I want a new drug, one that won’t spill, / One that don’t cost too much / Or come in a pill.

– Huey Lewis, “I Want a New Drug” (1984)

From the long list of effects Huey does not want, it’s clear he doesn’t actually want a drug. What he wants is to “feel like I feel when I’m with you.” So this is a love song, an upside-down update of a Shakespearean sonnet. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Naw, that’s been done. Shall I compare thee to feel-good drugs (of which I have no personal knowledge but have heard about from others)?

Love is often compared to a temporary madness – as if it were caused by a psychotropic drug. That is the satire enacted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when a few herbal eyedrops make Titania infatuated with a village idiot – and not just any village idiot but a village idiot with a donkey head.

In “Love Potion # 9” (The Clovers, 1959), a folk-pharmacologist mixes an elixir that smells like turpentine, looks like india ink, and produces cognitive and emotional disturbances:

I didn’t know if it was day or night.
I started kissing everything in sight.

Technical note: In the Huey Lewis song, “drug” is understood to be a metaphor only because of a simile (“like I feel when I’m with you”). It’s a curious combo: a metaphorical charge with a simile igniter.

Illustration: Library of Congress

You’re like a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world.

– Popular girl to Norman Bates, Bates Motel (season 1, episode 1)

The popular girl who befriends the new boy Norman doesn’t realize that in the depths of the beautiful, still lake, there lurks a Creature from the Black Lagoon.

But her metaphor is apt. High school is a world of hard surfaces, and kids who don’t fit can get scraped up pretty badly. Norman is an exception, naturally himself, a sweet boy making no effort to appear hipper, richer, cooler than he is. His naivete triggers dangerous feelings in the girls and women who encounter Norman. They want to mother him.

Only Norma Bates is allowed to mother Norman.

The mothering in Bates Motel is romantic but screeches to a halt, arms windmilling, at the cliff’s edge of sexuality (lest the beast come up from the bottom of the lake). Tensions between romantic and sexual feelings – the writers and actors continually draw and re-draw the line – give the show its energy,and frequent hilarity. Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates is a 1930s-style madcap comedienne in the role of hardest-working, worst mom ever.

Photo: Cradle Mountain (St. Clair National Park, Tasmania) by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikipedia

As they cooked his remains – some of it / Gasping in bronze pots, some weeping on spits, / A feast followed.

– Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1999)

Procne was not so much a bad mother as an angry wife when she cooked and served her son to her betraying, cruel, lying husband for dinner. Hers is one of those stories from Greek mythology where people go through an ordeal so intense the only possible relief is to be turned into a bird, tree, or flower. Anything to escape being human, subject to human suffering.

Is human suffering worse than animals’ suffering? Maybe yes, if only because we start with the assumption that we deserve better.

In his telling of transformation stories, Ted Hughes focuses on passion – the misery as well as the delirium of love, or lust – with hyper-attention to ordinary sensations of everyday life. Your skin will prickle with recognition – for example, at the feeling of water encircling your knee as you step into a pool. Beware: listening to the shish kebob could transform you – into a vegan.

Photos: Pig roast via Wikipedia; book cover by 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

Bright God, / you came to me, sunburst / in your hair, in the fields / where I was plucking / soft yellow petals / that fluttered to my lap / and sang back dawn’s bright gold.

– Euripides’ Ion, translated by W.S. Di Piero (1996)

Recalling what happened and how she felt when she was raped by Apollo, Creusa describes terror and helplessness – crying out for her mother, feeling her wrist seized in a powerful grip. She was carried to a hidden place, a cave known to Athenians as the Long Rocks. Overcome with shame, she told no one and returned in secret to the cave when her pregnancy came to term. She went into labor, a frightened girl, with no women to help, and bore a son. There is abundant detail in Creusa’s recollection that accords with the psychology of rape as it is understood today. She says, “you yoked me to darkness.”

At the same time, her memory includes awareness of cosmic power at work in the worst moment of her life, cementing bricks in a path determined by the Fates. Her son would bear sons who would become famous kings.

Rough handling of human beings by gods is a fundamental theme in Euripides. Heaven has its decrees, and mortals had better adjust. It isn’t personal (though the pain certainly is). Even the attacker in this case – a god of light, music, medicine – seems drafted into his role by still higher powers. And somehow, on a scale far above our concerns, there is beauty in the uses to which we are put – the sunburst in a god’s hair and the answering flowers in a maiden’s lap.

Photo: Statue of Apollo in the Belvedere courtyard, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican; via Wikipedia

The makeup in “Bombshell” is a striking metaphor for how the women of Fox News – particularly the up-and-comers striving to fit the Barbie doll mold – submit themselves to a contrived aesthetic that is forced and not particularly beautiful, but is meant to convey the idea of beauty.

– Robin Abcarian, “We are in the midst of an epidemic – of false eyelashes,” LA Times (February 12, 2020)

 

An eagle and the idea of an eagle. The idea stylizes some features, doesn’t bother with others.

 

The distinction between “beauty” and “the idea of beauty” is arresting. It suggests that anyone, even a plain james, can pass for good-looking by applying beauty symbols in key areas around the face and body. Other examples of beauty icons that are not beautiful in themselves include:

  • Glue-on moles on the cheeks of ladies in the 1700s
  • Bustles under dresses of the late 1800s
  • Clairol blonde hair with dark roots

Not to be confused with falsies, these beauty apps are not meant to fool anyone about breast size, eye size/color, etc. As Abcarian makes clear, false eyelashes are obvious fakes. They don’t mind if you notice. They are there to remind you of a certain ideal – such as an imagined Cleopatra. The ideal might be tinged with just a dash of trash and a possibility of reckless sex.

We may never know who was the vamp queen of the silver screen who haunted the mind of young Roger Ailes. But we see her invoked every day on Fox.

Images: Eagle by Saffron Blaze (2012), emblem of the 101st Airborne Division, and Theda Bera as Cleopatra; all from Wikipedia

Pope calls for concrete steps to stop abuse.

LA Times headline (February 22, 2019)

The steps metaphor – deriving from the path/journey/travel metaphor – is so well-worn the headline writer isn’t aware of its imagery and doesn’t consider that most papally commissioned steps are made of marble, not concrete. Or that there is a paradox in taking steps to stop.

Oddly, the word in the headline that is most loaded with meanings is the one devoid of imagery. Abuse in today’s English refers not only to pedophilia and other sex crimes but also to drug or alcohol addiction, wife beating, and name calling. Having such a wide range of meanings is only possible because the word abuse refers but does not describe. You don’t see betrayal, violation, or deceit – as in back-stabber, for example.

The word abuse is transparent. Or maybe it’s opaque.

Dancing with Mr. Arbuckle was “like floating in the arms of a huge donut.”

– Louise Brooks (actress), quoted in Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory (2018)

Donuts don’t dance and don’t have arms. However, they are round and can encircle. And if it seemed to Miss Brooks that she was floating weightless in Fatty Arbuckle’s arms, it would have been because he was famously light on his feet – able to do somersaults and backflips despite the roundness of his figure.

Setting its complications aside, the simile is simple enough.

Fatty Arbuckle = donut

A donut is an icon of gluttonous overeating (as seen for decades on The Simpsons). Public fascination with the scandal that ended Arbuckle’s career as a comedian in silent movies (after the death of an actress at a wild Hollywood-style party) was intensified no doubt by the imagery in mental movies of his corpulence in orgiastic scenes of gratification of the flesh.

Dramatic imagery (imagery that acts out a story) is the essence of metaphor.

It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks…

– William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (II.ii.16)

V0019682 A barber's shop: the central figure is a man seated, swathed

Chairs in figurative language are usually imagined without reference to the sitter’s anatomy – as in throne, seat of power, committee chair, etc. Seen as a bearer of buns, a chair loses dignity.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver makes a couple of chairs (like cane chairs) from hair trimmings of the giant queen of Brobdingnag. Then he refuses to sit in the chairs: “I would rather die a thousand Deaths than place a dishonourable Part of my Body on those precious Hairs that once adorned her Majesty’s Head” (part II, ch. VI).

Charles Dickens takes a lustier view in The Pickwick Papers, recounting a dream in which a chair comes to life. The smutty-minded chair boasts that “hundreds of fine women have sat in my lap for hours together. What do you think of that, you dog, eh!” (ch. 14, “The Bagman’s Story”).

Sticklers may point out the Swift and Dickens examples are transformational uses of imagery rather than metaphors – a fair objection, bringing us to one more buttocks-on-chair similitude, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a toilet seat.

Illustration: A Barber’s Shop, aquatint etching by T. Rowlandson after W.H. Bunbury; Wellcome Library

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She will laugh at my mighty sword.

— Randy Newman, “A Wedding in Cherokee County”

The troubling thing about metaphors for the male member and, by extension (ahem), for sex is their lack of exhilaration and gladness. It’s always a tool – nailing, screwing, drilling, tapping. Where’s the joy we hear in the language of sports – when a ball drops sweetly through the hoop? Swish. Or when it rockets into the net. Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Pop music spends a lot of time and breathless energy on how good good-lovin’ feels and yet has little more of metaphor to show than:

Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite. –“Afternoon Delight” (1976)

Which is at least more focused on pleasure than puncture.

The “mighty sword” metaphor from Randy Newman casts light on the fear that is the flip side of penis-tool imagery. Behind bravado, you always find a fear of appearing ridiculous. The specific fear in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” is premature ejaculation: “I will attempt to spend my love within her…” Timing is key for “skyrockets in flight.”

And though he is fearful and thus defensive (pointing out she has her faults too), the protagonist in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” loves his bride to be, and knows he would be worse off without her. As God says in another Randy Newman song, remarking on the crazy way we humans turn torment into adoration: “That’s why I love mankind.”

Lyrics to “A Wedding in Cherokee County”:

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