Friday, July 27, 2012

The Tortoise & the Easter Bunny ?

A Brief History of Fables 
From Aesop to Flash Fiction
Lee Rourke.    
“For in the beginning of Literature is the myth, and in the end as well.” Jorge Luis Borges.
In the introduction to this book it states that it is “a brief history of fables and, in particular, their literary influence in popular culture throughout the ages”  and that  as part of the brief histories series, Lee Rourke has set out to “briefly chart the popular Aesopic fable’s literary heritage” as he, the writer, sees it, taking as his starting point “ Aesop’s ancient oral and mimetic roots, to its myriad stylistic and symbolic influences in the burgeoning age of flash fiction and the internet”
Aesop’s  life is like Homer’s, obscured by myth & rumour, what is known would make a fantastic tale of it’s own. Thought to have been born around 620 BC and rising from slave to become a courtier  to the King of Babylon, famous throughout the land for his great wit as a speaker and storyteller. His fables were used as common currency, passing from individual to individual & country to country, becoming the moral and philosophical guidance of the people. This didn’t last as Aesop offended the citizens of Delphi so much that they decided to kill him, first by framing him, they then executed him by chucking him off a cliff, although this came back on them, as they were met with a series of awful calamities, that at the time were recorded as “the blood of Aesop”.
After this event a statue was erected in Athens, to honour him, sculpted by one of the  foremost artists of this period (Lysippus), an event recorded by Phaedrus in verse
“The Athenians erected a large statue of Aesop, and placed him, though a slave, on a lasting pedestal, to show that the way to honour lies open indifferently to all.”
(Phaedrus, Thrace of Macedonia {trans unknown})

At the time of his death, Aesop’s fables were so thoroughly embedded in both Greek and Roman society, that his influence can be seen in the works of Plato & Socrates, in fact Lee Rourke goes on to state that we can place Aesop in a contrasting relationship to the likes of Socrates, placing Aesop in the role of the “first real public anti-hero & as an anti-philosopher par excellence” stating that where  Socrates went on to preach the mantra “Know Thyself” it was Aesop who first preached the contrary philosophy of “No”,  posing the question of what can we really know, or if we have any real knowledge of our own, this he did through his use of analogy (an important tool in the history of Philosophy) for example:

 This tale from the “Life of Aesop” of when his master sends him to inspect the baths

“While Aesop is on his way there, he runs into a government official, who asks Aesop where he is going. Aesop says simply, “I don’t know.” This infuriates the official, who insists on knowing where Aesop is going. Aesop still refuses to answer the question, saying only, “I don’t know.” The official, completely enraged, orders that Aesop be arrested and taken to jail. At this point, Aesop explains: “You see that my answer was correct; I did not know that I was going to jail!” The government official is so startled by Aesop’s display of wisdom that he lets him go.”

In this one analogy Aesop turns around the  famous motto* of “Know Thyself” and replaces it with the motto of  “I don’t know!” and thus escaping the philosophical trap of supposing to understand all, replacing it with the idea that  “For all our plans and purposes, do we really know where we are going…?”.

This motto is just one of the strands that “A Brief History of Fables”  unpicks, as it traces the route these tales have taking us on, tracking them through their various translations (whether cultural, language or religious), from the Greek and Roman world through the cultures of Islam, Judaism & Christianity,  through writers such as Phaedrus, Plutarch, Marie De France, and onto Rumi **, William Caxton, Franz Kafka , Samuel Beckett ,James JoyceJorge Luis Borges right up to the present day.

This brings us to the second part of the title “Flash Fiction”, and this is where Lee Rourke, ties all his strands together by stating  that “It seems to me that in flash fiction we have come full circle and, once again , in one of our most modern forms of literature, the oldest of influences looms large – enlivening it in a modern context”.  He goes on to cite the work of writers such as Tania Hershman, Shane Jones, Blake Butler & Joseph Young demonstrating how their  microfictions distillate the essence of Aesop & how in their linguistic & mythic properties we can  trace this process back to the original fables, here’s one from Joseph Young’s collection  of 86 microfictions, Easter Rabbit

“It was easy to hear the word that turned through the table. It could sound like death, or listen! or ridicule, but it caught at the throat and stuck. The other words, those at the spiked green corners of her eyes or the bittersweet planes of his mouth, were pregnant with it, its sons and daughters. They’d labor on, these people, without fruit it seemed, though in fact the table was in the blossom of it.”                                                                      (Easter Rabbit, Joseph Young – Publishing Genius Press)

By focusing on the works of these present day writers he shows where & how Aesop & his fables  have surfaced time & time again, from Aesop’s tortoise and hare, via Plato’s socio-political works and the later ribald medieval tales, to Kafka’s anthropomorphism, to present-day authors work, such as Blake Butler’s “Scorch Atlas”, Shane Jones’s Light Boxes or Joseph Young’s “Easter Rabbit”.  A Brief History of Fables offers a bold take on the new face of literature. I’ll leave the last word to the Author, Lee Rourke:
“This book is in no way an instruction manual. Nor is it a work of critical theory. It is a celebration of a particular history of literary communication in all its glorious phases, a celebration of literature and one of its myriad interpolations. And finally, if that doesn’t grab you, just think of it as a signpost to another world: a wonderful, fabulous, mindbogglingly brilliant world of infinite possibilities.”
Lee Rourke
Lee Rourke(Wiki)
Lee Rourke’s Top 5 Modern Post-Fabulists:

*attributed to Socrates, Pythagoras, and Thales (amongst others).

** Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī)13th-century Persian, Muslim poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Rumi is a descriptive name meaning "Roman" since he lived most of his life in an area called "Rûm" (then under the control of Seljuq dynasty) because it was once ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Interesting book. I've always been fascinated with Joseph Campbell's ideas about the recurring stories we see across cultures and across time.

@parridhlantern said...

although this one related to flash fiction & fables, it also reminded me of the spirit behind Alberto Manguel's book Homer's, The Iliad & The Odyssey which demonstrated how these 2 poems echo through the worlds literature right through to modern time.

ds said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving your thoughts there. Aesop as the original flash fiction author. Hmm...(but I like the Easter Bunny--great use of language there). War and exile are probably the great stories of humankind. Most interesting stuff.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Welcome & thanks for your comment, as to the Easter bunny, stole it from Joseph Young's fantastic Flash Fiction/Prose poetry collection Easter Rabbit. If you want to check out some more poetry try my Pomesallsizes page, in the sidebar, which has lots of links as well as poetry & links to my pomesallsizes poetry on twitter, this is a site where I try to place a poem from a different writer/country daily. thanks again.

Joseph Young said...

hey, just stumbled across this post. ever since lee told me about it i've been wanting to read his book. then it seemed there were publishing delays and i lost track of it. i will have to make sure to get it now that you've reminded me. thanks!!


@parridhlantern said...

Hi Joseph, thanks for the stumble this way , an amazing stroke of coincidence as I'm writing up my post on Easter Rabbit, at this moment.