Updated: Mar 17
“People mountain, people sea.”
“Very often, moreover, the artist and the art lover justify their inability to understand beauty on the ground that beauty is too subtle a thing for thought. How, they say, can one hope to distill into clear and stable ideas such a vaporous and fleeting matter as Aesthetic feeling?”
-Dewitt H. Parker, Principles of Aesthetics (1920)
“A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on the top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain, covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up, between them there were valleys and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. Suddenly a wave of red rose up and washed across the white surface.”
-Knausgaaed, The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery (2015)
In addition to being aware by default of the fluidity and solidness of our brains, we seem to be aware that brains are complex mixtures of these things. If solid versus fluid is a duality in nature, the duality is intricately marginalized in living things and brains. Our name for this apparent contradiction of nature is liquid crystallinity, or ordered fluidity. Brown (1972) gives a description:
“The term ‘liquid crystals’ is at once intriguing and confusing. While it appears self-contradictory, the designation is really an attempt to describe the properties of a particular state of matter. The liquid crystalline phase is, in fact, distinguished from both the liquid and solid phases of matter by first-order phase transitions. It mixes the properties of both the liquid and solid forms and is intermediate between the two. For example, liquid crystals combine a kind of long-range order (in the sense of a solid) with the ability to form droplets and to pour (in the sense of water like liquids). The combination of properties yields new properties that are found in neither solids nor liquids.” He goes on to say: “It should be mentioned that the role of liquid crystals in living systems appears to be very important.”
The following expressions mix references to solidness and fluidity, and can be understood as a reflection of living matter, specifically the way the living brain is always a thoroughly contradictory, complex, physically moderate liquid crystalline mixture of solidness and fluidity:
“Blood and iron,” “a diamond in the sky,” “ice cream,” “every cloud has a silver lining,” “melting pot,” “castles in the air,” “when hell freezes over,” “a watched pot never boils,” “a well oiled machine,” “hard liquor,” “stiff drink,” “water under the bridge,” “burn your bridges,” “too many irons in the fire,” “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” “a hard rain,” “not my cup of tea,” “rock star,” “blood diamond,” “blood is worth bottling” (Australian), “land you in hot water,” “put that in your pipe and smoke it,” “chain smoker,” “blow the lid off,” “blow hard,” “cloud computing,” “a pot to piss in,” “smoke screen,” “milk the clock,” “a smoking gun,” “tempest in a teapot,” “dumpster fire,” “heaven and earth,” “sweating bullets,” “vaporware,” “smoke and mirrors,” “the glass is half empty,” “raining pitchforks,” “bleed me dry,” “sky rocket,” “gravy train,” “the same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg,” “mill cannot grind with the water that is past,” “a rising tide lifts all boats,” “up a creek without a paddle,” “greasy spoon,” “god’s bloody nails,” “spill out into the streets,” “from soup to nuts,” “happy as a clam in butter sauce,” “a port in the storm,” “the land of milk and honey” “fireworks,” and “cloud-cuckoo land.” Some of the expressions incorporate heat, disorder or speed in addition to solidness and fluidity. Generally the fluid references in these expressions are the more exciting part, and solidness appears to be present mostly because it makes the expressions more likable, or like us.
Mixtures of solidness and a soft, or semisolid object, such as an organism, are common as well: “Peaches and cream,” “cream of the crop,” “like the cat that got the cream,” “a walled garden,” “a canary in a coal mine,” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” “skin and bones,” “skin of your teeth,” “the man behind the glass,” “daggers in my ears,” “a bull in a China shop,” “a barrel of monkeys,” “monkey wrench,” “the world is my oyster,” “knight in shining armor,” “kill two birds with one stone,” “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” “put the cart before the horse,” “god’s green Earth,” “snake oil,” “like chalk and cheese,” “if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs,” “you could fry an egg on the sidewalk,” “gum up the works,” “you can't put the genie back in the bottle.” The soft references tend to be the more exciting part of these phrases. Tongue twisters also commonly mix solidness with fluidity, as in “seashells by the seashore,” “can a clam cram in a clean cream can,” “wish to wash my Irish wristwatch,” and “six sticky skeletons.”
A human bias favoring mixtures of fluidity and solidness, reflected in language, can also be observed in various other aspects of human culture including paintings, movies, video games, symbols, logos, product designs, religious practices and mythology.
Brown, Glenn H. “Liquid Crystals and Their Roles in Inanimate and Animate Systems.” American Scientist, 1972.
Knausgaard, Karl Ove. “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Dec. 2015.
Parker, De Witt Henry. The Principles of Aesthetics. United States, Silver, Burdett, 1920.