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/

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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.

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Drink the Kool-Aid.

More than 900 people drank the Flavor Aid in Jonestown (Guyana) in 1978 and died, a third of them children. Flavor Aid was the usual soft drink at the commune, and it was used to mix tubs of a grape-flavored cocktail, with sedatives and cyanide, at the mass suicide.

If people now say “drink the Kool-Aid” rather than “drink the Flavor Aid,” the marketing folks at Kraft Foods have only themselves to blame. Thousands of hours of television advertising (jolly pitcher of punch bouncing in on a children’s party) prepared a generation to hear the irony in today’s intonation of “drink the Kool-Aid,” describing innocents who have been programmed to follow the party line against their own interest. As the jolly pitcher used to say, in that rumbly, let-the-good-times-roll basso: “Oh, yeah!”

By definition, metaphors are fast and loose with facts.

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“Politics are very much like war. We may even have to use poison gas at times.”

— Winston Churchill

Churchill was joking, holding forth at a dinner with the king and top military commanders, including Eisenhower and Montgomery (February 3, 1944, diary of Field Marshal Alan Brooke). The joke at first blush is that politics and war are both must-win situations, making it necessary at times to resort to evil tactics. However, all the men at the table knew D-Day was coming and after the war there would be Nuremberg trials. So the joke on second thought is that generals have to be careful about resorting to evil tactics, unlike politicians.

The similarities between politics and war are less important than the dissimilarities. As Churchill remarked on another occasion, “In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

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A curvy model of straightness and strength

To have backbone is to stand up for your principles, regardless of threats or lack of support from others. It is to be straight and rigid when others are bending before the wind of prevailing opinion. However, there is nothing straight or rigid in the anatomy of a real backbone. Its interlocking toggle-toy construction is for flexing. So far from being straight, the spinal column undulates through four major curves.

When people talk about backbone, they are wishing for the moral complexities of life and politics to be resolved in a form that is simple, clear, and strong. What they want, osteologically, is more like a femur than a backbone.

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi: https://ittcs.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/anatomy-and-physiology-the-spinal-column/

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi: https://ittcs.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/anatomy-and-physiology-the-spinal-column/

Technical note: “Backbone” in this sense is figurative language but not a metaphor since it does not involve a comparison. It is closer to a synecdoche (sin EK duh key), or an image that uses a part to stand for the whole. For example, in “Achilles led a thousand spears into battle,” spear stands for a fully equipped infantryman.

(Posted on FB June 15, 2015)

People sometimes “lose their moral compass.”

Moral CompassA moral compass, like a navigational compass, tells you where you’re heading. Hence, life is a “journey,” and often you must choose your “way” without clear directions.

The “life is a journey” metaphor underlies a lot of literature and has led to the drawing of quite a few literal maps (you’ve seen maps of Middle Earth, Huck Finn’s Mississippi River, Kerouac’s cross-country road trip). This map from an 1813 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress (thank you, Princeton University Library) shows a zigzag route from the Slough of Despond, past Village Morality, up the Hill of Difficulty, and through Vanity Fair to the Celestial City, which looks a bit like…Vegas?

pilgrims-progress-map

(Posted on FB June 16, 2013)