Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who The Hell Does Aesop Think He Is?

I recently re-discovered Leo Lionni's prize-winning children's book, Frederick, in which a little mouse warms the hearts of his family in the bitter winter by sharing with them the "colors" he gathered in the summer. While the rest of the mice spend all summer preparing for the winter, Frederick basks in the colors of summer and forms them into poetry. Lionni's point, I believe, is that art plays an intrinsic role in a culture--it is the culture, and Frederick's family values the contribution he makes to their survival of the winter.

It's obviously a not-so-subtle point, but it's one that needs to be made. The book almost stands as an artist's response to Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper," which we have all grown up hearing. In fact, the beginning of the two stories closely parallel each other, as evidenced by this version of the tale of the two insects:

"In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

"'Why not come and chat with me,' said the Grasshopper, 'instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"'I am helping to lay up food for the winter,' said the Ant, 'and recommend yu to do the same.'

"'Why bother about winter?' said the Grasshopper; 'we have got plenty of food at present.'

"But the Ant went on its way and
continued its toil. When the winter same the Gsshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

"It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."
Had Frederick's family been a little more cold-blooded, they, too, would have booted Frederick out in the winter because he hadn't helped to gather the food. Instead, they shared the bounty with him and in turn reaped the benefits of his "lazing about": the poetry that invoked the colors of summer and warmed their hearts in the cold of winter. Another way to look at Aesop's story is this: all summer long, the ants worked hard, listening to the beautiful music the grasshopper made while "chirping and singing." Everyone knows that work goes quicker when accompanied by music--hence the popularity of sea shanties and other work songs.

The problem, then, is that while the ants survive the long, cold winter, their music does not, as the grasshopper obviously starves and freezes to death. All winter, the ants will huddle in their dens with only the silence of the snow above to comfort with. The next summer, when they are industriously stocking food for the coming winter, their work will not be eased by the strains of the grasshopper's song. There will be no pleasure to be found in their work.

If anything, one might say that Aesop's tale of a utilitarian commune is an attack on art and music, while Leo Lionni's tale of the little poet mouse is a defense of it. While we all know hard work in the form of manual labor is necessary to physically survive, hard work in the form of art, literature, and music is necessary to spiritually and emotionally survive. The cold-hearted ants effectively killed the possiblity of culture in their world and there will be no songs lauding their efforts and survival. Nothing of meaning will emerge from their work, as only art can last beyond the death of the generation.

What is really galling about all of this, however, is that Aesop was a fabalist, a writer, a spinner of tales--essentially, an artist. He was not industriously tilling fields in preparation for the hard winter. He was telling stories and being paid to do so, and it was only because his stories resonated so well with the ancient world that he is remembered today. Though we know little about his life, we know that Socrates transcribed some of his stories, as did other figures in Ancient Greece. How does a writer, a sage, a philosopher, get off telling us that only those who work in the most obvious sense deserve to survive the winter? Read this little tidbit about his life:
"he subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he is said to have visited Athens, on which occasion he related the fable of The Frogs asking for a King, to dissuade the citizens from attempting to exchange Peisistratus for another ruler." [1]
It was through his stories that he made a difference in the world--he was an advisor to kings, and he related to them by telling them stories. This is why his criticism of the grasshopper never has and never will make sense to me.

Who the hell does Aesop think he is?

Work Cited:

[1] "Aesop Biography." Biography Base. Accessed on 20 Nov. 2008.


Chatty Cathy said...

Thanks for the post...well done piece. I like how you turned the tables on good old Aesop.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

He really is an asshole to say this kind of stuff when he IS the grasshopper, not the ant.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he's pointing that out? and perhaps we shouldn't lend what he said or wrote any credence?

Kinda a self defeating argument, eh?

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Perhaps, but I don't think so. The story is very critical of the Grasshopper, while the Ant is shown to be diligent and hardworking--a paragon among insects. There doesn't seem to be any irony in either character's portrait.

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