Thursday, November 17, 2005

So Much for Folk Wisdom; or, Aesop Was a Lackey of the Imperialists

(Proving to Bruce that I can too write something literary)

One of the books I remember reading over and over in my early childhood was Aesop's Fables. I remember the pictures, and the little stories; but I'm a bit weaker on the moral lessons.

Which may be just as well.

On looking at some of them again recently, I begin to wonder about the morality of some of these little life lessons.

Take the best known of the tales, "The Fox and the Grapes" , of which the moral is " It is easy to despise what you cannot get." As a five-year-old, I bought it; but as an adult, I've come to agree with the fox. What's wrong with convincing yourself you don't really want something you can't get? Of course, you should be sure that it is in fact inaccessible, and not just hard to come by, or unfairly forbidden to you because of your race, gender, religion, previous condition of servitude, or whatever. For example, as a less-than-sylphlike sexagenarian with coordination and balance problems, it would be futile for me to yearn for a career as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet. (Besides, I can't speak Russian.) But it would be quite reasonable for me to hope to write and sell a novel. The fox made a decent effort, found obtaining the grapes to be beyond his capacity, and very sensibly went off--probably to catch a fat rabbit.

The one fable I've always hated is "The Ass and the Lapdog," with its rather cruel moral, "To be satisfied with one's lot is better than to desire something which one is not fitted to receive." This version is rather different from the one in my childhood Aesop, as it emphasizes the ass's desire for a life of ease. In my book, the ass was contrasting the affection and petting received by the lapdog with the blows and curses he received despite his hard work. I've always thought it unfair; certainly it was ridiculous for the ass to behave like a lapdog, but Aesop seems quite comfortable with the idea that no matter how hard-working and well-behaved the ass is, he can't hope for treats and petting. (Imagine how jealous he would have been if his master had had a cat instead of a lapdog!)

These fables have in common the theme of accepting one's lot in life, with the ass being condemned for aspiring to something better and the fox for not accepting that it was his own fault he couldn't get it, apparently. I wonder if this attitude derives from the fact that Aesop was a slave, and may well have been telling his stories to other slaves. Like the comments of Paul addressed to slaves in the Epistles, the moral seems to be "shut up and don't make waves." (I think both Nietzsche and Shaw criticized Christianity as a slave morality.)

Contrast this with another childhood favorite, the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, which were ultimately derived from African folktales told by slaves in the South. The hero here is Br'er Rabbit, the trickster, who manages to outwit the powerful predator figures, Br'er Fox and Br'er Wolf, every time. The stories are comic, but the message is subversive. Uncle Remus has been criticized by modern Black Studies scholars as an Uncle Tom, and of course the Disney version made the whole thing terminally cute; but I think if I had the misfortune to be a slave, I'd rather listen to Uncle Remus's stories than to Aesop's.