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

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

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Blood on a soldier’s chest looks like a medal – if not for valor, then at least for being on the battlefield and not being a coward. The unhappy anti-hero in Red Badge of Courage wants desperately to avoid reproach. Any number of heroes might advise him to be careful what he wishes for.

Every day people wish for things that they shouldn’t, as moralized in the story of King Midas. Midas failed to anticipate the consequences of a golden touch, as Marilyn Monroe and others learned too late that stardom would come at a terrible cost in self-worth.

Self-loathing is rife in everyday life too. Ask anyone who wishes hopelessly not to be fat. It’s all the worse when you agree in your heart of hearts with your accusers: “All you have to do is not eat.” To avoid being a coward, all you have to do is not run away. And so forth.

The most extreme form of self-loathing is universal, with nearly every person alive at one time or another having thought: “I wish I were dead.”

That wish will be granted.

Illustration: store.doverpublications.com

Got a rocket in your pocket. / Keep coolly cool, boy.

– “Cool,” West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” This quip is universally credited to Mae West, from as early as 1936, and there have been variations: pipe, rod, banana. As a device that emits, a pistol is metaphorically more descriptive than a banana. A man who is sterile is said to be firing blanks.

Arising from the same general shape and location, the rocket metaphor takes the penis beyond sex to other realms of male excitability. The Jets want revenge, and testosterone urges action. Hence the call to be cool (heat being a metaphor for emotion).

The timeliness of Sondheim’s rocket metaphor is noteworthy. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, and the rivalry for turf in outer space was on.

…and then charging out of these flames comes this bear on fire. That was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen.

Only the Brave (2017)

The bear on fire is a sudden, spectacular movie effect. It fills the eye, and before you can think about what it might mean you’ve already understood the speed, power, and impulsiveness of fire – how it runs over anyone who stands alone in its path. Josh Brolin’s character describes the bear as “hard-charging into the darkness.” Then he adds, “I’m feelin’ a lot like that bear, Duane.”

The bear is a manifestation of the fire (spirit of the fire) but is also a creature caught in the fire, running for its life. Like a firefighter when the operational plan has gone wrong.

Two of the firefighters, the chief and the recruit, have come to their job after drug addiction, drawing a line against lives gone out of control. They have been in the kind of trouble where you can lunge to the left or the right but cannot get free. The beauty of the bear on fire is that of the tragic hero, a doomed creature struggling to the end to be free.

…it was just one of a number of black eyes the organization sustained in the run-up to this year’s Oscars, nearly all of them self-inflicted.

– Josh Rottenberg, “No thanks to the academy…” LA Times (February 24, 2019)

Black eye transitioned from medical to metaphorical injury in the early 1700s – notably in a tussle of two poets, where Colley Cibber taunted Alexander Pope about “the last black Eye I gave you.” Cibber had published a pamphlet ridiculing Pope – the verbal equivalent of a public thrashing – which must have incited gossip and embarrassment for days, like an actual black eye.

By the early 1900s, the personal black eye was supplemented by the group black eye. In 1913, an article in The Saturday Evening Post complained of unscrupulous growers who gave the entire farming fraternity a black eye. In the same year, the American Cloak and Suit Review lambasted penny-pinching manufacturers: “The entire garment industry will probably get a black eye, because of your over-conservatism.”

The group black eye gave rise to a variation – the self-inflicted group black eye (SIGBE) – in the late 1990s (e.g., in Jean Mater’s Reinventing the Forest Industry, 1997). In the early 2000s, news stories credited self-inflicted black eyes to the SEC, the US Army, UK security police, CBS, Ohio State University, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Major League Baseball, China, Biotech, Harley-Davidson, and others. At the 2019 Oscars, no one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came to the stage to thank everyone who made their SIGBE possible.

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.

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.

Watch the order as they load the sled. It’s like layering cold cuts into a sandwich, John. It takes maximum efficiency.

– Bree Schaaf, color commentator on 4-man bobsled at the Pyeongchang Olympics (2018)

This is a simile meant for Subway employees. They work on a fast-food assembly line (no wasted motion). And the sandwiches they produce resemble a bobsled. But most of us will have a hard time seeing the urgency – much less the “maximum efficiency” – in everyday sandwichery.

We also have a hard time appreciating the athleticism, performance, skill, and strategy in 4-man bobsledding – which, of course, was the point Schaaf wanted to make. To the untrained eye, bobsledding looks like drinking buddies out for a Saturday night prank, joyriding somebody’s trashcan down an icy hill in Vermont. There they go: Ham, Cheddarhead, Turkey, and Monterey Jack.

Photo: US Army team at 2010 World Cup trials 2010, by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs https://www.flickr.com/photos/familymwr/4383583231

The conduit metaphor

People turn to the conduit metaphor in 70 percent of all discussions about how we communicate through language, according to linguist Michael Reddy. The conduit metaphor has four parts:

  • Communication = sending
  • Words = container that is sent
  • Intended meaning = thing put in the container
  • Received meaning = thing extracted by the listener or reader

The “gap” across which words are sent is important – the difference between the minds of the sender and receiver. The gap is the source of all misunderstandings and a lot of pain. It’s also where deception, creativity, and 88.5% of jokes come from.

If we lived in a world where sentences were not “containers” for ideas, we would certainly spend less time looking for hidden meanings in song lyrics. If communications were not so much “sent” as emitted, like pheromones (or even excreted, like spider silk), we might not take everything so personally.

Sci-fi movies about first contact help us consider alternatives to the conduit metaphor. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien shows up speaking perfect proclamatory English, but in Close Encounters of the Third Kind there is a shared-knowing style of communication. The invited see an image of a mountain and discover wordlessly where to go. The musical sequence D-E-C-low C-G is the DNA for understanding everything. Arrival offers another unmechanistic view, owing a debt to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, in which Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time.”

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Darmok,” 1991) features aliens whose language utterly befuddles the universal translator – because their vocabulary is based on metaphors.

Illustration: Garth Williams, from Charlotte’s Web; flavorwire.com

Reference

Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at http://www.reddyworks.com/reddy-writes/research/the-conduit-metaphor/132-orginal-1979-conduit-metaphor-article?showall=.

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