What are Metaphors For?

Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.

A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.

In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.

As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd,  Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”

Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.

Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.

Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?

Advertisements

Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff!

Books, wrote Milton in Areopagitica  “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” To destroy a book is to destroy thought itself, a crime nearly equal to that of killing a man. A book has a life as “active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” To what extent, though, do the lives of books ever truly separate from the lives of their authors? Don Quixote, argued by some to be the greatest novel ever written, may give us some insights.

Early in Part 1, a curate and a barber purge Don Quixote’s library of the dangerous books that have led him to believe that he was a knight-errant. (It occurs to me that at the time a barber would have also been a surgeon, so why should he not be the one to “cure” Don Quixote by surgically removing the cause of his illness?) Throughout the comical scene of these two passing judgement on books, they show the strength of Milton’s claims. The very idea of destroying “dangerous” books only makes sense if one believes that there is a great potency in them. Further, the books are discussed as if they are people, e.g. “we must condemn him to the fire.” The curate and the barber are reverse of Milton; they recognize the immense power and independent personalities of books, but they conclude that books must be censored where Milton concludes that they must not.

But the curate and the barber do not strictly separate the personality of the books from their authors. By the end of their inquisition, they become weary and lazy. They begin to mix judgments of the books with judgments of the authors: “Let him be kept, both because the author is my very great friend, and in regard of other more heroical and lofty works he hath written.” So the judges are willing to spare some books, not because of their content, but because of their authors. I suspect that this inconsistency is meant to show a flaw of their methods. If the book is dangerous, how can it matter who wrote it? So the curate and the barber are bad judges at best, and, more likely, totally backwards in their thinking. Books really do have a life independent of their authors.

Don Quixote is an attractive subject for this sort of study for another reason. Supposedly, Don Quixote, Part 1 was published with no intent of their being a second part. The story is complete and deeply satisfying, with no need for further adventures. However, Cervantes wrote in a time without intellectual property law. The character of Don Quixote was so popular, that other authors wrote their own adventures for the man of La Mancha. (The same thing, incidentally, happened with the character Sherlock Holmes.) Cervantes, unhappy to see his character appearing in other writers’ works, published Part 2 as the definitive final adventure of Don Quixote.

Proponents of strong intellectual property law claim that without it, inventors will not invent and writers will not write. But Cervantes continued to write, even after his character was employed elsewhere. Charles Dickens was not protected by IP law, but he still made a living. Once an idea is out in the world, it has its own life. How can the author expect to keep that life reined in?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: Duff Beer – Speaking of intellectual property, the makers of this beer have had to spend a lot of time in court fighting for the right to use the name and logo of Homer Simpson’s drink of choice. Surely an American company that tried this would lose the fight, but this beer is German, and Europeans love sticking it to America almost as much as they love protected place names. The beer itself probably isn’t too different from what the Simpsons creators had in mind. It really is a very ordinary mass-produced beer. The only hint that this is really a cheap German lager instead of a cheap American lager is that there is no hint of corn or rice in the flavor and there is a little bit of hoppy dryness in the finish, maybe even a touch of grass. I overpaid just because of the name, but if this were priced the same as beers of similar quality, I could definitely see my way to imitating Homer and drinking a lot of it.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – The curate and the barber put together a mock auto-da-fé for the dangerous books in Don Quixote’s library. The scene is very comical. I particularly like when the curate laughs at the naive old woman who suggests blessing the library with holy water, only to replace blessing-with-water with purging-by-fire.

Question of the week: If a book has a life of its own, isn’t strong IP law a form of slavery? Shouldn’t ideas be free to work wherever they might be of most use?


St. Martin, patron of conscientious objectors, pray for us!

What is the purpose of Veterans Day? Most would claim that the purpose of the holiday is to thank the brave men and women who have served in the United States’ Armed Forces. That seems natural enough. The name of the holiday is Veterans Day, after all. But that name is not as old as the holiday itself, neither did the original purpose change with the name.

The date of the holiday, as everybody knows, was chosen to commemorate the end of hostilities during the First World War. It was on the 11th of November that the Armistice took effect, hence, the name of the holiday was originally called Armistice Day. (In parts of Europe, this name still prevails.) When Congress created the national holiday, the stated purpose was not to thank those who had participated in the late war; the holiday was dedicated to world peace. Armistice Day was about friendly relations with all peoples, not about celebrating those who fight wars. When the name was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, that was the only official change: the substitution of the word Veterans for the word Armistice. The bit about world peace has been largely ignored since then, but that is still the official meaning of the holiday. Those words were not changed.

As it happens, November 11 is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. This is a remarkable coincidence because St. Martin was both a veteran and a peace advocate. Raised in an army family, young Martin followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army himself. However, on the eve of a battle Martin concluded that his faith was incompatible with military service. There was no way for Martin to morally justify acting as an agent of war and death. He refused to participate in the war, so he was jailed. Lest we think that Martin was just a coward, it should be noted that Martin volunteered to appear before the enemy unarmed to show that his decision not to fight was based on faith rather than fear.

After being freed and discharged from the service, Martin went around preaching peace and charity. And what two virtues could be more appropriate for a veteran to exhort? Who could love peace so much as somebody who has seen war? Who could be so openhanded as one who has seen people lose everything?

November 11 is a day to remember that bravery and honor and duty are all virtues, but only so long as they are directed toward peace. Long before the weapons of the First World War was even conceivable, November 11th has been St. Martin’s day: a day for peace and charity. And roast goose. And beer.

Oh, and I almost forgot, November 11 is also Pepero Day in Korea. Pepero is a brand of long, skinny cookie dipped in chocolate. On Pepero Day, people give Pepero to people. On the one hand, it is an example of shameless marketing. On the other hand, Pepero Day is not a celebration of war and violence. And what do the Koreans care about the First World War, anyway?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Beer of the week: Maxmilian Tmavý Speciál – This special dark lager comes from a brewery in the small Moravian town of Kroměříž. They had a stand at the St. Martin’s Day festival in Brno, so I had some of their beer with the traditional St. Martin’s Day goose. They made quite a combination. The beer has a thick, foamy head that lasts all the way to the bottom of the cup. The body is light and smooth. The roasted malt gives the beer the familiar tang of bitter cocoa and, although the beer is not especially smokey, there was a dryness in the finish that beckoned the next sip. A delicious holiday treat.

Reading of the week: A Key by William Penn – “This little treatise” was an attempt to clear up misconceptions (called “perversions”) about Quakers. I suspect that Quakers do not believe in the intercession of saints, so they wouldn’t pray to St. Martin. They might, however, hold him up as an example of one who was born again in the fire of baptism and a lover of peace. The paradigmatic American conscientious objectors, Penn writes that Quakers “are not fit for warriors with carnal weapons, because they believe their blessed Lord forbade the use of them to His followers.”

Question of the week: St. Martin is a patron to beggars (because of his famous charity) and geese (because they migrate on his feast day) and soldiers (because he had been one himself.) But why should St. Martin be a patron saint for soldiers even though he personally claimed that the life of a soldier is incompatible with the christian faith?


Dark November

Sad or depressed people will often sit in the dark. They may watch sad or depressing films or listen to sad music. What they want is for their surroundings to mirror their feelings. And this is no new thing. The narrator of Lord Byron’s poem My Soul is Dark requests that sad music be played for him. Music as dark as his soul.

But it is not just our controlled environment (lights, music, etc.) that we like to match our state of mind. In My November Guest, Robert Frost says that “dark days of autumn rain” are beautiful. They are even more beautiful, though, when he is sad. When he has sorrow in his heart, that sorrow rejoices to see the world as bleak and cold and barren.

So on this autumn day think dark thoughts, drink dark beer, and ponder how much more beautiful the world can be when it matches the way you feel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the Week: Lancaster Brewing Company Milk Stout – Apparently, yeast can’t ferment lactose. That fact makes lactose an interesting ingredient in beer, since it can increase sweetness without any fear of the sugar being converted into more alcohol. In this case, it results in a smooth and slightly sweet stout. There is not much hops to speak of. The dark malt provides some body to the flavor, but doesn’t impart any rough or smokey taste. Over-all, it is a satisfying and easy drinking beer, but it is pretty filling and not very flavorful.

Reading for the Week: My November Guest by Robert Frost – In this short poem, Frost doesn’t say that one must be sad to appreciate a cold, wet autumn day. But he does say that sorrow makes them all the better.

Question for the week: Some people suffer “Seasonal Affective Dissorder”, depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Did Frost really have a preference for November when he was depressed, or did the bleak weather cause his depression in the first place?