Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

Advertisements

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

Crossing out over the bar on a rough day bore an odd resemblance to entering a crab pot.

– Jon Humboldt Gates, “Lady Fame”/Night Crossings (1986)

Two jetties define the entrance to Humboldt Bay (Eureka, Calif.). Rough seas and occasional “sneaker” waves, cresting as high as 30 feet, have overturned fishing boats heading into or out of port, as told in the anthology Night Crossings (1986) by Jon Humboldt Gates.

A bar is a sand bank lying across the entrance to a harbor or river. The shallows around a bar can be perilous for fishing boats, especially when there is a strong coastal current. Once a boat enters the cross-current, there is no turning back. In effect, the current is like a one-way door. Crab pots also work by means of a one-way door.

It’s “odd” but understandable that crab fishermen and crabs face similar perils, both being driven by a daily need to gather food and living at the mercy of the sea. Hunters often come to a similar realization, because thinking strategically about your quarry – where he is likely to go, how he will respond to danger – is equivalent to seeing the world through his eyes. Native Americans used to offer prayers to appease the spirit of a slain animal, acknowledging that it treasured its life as much as a human does, and might want revenge.

This recognition – of how hunter and hunted are alike – comes out of a remarkable act of comparison. It has the category-busting power of metaphor but is, strictly speaking, an analogy. In an analogy, points of comparison are usually factual (or thought to be factual). In a metaphor , the resemblance is conceptual and contrary to fact – my love is a red, red rose. (See definition of analogy.)

A couple of famous quotations

Literature’s most quoted man-crab metaphor, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1920), takes an unsympathizing view of underwater bugs. For T.S. Eliot, a crab is the opposite of red-blooded manhood – obscure, furtive, pusillanimous, unpleasant to look at, and worthless except in a salad:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

“Crossing the Bar” (1889), the final poem in the collected works of Alfred Tennyson, is about the one-way passage from life to death. Tennyson envisions the soul being carried out by a tide that is beyond all particulars of time and place to an oceanic unknown:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Links
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock-56d2233846c6d 
“Crossing the Bar” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45321/crossing-the-bar

Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers/Wikimedia

Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

In the weeds

In metaphorical botany, there are two types of weeds: chokers and cloakers.

Chokers are a menace to plants in the garden. In “The Last Thing on My Mind” (1964), Tom Paxton admits “weeds have been steadily growin’,” meaning other, less beautiful concerns have overwhelmed love’s flowers. The Reverend S. T. Sturtevant (The Preacher’s Manual, 1834) has the same fear when he warns Christians about being in the weeds, “the mixed state of society.”

Cloakers are a menace to the gardener or any unwary walker. These weeds provide concealment for a low-lying attacker (aka snake in the grass). In Warzon v. Drew, a Wisconsin case from 1994, one argument holds that litigants “should not be encouraged to lie in the weeds,” waiting for prices to go up. In The Art of Angling, Rock and Sea-Fishing (1766), Richard Brookes celebrates sundry species that lurk and pounce:

The lurking Water-Rat in Caverns preys,
And in the Weeds the wily Otter slays;
The ghastly Newt in muddy Streams annoys.
And in swift Floods the felly Snake destroys…

In recent use, “in the weeds” has come to mean “in the thick of things” – as if in a dense, jungly overgrowth – without the connotation of sinister intent. Even so, it is well to remember Hamlet’s admonition to his mother: “do not spread compost on the weeds” (III.iv.152).

Photo: Karl Stull

Your body is a battleground.

Gulliver is a metaphor for France (a great nation tied down by petty factions) in this 1830 cartoon by Ferdinand-Philippe d’Orléans; Library of Congress

The idea that you are a battleground where good and evil clash is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and as contemporary as the image of a micro-devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In the song “My Body Is a Battlefield” (Tobias Jundt/Bonaparte, 2010), the devil versus angel conflict is expressed as a series of contradictory impulses and perceptions, negative versus noble, raising a question of true identity: Who are you really? The two sides shatter the self into “a thousand faces”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=859p9lW0Wws.

In Barbara Kruger’s poster “Your body is a battleground” (1989), the inner devils and angels turn political and the question is not which choice to make but who has the right to make it. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates battle in the courts, legislatures, and streets to determine who will own the “territory” that is a woman’s body: http://www.thebroad.org/art/barbara-kruger/untitled-your-body-battleground.

In the Book of Job, God and Satan use a man’s body as a battleground – leaving him with a bad case of boils.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus makes a battleground of his own body. He has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can experience the thrill of the Sirens’ song without being drawn to his death, like a moth to flame. Odysseus-minded people nowadays go bungee jumping.

When it’s compared to something other than a battleground, your body may be a temple, a nation, a house, a shell, a suit of clothes, a machine with a control unit upstairs, or a gross weight carried around by the soul. Duality (or multiplicity) is built into all these metaphors. When there is duality, there will be a battle.

Back to top

[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

Back to top