– Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Communities on Border Seek to Lose Barbed Wire,” LA Times (March 24, 2019)

In fairness, the military has been calling it concertina wire since World War I – not for euphony but because a flat coil of wire stretches to a great length, like unfolding bellows of an accordion. In those days, barbed wire was sometimes compared to a prickly vine, such as blackberry. One of the major manufacturers was the Thorn Wire Hedge Company.

H. G. Wells called it “an ugly and vicious plant that trailed insidiously among its fellows” (The Wonderful Visit, 1895). In another Wells novel, a Mr. Benshaw uses barbed wire to discourage country walkers from taking shortcuts across his property. “But it was not a very satisfactory sort of barbed wire. He wanted barbed wire with extra spurs, like a fighting cock; he wanted barbed wire that would start out after nightfall and attack passers-by” (Bealby: A Holiday, 1915). Sixty years later came razor wire, designed to lacerate like a knife rather than puncture like a thorn.

There is an unforgettable image of barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). A French soldier, killed by nonstop machine-gun fire, falls into a “cradle” of wire: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

…time, the destroyer, has begun to pile up rubble. Sharp edges have been blunted, and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without a trace.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Memory is like geology for Levi-Strauss, or at least the part of geology that tears down the forms that it built up before. You could call it deconstruction.

This is the perspective of age looking back, aware that continents and monuments have slipped and slid, some sunk out of sight forever. This is not the perspective of forward-looking youth, when the whole world is new and yet to reach its height.

The peak that stands out in memory is a least-likely survivor, grinning idiotically after all others have been worn down to nothing. You strain to remember the face of a loved one and yet can recite every word of the song from Mr. Ed.

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta

Mountains are the bones of the earth…

– John Ruskin, The True and the Beautiful in Nature (1843)

The bones of the earth are covered by thick layers of soil, which are like skin and muscle. When human bones and muscle move, you see outer surfaces of the body – shoulders, torso, thighs – bulge in some places and form hollows in others, like hills and valleys. Ruskin wants you to look at a landscape the way an artist looks at a living model, a subject “full of expression, passion, strength.”

Ruskin then notes: “But there is this difference between the action of the earth, and that of the living creature, that while the exerted limb marks its bones and tendons through the flesh, the excited earth casts off the flesh altogether, and its bones come out from beneath.”

In other words, the stony peaks and crags that inspire feelings of grandeur in alpine tourists may be seen as horrendous jutting injuries. As Maria might have sung it with the von Trapps, “The hills are alive with the screams of landforms.”

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)