Sunday 1 September 2013

Fables: The Matrix of Storytelling (2013)

From The Philosopher, Volume 101 No. 2

Fables: The Matrix of Storytelling
by Frank Hellemans

Storytelling is as old as mankind is. Our ancestors related stories at critical stages in their lives to mark the passage of key phases in life. Storytelling accompanied  each individual and acted as a kind of guide to cope with the essentials of life: birth, growing up, getting married and, finally,  death.

The first stories ever told enacted these quintessential themes of life and death. Enacted quite literally as pageant, the whole community danced along while the leading characters ­ the members of the tribe who were, perhaps,  having a child or grieving the death of their loved ones - performed their rituals. These oldest stories were narrated with hands and feet, so to speak. This kind of tactile literature ­ telling stories while performing and dancing them ­ is the oldest form of literature and  is still present in today¹s sophisticated literary form of printed narrative. The rhythm of poetry and prose refers back to the stamping of feet in this first tactical literature just as when someone praises a poem or a novel for its moving qualities or gripping scenes. They also link aesthetic pleasure to the kinetics of a good , performative art that invites the listeners to interact and engage with their neighbour - to move along and grasp their hand.

Oral literature

Over the aeons, the rites of life and death were amplified by  narrative until eventually the oral took over from the body language. Oral literature was born: people started talking about the essentials of life rather than representing them in  choreographed dances. This oral narrative is the prototype of storytelling in today¹s media, be it on television, in a printed book, in film - even online in today¹s fantasy games.

Certain particularly compelling examples of oral storytelling were written down. The Epic of Gilgamesh (composed around three thousand years ago) is usually considered the oldest piece of written literature. In it, the adventures of the central hero, Gilgamesh are told in a sequence of stories centred around his longing for immortality. The word Œfable¹, equivalent of the Greek mythos, which is linguistically derived from the Latin fari, for to talk, speak or say, refers to the oral character of this type of storytelling. The fable is thus the oldest form of oral narrative.

Pocket-sized tales

Fables and myths alike are a short and condensed way of storytelling. The characters are exaggerated and bigger than life: heroes are typical of the first fables or myths that were written down, like the Gilgamesh epic, Homer¹s Iliad (circa 800 BCE) or the Bible (the oldest Hebrew manuscripts which are usually dated to circa 200 BCE). Sometimes the characters appear in the shapes of special plants and animals. This is where the first anthology of explicit fables fits in. Aesop, writing in the sixth century BCE, told powerful, exemplary stories featuring all kinds of peculiar animals. He usually did so by contrasting distinctive characteristics of two species. He opposed the speedy hare to the slowly moving tortoise, or the cunning mouse to the not-so-cunning though physically strong lion. This binary opposition of elements was also typical of the agonistic (striving to present an argument) worldview of premodern societies in which war ­ as the Greek philosopher Heracleitus puts it ­ is the father of all things.

Agonistic stories

The myths or fables were static stories without a real plot. They concentrated on an essential moral or elementary wisdom that could help you in life, just as tactile literature once helped you to overcome the hardships of life by enacting them. People listened to the myth-makers to gather recipes for their own success in life. It¹s not because you are slow (like the tortoise) that you can¹t overcome the speedy one (like the hare) through your wits. You have to be clever and cunning (like the mouse) to compensate for physical deficiency.

Some literary historians think that the way fabulists preferred to use animals as main characters also has a lot to do with the political nature of their societies. Aesop for example, himself a liberated Greek slave, lived in an unfree, dictatorial world. It was wiser to disguise your characters behind the mask of an animal. In similar defensive spirit, today¹s novels or pictures always emphasize that there is, of course, no resemblance between the literary characters on the one hand and any actual people in real life who we may be reminded of . . .

This artistic transformation of real people into animal shape by way of self defence of the author against possible indictment became a necessity when literature was printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Oral literature was still the paramount literary art form but the ruling classes increasingly sought out and appreciated printed literature. When Jean de La Fontaine published his famous fables in the seventeenth century readers immediately knew why he chose to write in the Aesopic, animal-like way,. Censorship was harsh in the absolutist reign of Louis the Fourteenth. But who would censor the talk of animals? The reader knew who was made fun of when De La Fontaine opposed the mouse to the lion or the hare to the tortoise.

Thus fables, once a vehicle of wisdom to overcome the agonistic hardships of life, became subversive and critical. It was a small step from De La Fontaine¹s seventeenth-century stories to the eighteenth-century contes philosophiques of Voltaire. Voltaire was constantly in the sights of the absolutist rulers of his age and remained all the while very cautious in his writings. In his philosophical fables he uses an allegorical setting where the masks of animals are changed into the various masks of ordinary folks who speak of extraordinary and sometimes revolutionary insights. When Candide (the name means Œbright and sincere¹ in French) remarked that people should cultivate their own gardens rather than seek to change the world and risk devastation in the process, many French aristocrats were outraged. Yet Voltaire replied that he was only citing the practical wisdom of a plain but Œcandid¹ gardener.

Two German contemporaries of Voltaire were Christian Fürchtegott Gellert and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Their fables were much more outright because they could speak more overtly in a German society that was far more decentralized ­ and free ­ than the France of the day was. Along with Jacob Cats in seventeenth-century republican Holland, they made fables to guide their readers-citizens to a better, more enlightened way of life.

This mix of critical, non-establishment comments - as in the work of De La Fontaine and Voltaire ­ and practical how-to-live recipes­ as in the work of Gellert, Lessing and Cats ­became the matrix of the modern fable right up to today. From Franz Kafka to Bertold Brecht and Günther Anders, from George Orwell to Frank Adam: all the fabulists seek to offer tongue-in-cheek comment on the delusions of the day.

It is Kafka who seems the most philosophical though. Kafka revives the form of animal fables to create a feeling of universal unease with life. The metamorphosis described in his most famous fable is of a man who awakens in the body of an insect. Kafka focuses on the helplessness of the man as a metaphor for the existential feeling of emptiness in a technology driven-world where God and man alike are absent. Less well known is that Kafka creates the same feeling of unadoptedness with the world in another animal fable - ŒJosephine the singer, of the mouse folk¹.

George Orwell performs some of the same tricks as Kafka did in his animal fables but with a completely different purpose. Animal Farm wants to make fun of the ideology of communism with what he sees as its false promises of equality and is much obliged to the enlightened fables of eighteenth century authors who also wanted to criticize and undermine the ruling ideology. Orwell¹s classic fable is still a strong antidote to every form of pensée unique or ideological fundamentalism.

Beware the self-complacent citizen

Two contemporary German authors, Bertold Brecht and Günther Anders, use the fable to criticise the bourgeois attitude and the rise of fascism. Brecht, known for his theatre plays in which Verfremdungseffekte (distancing or estrangement effects) reveal the truth behind our so-called reality, was also a writer of stories with many of the characteristics of traditional fables. His ŒStories of mister Keuner¹ show the normal bougeois of his time in the way he talks, walks and thinks. By mimicking the gestures and thoughts of a normal German citizen of the middle class, Brecht tries to deconstruct the self-complacent ideology of the average citizen that finally led to the rise of fascism.

Günther Anders, Hannah Arendt's first husband (they met in Martin Heidegger's lecture hall where they both heard lectures on Hegel¹s Logic) chose a more philosophical method. That Anders is a true heir to the enlightened ideology of Lessing and Voltaire is demonstrated in both his philosophical writings, The Outdatedness of Human Beings (two parts) and his fables - The Molussian Catacomb. Both kinds of writing seek to show how outdated and wrong the real world has become. The Molussian Catacomb is a book of fables that is composed in the way the legendary Arab Stories of a thousand and one nights were made, and was written in 1931 yet only published in 1992. It consists of a sequence of talks between refugees in an underground world or catacomb. From their hiding place in these caves they contemplate the false, inverted slogans of the outside, fascist world in an imaginary country, called Molussia.

Interestingly enough, they also reflect on the nature of the fable as truth seeking instrument::

It is painful to have to explain fables . . . They are explanations of themselves. And of better quality than all others, for the they are at the same time warnings.

Anders pinpoints the nature of fables throughout their rich history, always ways of finding the right answers to the ultimate question: what¹s the point of being alive? Fables in themselves were exercises in leading a meaningful, good life. That¹s why they don¹t need any explanation. The sense of the fable lies in itself.

And so to the fables of Frank Adam*. The Flemish-Belgian author summarise the rich history of the genre. After five books of fables ­ his fifth collection about Belgium appearing in the autumn of 2013 ­ Adam may justly be described as the most outspoken fabulist of our time. Yet his tales are equally inspired by his fellow-fabulists throughout the ages. They often pay tribute to the tactile-oral beginnings of the fables. And it is a certainly not a coincidence that Adam found the original inspiration while doing a show on stage, a show in which he introduced the famous donkey that now plays a central role in the fables as a character to which everybody conveys his sorrows and worries.

Adam is also largely indebted to the enlightened tradition of the conte philosopique - from Voltaire onwards to the 20th-century versions of Kafka and Anders. But there is one main difference in that Adam¹s fables are first and foremost absurd. In them, the narrative device of the donkey almost always seems to invert the stories that people tell him until the point arrives that no one really knows what the problem is (let alone the solution).

No truth except in the fable itself

But then, Adam suggests (as Anders does), that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Talking about your problems in a concise, fabulist manner is the best way of coping with the hardships of life. There is no truth except that within the fable itself. Instead, like our ancestors, we should, both tangibly and orally, give ourselves away to the sublime and compelling act of fabulist storytelling, the origin and source of all narratives past and present. Fabula acta est.

*Read two of Frank Adam's intriguing 'Belgian Fables - from the Age of Absurdity', as well as Jean-Michel Henny on the fable as subversive genre throughout literature and philosophy here. All the essays can  also  be read in French translation.

Frank Hellemans  is a Flemish Belgian literary critic and the author of many books about literature and media history as well as  a college professor at Thomas More Mechelen where he teaches History of Communication. He can be contacted at: Keldermansvest 23, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium.

email <>

No comments:

Post a Comment

Our authors very much value feedback from readers. Unfortunately, there is so much spam on the internet now that we now have to moderate posts on the older articles. Please accept our apologies for any extra time this may require of you.