Conceptual metaphors in “Scavenger of human sorrow” by Death

Good time of the day, friends and colleagues. It is always a challenge for me to pick up a song for my next post. On the one hand, there are famous songs with the texts, which are not interesting for my purpose; on the other hand, there are relatively unknown compositions or songs of non-mainstream, specific bands, which are overloaded with metaphors. For my March post, I have chosen a real thing: something that is both famous and metaphorically rich.

This post is the analysis of “Scavenger of Human Sorrow” by American progressive/death metal pioneers Death (released on their last LP “The Sound of Perseverance” in 1998). Below are the lyrics:

SCAVENGER OF HUMAN SORROW

  1. What pain will it take
  2. To satisfy your sick appetite
  3. Go in for the kill
  4. Always in sight-prey
  5. The time always right-feast
  6. Feed on the pain-taste
  7. Sorrow made flesh-sweet
  8. Live how you want
  9. Just don’t feed on me
  10. If you doubt what I say
  11. I will make you believe
  12. Shallow are words from those who starve
  13. For a dream not their own to slash and scar
  14. Big words, small mind
  15. Behind the pain you will find
  16. A scavenger of human sorrow
  17. Scavenger
  18. Abstract theory the weapon of choice
  19. Used by a scavenger of human sorrow
  20. Scavenger
  21. So you have traveled far across the sea
  22. To spread your written brand of misery.

I love Death and this text, as many others, stayed at the back of my mind for a long time. It always seemed to be too complicated and mysterious (still does) and I felt some sort of fear when approaching it. This time I made up my mind to try to possibly crack it. Let us start.

  1. (SCAVENGER OF HUMAN SORROW)
  2. What pain will it take
  3. To satisfy your sick appetite
  4. Go in for the kill

The title of the song contains the first metaphor I am going to deal with. Before I do that, however, I want to make one important assumption: whatever the mind can think of in this context, I assume this song to be about people. Now let us find out what “a scavenger” normally means and what it is in our context. For this purpose, I consulted “The New Oxford American Dictionary” (ed. Elizabeth J. Jewell and Frank Abate; Oxford University Press 2001) and Wikipedia. First, scavenger is not a name of an animal, but a feeding behavior, namely, consuming carrion and/or dead plat material. Any representative of an animal world, which follows this behavior pattern, is a scavenger. Second, scavenger can also be applied non-metaphorically to describe a person, who searches for and collects discarded items – a waste picker, or who practices necrophagy. Third, scavenger is not a hunter in a classical sense of the word, because it searches for dead material and does not attack living organisms.

At this point, a question comes to my mind. If this information is applied to make sense of line 0, is it metaphorical or non-metaphorical use of “scavenger” that we are witnessing there?

Literal meaning of scavenger

If this is a non-metaphorical case, then a person, referred to as a scavenger in the line, is compared to the one, who practices necrophagy (in the light of the next two lines and, actually, the entire song, it is obviously not the one collecting waste). This activates the respective semantic frame (of necrophagy as practiced by a human – not of an animal feeding on carrion), which is taboo in many cultures and may be regarded as a sort of perversion (if not practiced as a surviving behavior during a war, for example). Thus, only the complement part of the noun phrase “scavenger of human sorrow” is metaphorical. With the necrophagy frame as the source domain, dead flesh consumption is mapped onto the monitoring of human feelings in the title (line 0). Hence, physical satisfaction from eating dead flesh is mapped onto the mental satisfaction from observing somebody’s sorrow. Here we get quite an exotic metaphor: HUMAN FEELINGS ARE FOOD. Scavenger is the one who consumes this ‘food’.

(I have never personally encountered this metaphor or a linguistic metaphorical expression that can suit it. Nevertheless, I came up with an idea how to check the case: I searched a bit in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) the expressions with “eat”, “pain”, “sorrow”, “feelings”. What I found were the instances of “eat those feelings”, “eat the pain”, “bitter feelings”, “sweet poignant pain” etc. I believe this already gives us enough ground to stand on.)

Now the question: does this context make “scavenger” metaphorical as well? I mean, there is no metaphor in describing a person like “He is a scavenger, roaming the land in search of carrion.” However, if I say “He is a scavenger, roaming the land in search of depressed people, whom he can observe and get satisfaction”, then he is not really a scavenger, but the one, who exhibits a behavior pattern, similar to scavenging: namely, ‘consuming’ and getting satisfaction from something foul. In our case, from negative feelings: something that normally triggers the feeling of displeasure or pity. Let us look at the case from another angle.

Metaphorical meaning of scavenger

If this is a metaphorical case of “scavenger” usage and a human is compared to an animal, which feeds on dead material, then the situation is somewhat different. I believe that another semantic frame is triggered, namely, of a normal feeding behavior of an animal in an ecosystem and this frame does not have any perverse connotation. However, the negative connotation is felt in the title. Why? First, because we, humans, project the situation onto our human system of values and context; within this system eating carrion is viewed as a disgusting practice, though it is normal in animal world and is a big favor for any ecosystem. Second, because we feel that this line is about a person, not an animal. The metaphor, applied here, is HUMANS ARE ANIMALS and it is a realization of the GREAT CHAIN OF BEING metaphor (the “…of human sorrow” part of the line keeps the same explanation as provided above with all its entailments and connotation). In other words, a person is stripped off everything human and degraded to the level of an animal, which is ruled by its instincts. What is highlighted in the case in focus is the domain of character, morality and behavior. This conceptualization adds even more of the negative connotation. At the end, we have a person, who takes pleasure in observing depressed people and who is compared to an animal, which feeds on carrion.

Third option – maybe, blending?

Maybe, there is the third option here. What if the title is a case of conceptual integration (blending)? I got that idea reading about the blends in Zoltan Kövecses’ “Metaphor in culture” (2005, Cambridge university press) and Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s “Mental Spaces” (1998, Cognitive Science 22-2). To be honest, I do not have a good grasp of this particular topic (I will soon), but let me just speculate a bit. For the sake of the case, let us think not about the title, but about a possible normal simple clause:

e.g. He is the scavenger of human sorrow.

There are several types of blends. The one that may satisfy the structure of line 0 is what Kövecses calls a double scope network. This type of blend has several input spaces, a generic space – the structural schema that fits the input spaces in focus, and a blend – final product. I came up with the following:

GENERIC: searching for something bad, consuming it, and satisfying your body needs

INPUT 1:

  1. Scavenger
  2. Stalking (scavengers keep the victim always in sight, not attacking, but waiting till it dies)
  3. Eating
  4. Carrion/dead plant
  5. Physical satisfaction-goal

INPUT 2 (the numbers order corresponds to and maps onto that in INPUT 1):

  1. Human
  2. Searching
  3. Watching/observing
  4. Negative feelings
  5. Mental satisfaction-goal

The correlation space (counterpart connections) between both inputs would be:

  • Scavenger and human = ‘hunter’
  • Eating and watching = consuming
  • Dead organics and negative feelings = foul matter
  • Physical and mental satisfaction = surviving behavior

BLEND: (He (INPUT 2) is) the scavenger (INPUT 1) of human sorrow (INPUT 2).

If anyone, who has a good understanding of conceptual integration, is reading these lines now, then, please, to comment on this case. It was interesting for me to reason about the issue.

Bottom line: I go for a metaphorical case of scavenger and I would be very thankful to a person, who can bring more clarity into this whole issue. Does anyone have any thoughts?

The song starts

Finally, I start with the song itself here. For this purpose, I provide you with the first lines again:

  1. What pain will it take
  2. To satisfy your sick appetite
  3. Go in for the kill

One of the arguments, made above, seems to hold water. The HUMAN FEELINGS ARE FOOD metaphor is manifested in lines 1 and 2, telling us how someone’s appetite is satisfied by ‘eating’ pain. I have dwelled upon that above and do not see the point to reason again. One more evidence of conceptualizing pain as physical substance is the verb “take” in the line, referring to “pain” (direct object). This way of thinking allows pain to be touched and measured.

Line 3 contains an idiom, which is a generic-level metaphor. George Lakoff and Mark Turner in “More than cool reason” (1989) analyzed proverbs as an example of generic-level metaphors, saying that the latter lack specificity in two respects: they do not have clearly delineated and fixed source and target domains and there is no fixed list of entities specified in the mapping between them. For us this means that any activity with a generic structure similar to the one in the idiom can be described by the idiom. What generic structure does our idiom have? Think of it now as if of a regular utterance. There are two living creatures here: an agent, performing the action, and a recipient, experiencing the action. The action is killing. The aim of the action is to break any possible resistance on behalf of the recipient and win the fight to enjoy the profits. The consequence of the action is the loss of life by the recipient. As for the contemporary meaning, I looked up the definitions of “go/move in for the kill” online and all of them told me more or less the following: “to prepare to defeat someone completely in an argument or competition when they are already in a weak position”. Do these actions from the definition have the same generic schema as the literal meaning? Yes, they do. In case of an argument, there are two people: one winning the argument (agent) and one losing the argument (recipient). The action here is having the argument. The aim of the action is to defeat the opponent (recipient, losing the argument) and enjoy the profits. The consequence of the action is to force the recipient to abandon the old point of view. Based on such specific-level filling of the cross-domain correspondences, the metaphor “go in for the kill” probably came to life. In the course of time, it ‘fossilized’ and turned into an idiom: a generic-level metaphor, effective for describing any situation that has a similar generic-level schema.

  1. Always in sight-prey
  2. The time always right-feast
  3. Feed on the pain-taste
  4. Sorrow made flesh-sweet

These four lines do not add much new to the concept of consuming negative feelings, presented above, and realized in the metaphors HUMAN FEELINGS ARE FOOD and HUMANS ARE ANIMALS. The scavenger is always lurking somewhere near and is ready to “feast” – enjoy somebody’s pain – when the moment comes. However, there are two moments in this passage, which I would like to investigate closer.

The first is the prepositional phrase “in sight” in line 4. I am not very well trained in the history of the English language, but I suppose it is plausible to claim that the original meaning of “sight” is “to see”, which was later extended to “the ability of the eyes to see”. In the case in focus, though, “sight” means “the area around, which is visible to the eyes”. This meaning extension provides a possibility to employ the CONTAINER IMAGE SCHEMA to talk about the visible objects: in sight, meaning in the area of visibility, meaning, in turn, in bounded region in space – in the metaphorical container: one ‘wall’ is a human (the eyes) and another is the point, behind which a person cannot see anything. Thus, everything, happening between the ‘walls’, is in sight-container.

The second case, which caught my attention, is line 7, namely, mentioning of the “flesh”. Above we agreed upon the metaphorical use of the “scavenger” and its frame. Metaphorical scavenger consumes sorrow as the real one consumes dead flesh. Line 7, however, makes use of both, creating the following relation: flesh was sweetened by the feeling of sorrow. But our metaphorical scavenger does not eat flesh. On the other hand, maybe, what is said here is “… taste sorrow-made flesh – sweet”? That is, “flesh” is used metaphorically for the hypothetical matter, produced by sorrow. I am a bit puzzled here.

The song continues

  1. Live how you want
  2. Just don’t feed on me
  3. If you doubt what I say
  4. I will make you believe
  5. Shallow are words from those who starve
  6. For a dream not their own to slash and scar

These lyrics provide much food for my brain. The song is complicated. Did Chuck have a specific person in mind, when writing it? Pay attention to line 13. What does it convey? Is “to slash and scar” used here literally (regarding a body) or metaphorically (regarding soul)? I am prone to think metaphorically about the thing after the mentioning of “shallow words”. Then the song title is “scavenger” in singular, but now “they” are introduced into the text (line 13). I have imagined a scenario of a scavenger having servants, who are on a lookout for a victim and ‘prepare’ it for a scavenger, when a victim is found. I have some thoughts, but I will keep them to myself until the analysis is done. (N.B. Another thought. As Chuck is using the indefinite article “a” throughout the song, maybe, here he just generally refers to a number of scavengers).

Apart from that, there is one more case of the HUMAN FEELINGS ARE FOOD metaphor (line 9) and a realization of the CONDUIT METAPHOR in line 12, namely, WORDS ARE CONTAINERS. The conduit metaphor is a concept introduced by Michael Reddy in his 1979’s article “The conduit metaphor – a case of frame conflict in our language about language”. Very briefly speaking, Reddy, after analyzing the way we talk about language and the talking itself, came up with the set of the following conceptual metaphors (I, actually, adopted the nicely put descriptions below from Kövecses “Metaphor: a practical introduction” 2002:234):

  • THE MIND IS A CONTAINER
  • MEANINGS ARE OBJECTS
  • LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS FOR MEANING OBJECTS
  • COMMUNICATION IS SENDING THE MEANING-OBJECTS FROM ONE MIND-CONTAINER TO ANOTHER MIND-CONTAINER ALONG A CONDUIT.

Now you get the drift and the gist of this metaphor. If a linguistic expression (anything: word, phrase etc.) is a container, then it can be large or small. It can also be described as being shallow (as in line 12). If it is shallow, it means there is not enough space to put a big object inside (=meaning). There is only enough space for a little object inside the container. Little object – little meaning, or no meaning at all. Hence, the utterance “shallow are words from those who starve” means nothing else but “those who are hungry lie or talk nonsense to you just to get food from you”.

Refrain begins

  1. Big words, small mind
  2. Behind the pain you will find
  3. A scavenger of human sorrow
  4. Scavenger

Big words – small mind” – yes, the conduit metaphor! Here the words-containers are big, though they are anyway without any meaning-filling, because the mind-container, which is small, cannot fill them with enough meaning. As in the previous section, “words” are contextually connected to some hurtful experience (pain). Words cause suffering. Then, behind your pain, you will find the already familiar scavenger.

In this particular chunk of the text, line 15 is of interest to me. Try to imagine literally being behind the pain. It is not a wall or a physical object. In order to draw the picture, we need to conceptualize the pain as a physical object and put the notorious scavenger behind it. Thus, part of the scavenger or its entire body is hidden from view. What is accessible to the perception is only pain, which is in front. Everyone, who is reading this article, realizes, actually, that what this line (15) conveys is the causation of pain by the scavenger (agent). Even more – clandestine causation. As I said, being physically behind something presupposes that part or the entire body of what is behind is hidden. Think a little about that and you will come up with numerous examples of metaphorical use of “behind” in the everyday language in general (e.g. to be/happening behind the scenes; to be behind (any event) – to cause or influence it secretly).

So, what processes do we have here at work? Imagine pain as a physical entity, a huge rock, pushed onto a person by the scavenger. The person cannot see the scavenger, performing this action, because in order to hit this person with the pain-rock, the scavenger must push the pain from its opposite side to the one, the person stands at. The scavenger cannot be seen and remains anonymous wrongdoer. This would be a literal explanation of the case. Line 15 exploits this exact scenario of causation of emotional suffering (pain, caused by words, is emotional, not physical, suffering) by applying force, but metaphorically. That is, pain as physical experience is conceptualized as a physical entity in the world, which hits the recipient and triggers the ‘painful’ feeling (mental pain, not the physical one). I would claim this case to be a type of the EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCES ARE PHYSICAL FORCES metaphor. Does anybody have any remarks about that?

Last lines

We are slowly approaching the end. Below follow the last lines of the song:

  1. Abstract theory the weapon of choice
  2. Used by a scavenger of human sorrow
  3. Scavenger
  4. So you have traveled far across the sea
  5. To spread your written brand of misery.

In this last portion of the lyrics, there are also two issues to concentrate on. Line 18 gives us the WORDS ARE WEAPONS (or LANGUAGE IS WEAPON) metaphor, which may be a lower-level metaphor of ARGUMENT IS WAR. Theories are delivered to the world by means of language and if used against someone in an argument, debate or any sort of competition, which are conceptualized and structured as WAR, then the words, delivering the theory, would take the slot of a weapon in the cross-domain mapping of the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor. The relation between the words and the theory may be viewed as part-to-the-whole metonymical relation. The one, professing the theory, is, thus, the ENEMY within this mapping pattern (=scavenger). The pieces of the puzzle seem to fall into places.

Finally, the last case to dwell upon is the last line of the song. It had been a mystery to me what is put across there (same as with lines 12-13), before I actually came up with the explanation of the lyrics. Anyway, what kind of figurative language is employed in line 22? I believe it is not so complicated, when a bit of imagination is used. The key words are “written” and “misery”. The first denotes a written/printed product, the second means some sort of “abstract theory”, referred to above. “To spread your written brand of misery” is to distribute the printed stuff, which contains the description of the miserable abstract theory. However, in the line it is said that the actual “misery” is spread. It reminds me a type of metonymical relation, in which the contents of a container (misery) must stand for their actual container (written/printed thing). Otherwise, we can argue that “to spread the written brand of misery” is to travel around and familiarize people with your “theory”. In this case, “misery” would also stand for actual words, but ontologically conceptualized as a physical entity in the world, which you can literally spread around.

Where does this all leave us?

Do you have any clue what this song was about? If not, I encourage you to stop reading here and speculate a bit. If you have your own idea, then here is my guess for you, based on the exclusively metaphorical reading of the lyrics. Remember the scavenger, who does not hunt itself here, but sends those ‘starving ones’ to “slash and scar” “for the dream not their own”? The scavenger then indulges himself in the pain and suffering which his servants are causing to other peoples, when they travel far and wide and “across the sea”, spreading the word of “misery”, which is an “abstract theory” – a primary “weapon” of the scavenger and its “conquering” horde.

My guess is the following: this is an anti-religious text about the Christian Catholic Church and its preachers.

P.S. Here is one more speculation: the rite of communion in the Christian tradition is metaphorical “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ”, who died two thousand years ago in sorrow, pain and agony, having been betrayed by his own disciple. “Sorrow made flesh – sweet!” – Christian communion may also be played on words as scavenging, as eating dead flesh, in the song.

This article is written in memory of Chuck Schuldiner (1967 – 2001) of “Death” – “The Philosopher of Death Metal”.

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About Andriy Karamazov


6 responses to “Conceptual metaphors in “Scavenger of human sorrow” by Death

  • José Zambon

    Interesting analogy, the lyrics always bewildered me and now it makes sense! I thought it was just sound-bites and words scatered which roughly mentioned someone he had bad experiences (just don’t feed on me) with and people in general who causes us pain/misery (Behind the pain you will find/ A scavenger of human sorrow. PS: I haven’t read Metaphors we live by in its entirely so just know the rudiments of Lakoff’s approach to metaphor.

    Like

  • Andriy Karamazov

    Hello! Thank you very much for your comment. I had had the same thoughts about this song as you did before I picked out and described the metaphors. My guess that it is anti-religious is just one of several possible explanations. (Anti-political theme can also fit, for instance). In More Than Cool Reason Lakoff and Turner write that this very ability to evoke different explanations based on personal experiences, values and concepts is the very beauty of the poetry, especially surrealistic texts. I will return to Death again later. Hey, thanx for reading! If you like – share, please.

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  • Eric Greif

    The song is written about Chuck’s ex-girlfriend. Any greater interpretation would be that the lyrics apply to ALL vampiric, vulture-like individuals reminiscent of his ex-girlfriend.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Andriy Karamazov

    Hello, Eric! Thank you very much for checking it out and puting an end to all speculations! I have been waiting for you. Your comment proves two things: my initial reaction to the song was still right and there is no need to look for sophisticated explanations when there is a simple one available.

    Like

  • Conceptual metaphors in “Empty Words” by Death | Digging Met(AL)aphor

    […] along a conduit between the speaker/hearer or writer/reader. I have been talking about this elsewhere. For your convenience, I provide a sketch of the Conduit Metaphor structure here again (taken from […]

    Like

  • Alvaro

    its about the conquest of america, and the genocide made by the christian church. the last two lines says it all.
    So you have traveled far across the sea
    To spread your written brand of misery.

    the written brand of misery is obviously the bible

    Like

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