– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)
Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental pictuere. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).
A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.
In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.
– 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.”
– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)
As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.
Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.
– Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.
Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.
In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.
Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull
– Nguyen Thieu, president of South Vietnam, 1965–1975
For Americans, the top metaphors of the Vietnam War were falling dominoes and the light at the end of the tunnel. We were there because we had to be, not because we wanted to. Our concerns were strategic, practical, strictly unromantic. Yet we did think of ourselves as the good guys, doing a good deed despite considerable sacrifice.
So it comes as a shock that the president of the democracy we saw ourselves as defending saw us, the United States, NOT as a knight in shining armor but as a rich old man infatuated with an exotic beauty on the cheatin’ side of town. Of course, Thieu had grown to manhood in a country that was colonized – by France, no less, the European capital of the woman on the side. It must have seemed to him that the way of the world was for the strong to use the weak as they pleased. As he saw it, France and then the US were pleased to use Vietnam as an overseas resort for forbidden appetites.
Was Thieu wrong? The facts of history are verifiable as facts. Their meaning is subject to interpretation, often a matter of which end of the metaphorical stick you were on.
Photo: Woman opium smoker in French Indochina (1915) via William Black/Pinterest
Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.
And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.
Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.
Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”
– Alvise Valaresso, Venetian ambassador to Britain (1622)
The story of the Gordian knot tells how Alexander the Great dealt with a challenge that had defied all comers for centuries: a knot so complicated it could not be untied. It was hard to know even where to begin, since both ends of the rope were hidden inside the knot’s coils. Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, and was credited ever after with innovative thinking.
It was a meathead’s solution, of course – like solving gridlock with an air strike.
A knot is one of humankind’s most elegant technologies, using the flexibility of rope, and its ability to turn back upon itself, to resist the force that would pull the knot apart. The harder the pull, the tighter the knot holds. It’s a very fit metaphor for the kinds of problems we face in an interdependent world. Ambassador Valaresso paid James I a high compliment in saying the king had found a way to lessen tensions without a shortcut to violence.
Photo: Monkey’s fist knot (tied with a metal weight inside to facilitate throwing that end of the rope, to an approaching boat, for example); wincingdevil.com
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