Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drawing From The Wrong Side Of Your Brain

 It seems like this is the latest golden age of radio. I heard this fable of Aesop’s yesterday on a download from CBC Canada. Jonathan Goldstein told it on Wiretap. It’s called The Bat and The Weasels:

"A bat was out flying one day when he fell to the ground. Lying on the ground he was immediately caught by a weasel. The bat pleaded for his life, but the weasel refused his pleas telling the bat that he was by nature an enemy to all birds. Hearing this the bat assured him that he was not a bird but a mouse, a flying mouse. And thus the weasel set the bat free. Shortly afterwards, the bat, while out flying again, fell to the earth once more, where he was again caught by another weasel. (This is a completely different weasel) Once again the bat begged this other weasel for his life, explaining that he was in fact not a bird but a mouse. But this time, this other weasel told the bat that not only did he hate birds but he also had a special hatred for mice. Hearing this the bat then assured the weasel that he was neither a bird nor a mouse but a bat. And thus for a second time the bat escaped."

That’s the end? What kind of story is that? When asked what it meant, most of the people on Wiretap were at a loss. First up Jonathan’s colleague Howard ventured that it was like a koan, one of those impenetrable little Zen fables. You know the sort of thing: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? After time to gather his wits he concluded that it wasn’t a very good story. Among others there was Rabbi Popko who saw it as a story about survival versus dishonour. Personally, I like the way the bat does two different things and they both work at least (and maybe only) once. I think maybe the rabbi said something like this too. Before I listened to the download there was something on the Wiretap web page that made me expect that around about now there was going to be something about a Jew surviving by telling one Nazi he was Polish or something and telling another Nazi he was a Jew. But there wasn’t. After the rabbi came a writer, it might have been John Hodgman I think. He trashes the little story. It’s a terrible, terrible fable. To illustrate he retells it as a bad joke. Something like this: Two weasels go into a bar. Bat is the bartender. One weasel says I hate birds. The other weasel says I hate birds and I also hate mice. Bat says good thing I’m a bat. The moral of telling it this way was: Just as the joke fails because it isn’t funny, the fable fails because it has no moral lesson, no take away. This possible John Hodgman said he would not include this fable in The Book.
Jonathan phoned Laura Gibbs, a translator of Aesop, and she said that the fables have been handed down just as summaries. On the page they have been torn out from their context in a living oral story-telling tradition. People like lawyers would have used compendiums of fables as a source for their speeches. I guess the lawyers could adapt a fable to their case. (Jonathan, by the way, was using his Aesop for his insomnia). For the record here’s Laura’s translation from Oxford University Press’s Aesop’s Fables (2008):

"A bat had fallen to the ground where a weasel grabbed her and was ready to kill her. The bat begged for mercy but the weasel refused, since weasels are the natural enemies of every kind of bird. The bat insisted that she was not a bird at all, but only a mouse, so the weasel let her go. Later on, the bat fell to the ground again and was seized by another weasel. The bat also begged this weasel not to kill her, but the weasel refused, since there was a war between the mice and the weasels. The bat denied that she was a mouse, but only a bat, so once again the weasel let her go. As a result, the bat was able to save herself twice by changing her name."

Clearly we must not always stick to the same course all the time since people who change with the times are often able to escape even the greatest dangers.

Gender issues. War between mice and weasels. Changing names. It is always good to see a different version of a fable. The littlest changes remind you that the art and the moral is all in the retelling. Yes it’s got a moral too. A take away. Whose privilege I wonder is it to tack that on? Aesop’s or the reteller’s? Aesop, whoever or whatever he was, is now the product of telling and retelling and retelling. It’s called Aesopica and that’s all Aesop really is anymore. Fables only live in being retold. All of culture’s like that really. It’s like life: it survives and evolves only in reproduction. Cultures that ban their re-imagination annihilate themselves. Versions of these stories have been told here and there all throughout Indo-European culture. The animals change, the morals change and no-one can tell anymore who Aesop was or who the Ur-Aesop was and whether he or she was the same Ur-Aesop who gave the indigenous cultures of Australia and America their versions too. Do we all get our stories from the same Ur-Aesop or are all our stories so similar because they respond to the same human interests?
Laura thought The Bat and The Weasels had now become, if not dead, then decrepit. It had become a kind of cultural dead-end. And Jonathan ended Wiretap by having a go at reviving it. He went for a modern version about a bat, the child of pigeon and a mouse, who discovers its identity as a bat. It is too long for here (you can listen to it on line) too elaborate, and not as good as the joke, which is maybe at least sort of funny and definitely good storytelling. Its brevity gives it semantic leverage. Jonathan’s real contribution to story-telling is the whole beautiful episode of Wiretap.
            Just one other thing about the responses. It was the comfort respondents took in quibbling, things like: this bat was not a good flyer; these weasels weren’t as cunning as weasels are supposed to be; weasels, like everyone else, don’t eat birds because they hate them, they eat them because they like eating them. There must be something important going on here. But maybe that’s another story. I wanted to say that usually these stories go in threes. Three weasels would walk into a bar. What would have happened when the bat fell to the ground a third time? By the way, Rabbi Popko reminded us that the German for bat is fliedermaus, flying mouse. I wanted to say, flying fox is English for bat, at least where I live. Not really quibbles. Footnotes.
            Anyway now I have to say how beautiful this fable is, what brilliant story-telling. No moral tacked on the end could ever do it justice. Of course there is not much point acting like a mouse and being terrified of weasels, when you could just be hanging out like a bat instead, but what is the point of saying that. The fable is a wonderful distillation, so clear people seem to look right through it and see nothing, its spirit and meaning so strong that people don’t get it without watering it down in elaboration. That’s what good fables are: indeterminately short. Like bits of string that you keep in a jar for when you need them.

            I am starting to get some idea of what the take away of this essay might be. I think it’s something to do with the assumption that a lot of people make that this fable rather than being all Zen and Koanic, is just not very good or sort of derelict. Like the West or modernity. The Bat and The Weasels though reminds me of those little stories Franz Kafka told. The maybe-not-very-good ones. Not Zen, more Jewish I guess, or greekjew as James Joyce might have said. Here’s one called A Little Fable:

"'Alas,' said the mouse, 'the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.'

'You only need to change your direction,' said the cat, and ate it up."

Is this a story or an aborted story? It sounds a bit like The Trial in one hundred words or less. In another one of Kafka’s little stories someone says ‘All these little parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’

So I was talking about The Bat and The Weasel with two friends. And the conversation being conversation got around to being about something else. One friend’s mother had wanted to draw so she enrolled in a course called Drawing From The Right Side of The Brain. You know the kind of thing. Creative adult education. Lesson One: The master puts pencil and paper in front of the pupils and says draw this. It was a copy of one of those pictures of a lamp base or a vase that also looks like the profile of a face (or two faces) or something. Whatever it is it is a bit tricky. That’s the point. They use them in first year Psychology courses. A Rubin vase I think it’s called. I think it’s a figure-ground thing. But maybe it’s a right-side/wrong side thing too. (Ludwig Wittgenstein could have used his duckrabbit picture if he’d got the job of drawing master. It’s either a gormless duck or a puzzled rabbit looking into the wind.) Friend’s mother didn’t know where to start. That was why she was doing Drawing From Right Side of The Brain in the first place. Just draw what you see said the master.
As it turned out Lesson One was a replay of one of friend’s mother’s nightmares. It was like when she was a child and a teacher had stuck a pencil and paper in front of her and had said draw a map of Australia, and when she had primal drawer’s block, the teacher just told her again to draw it, anyone can draw a map of Australia. (On its side it looks a bit like a duck or a rabbit, or a cranky drawing master) This is where the story gets terrible. It’s a whole other story. My friend’s mother was pretty upset about having to learn all over again how not to draw. She went out into her garden. She had a beautiful garden. She slipped climbing up a little wall, crushed a vertebra. It was like the beginning of the end for my friend’s mother. The fate of the drawing master is another story. Gossip.

Now while all this was happening I had been thinking about mentors. Mentor was a guy who walked out of the pages of The Odyssey and became a common English noun around the middle of the eighteenth century. By the end of the twentieth he had become a verb and then a gerund, and with that a new institution: the mentoring program.
In The Odyssey Mentor is in loco parentis to Telemachus whose father Odysseus is away at the Trojan War. Mentor is the wise counsellor. Now one thing that is a bit funny about Mentor is that in most of his scenes Mentor is not quite himself. Athena, the wise and bright-eyed goddess, assumes Mentor’s aged form and voice. She or he encourages Telemachus to journey in search of his father, eggs Odysseus on against his enemies back home in Ithaca, and even ends up establishing peace at the end of the whole show.
It’s the wise counsellor role that has come into the lingo. The zeitgeist has it that what we call young people (and probably young men especially) are now peculiarly susceptible to being fatherless. Divorce, the crisis of masculinity, feminist triumph, you know. Happily Mentor was there in the wings of tradition to provide the solution and take the place of the absent father.
Tradition, that revered and obscure father to us all, is partly what mentoring is all about. How better to recapture that now absent father than by the managed folksiness of mentoring. How better to become re-enchanted. The zeitgeist has figured out that education is now alienated from experience. Experience, if you’re young, is disaffected. As for basing education on pop psychology about learning styles — that’s light on supporting evidence and it ends up with the same old alienation affect anyway. Even ‘visual kinaesthetic’ learners are bored with colour and movement. So here we all are longing for those old tribal ceremonies that recognised and celebrated the stages of authentic life. High school isn’t a proper initiation, nor is university, apprenticeships are hard to come by, vandalism and gang behaviour are antisocial, and adolescent circumcision is too drastic. So let’s mentor. We can extend it to life-long learning too. We could mentor drawing from the right side of the brain. And we could have a mentoring task force to fight the war in Afghanistan. In fact we do.
Once the verb ‘to mentor’ appeared with its promise of a society re-enchanted by wisdom and informal but managed instruction, it wasn’t long before the gerund appeared as evidence that a maybe innocent desire had spawned a demented offspring. What was once a happy relation between humans became a manufactured contrivance. Soon there were mentoring programs. Meanwhile, no one sounded entirely comfortable pronouncing the last syllable of mentor. It was too much like the unstressed ‘-er’ ending that English uses to turn a verb into its agent. So no one should have been surprised when the person mentored became the mentee. It had come to this.
I don’t think I ever had much in the way of a mentor, but maybe that was the point of a mentor. It was a pretty informal thing. Maybe you weren’t supposed to realise you’d had one until it was all over. Maybe like Telemachus you didn’t really realise you’d had one at all. Besides, Mentor wasn’t a real mentor anyway. That was Athena. And she wasn’t a proper male role model. Anyway I used to think that a mentor sounded like not a bad idea. It had sounded pretty good in The Odyssey for a good two thousand years.
Today I read a quote from King Lear: Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination. It’s in that scene on the cliff at Dover, just after Gloucester jumps. How did Shakespeare just keep on coming up with this stuff. What side of his brain was he coming from. Anyway like the troubled King, I just want an ounce of civet. I don’t really want imagination being turned into consolation, creativity into therapy, Mentor into a mentoring program. I can do without the pitch.
Enough. That’s it, that’s the essay about Aesop, The Wrong Side of The Brain and Mentoring. If I start to explain how they go together, I’ll just complicate it like I did with the thing about King Lear. What’s he got to do with it? It’s like trying to draw a rabbit and ending up with a duck that looks sort of like a map of Australia with two Cape Yorks. I just know they go together. An essay can say anything but it can’t say everything. It wouldn’t want to. Like one of Aesop’s fables an essay is finished when it feels it’s said enough.

But there’s the moral of course and I can’t do better than Aesop for that. A bat falls to the ground and gets caught by a fox. When the bat begs for his life, the fox refuses, saying that he is by nature the enemy of all birds. The bat assures the fox that he is not a bird, but a fox. And the fox spares the bat’s life. Some time later the bat is going somewhere crawling on the ground this time, just in case, and gets caught by another fox. When the bat begs the fox for his life this fox says he hates other foxes. So the bat assures the fox that he is not a fox but a bat. The fox says no your not, you’re a crawling fox, and eats the bat.

OK. So there is more. Of course there is. There is the third friend, the one I tell The Bat and The Weasels to after I think all this is over. First I tell him my version of Jonathan’s version of Aesop’s version. It’s Friday afternoon. He’s just finished doing something meaningless. Anything would amuse him. And he is amused. Or polite. So then I tell him the one about two weasels walk into a bar. He’s even laughing. So now he tells me a joke. Why do Irish scuba divers roll out of the boat backwards. It’s an Irish joke he says. Why I wonder. I really want to know. Because if they rolled forwards they’d end up in the boat.

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