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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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He’s not hurt much; I just winged him.

– Jackson Gregory, “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch” (1917)

In fact, Judith “winged” Trevor a couple of times: in the right arm with her first shot; after the second, his “left arm hung limp like the other.” The obstreperous Trevor was escorted off the ranch, and Judith went on with her breakfast.

It’s hard to imagine a gunshot wound being so lightly dismissed, even if it was to a mere “wing.” For a bird, a limp wing would amount to a death sentence. For a cowboy, in the days before doctors washed their hands and gave antibiotics, an infection could mean the same thing.

Yet the first OED example for “wing” in this sense is from a comedy, The Poor Gentleman (1802), by George Colman, in which the cantankerous Sir Charles complains about greenhorn hunters hitting everything but what they aim at: “What are the odds now, that he doesn’t wing me?”

Illustration: W. Herbert Dunton for “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch,” Everybody’s Magazine (vol. 37, 1917)

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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.

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America has been looking for a better mistress, and now Nixon has discovered China.

– 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

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Saying goodbye is kind of like pulling a Band-Aid off the hairy part of your arm.

Playgirl (1977)

The Band-Aid, invented in 1920, is a classic example of how solving one problem may create another. The quick-and-easy bandage protects a small wound against infection, but after the wound is healed the wearer must choose: peel off the adhesive flaps slowly, uprooting arm hairs one at a time, or rip away with one yank?

How do you like your pain: in a slow progression of predictable agony? Or in a flash of torment followed by dazed shock? Opinion is divided, along the same lines as in the swimming pool conundrum. Some prefer to dip a toe in the water and immerse gradually. Others dive in.

The Playgirl quote is interesting for its frank wording (hairy-arm references were rare back then) and for the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessarily an emotional wound but rather an event to be expected in a life that spans many relationships.

Photo: Ellen Limeres

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No, you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

Bronte scoffs at the idea that girls need to be sheltered more than boys from the evils of the world, because of the presumption that females have less capacity for moral judgment. The truth is we all need all the sheltering and nurturing we can get, regardless of gender. At least, that is the view taken by Bronte’s protagonist Helen Huntingdon, on the run from an alcoholic husband.

A couple of years earlier, Charles Dickens used hot-house imagery to comment on another theory of cultivating young minds: accelerated education, as practiced at Doctor Blimber’s school in Dombey and Son:

All the boys blew [bloomed] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons…. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. (ch. 11)

Greenhouses became a hot topic after the 1830s, as scientific breeding of plants converged with improvements in iron and glass manufacturing. Greenhouses were the first buildings made in factories. The first public greenhouse opened in Regent’s Park, London, in 1846.

Photo: Otto Eerelman, “In the Greenhouse”: http://www.artnet.com/artists/otto-eerelman/in-the-greenhouse-oiYeMedzQfuSwIBX2od_kA2

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