Friday, February 26, 2010

Black Comparisons

Yesterday, I listened to G. K. Chesterton's introduction to Aesop's Fables.  (This is one of the advantages of modern technologies - plays right into my iPhone through the automobile speakers while I'm driving).  As I listened to what Chesterton has written about Aesop and his fables, I couldn't help but make comparisons to what Aristotle has also written about Aesop and his fables.

Generally, I like things that Chesterton writes because he tends to open up meanings, like Aesop and his fables do.  But in his Introduction, Chesterton closes down meanings like Aristotle does; he tries to box meanings up much more like Aristotle does.

So let's compare.  Here's Chesterton on Aesop and his fables:
The historical AEsop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like everything else in Herodotus. There are also stories of deformity of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly moral and correct. But there is no kind of doubt that the general legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves. AEsop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old world could be worshipped like AEsop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories about beasts and birds.
Now, here's Aristotle:
It remains to speak of the proofs common to all branches of Rhetoric, since the particular proofs have been discussed. These common proofs are of two kinds, example and enthymeme (for the maxim is part of an enthymeme).  Let us then first speak of the example; for the example resembles induction, and induction is a beginning.  There are two kinds of examples; namely, one which consists in relating things that have happened before, and another in inventing them oneself.  The latter are subdivided into comparisons or fables, such as those of Aesop and the Libyan.
Λοιπὸν δὲ περὶ τῶν κοινῶν πίστεων ἅπασιν εἰπεῖν, ἐπείπερ εἴρηται περὶ τῶν ἰδίων. εἰσὶ δ’ αἱ κοιναὶ πίστεις δύο τῷ γένει, παράδειγμα καὶ ἐνθύμημα· ἡ γὰρ γνώμη μέρος ἐνθυμήματός ἐστιν. πρῶτον μὲν οὖν περὶ παραδείγματος λέγωμεν· ὅμοιον γὰρ ἐπαγωγῇ τὸ παράδειγμα, ἡ δ’ ἐπαγωγὴ ἀρχή. παραδειγμάτων δὲ εἴδη δύο· ἓν μὲν γάρ ἐστιν παραδείγματος εἶδος τὸ λέγειν πράγματα προγενομένα, ἓν δὲ τὸ αὐτὸν ποιεῖν. τούτου δὲ ἓν μὲν παραβολὴ ἓν δὲ λόγοι, οἷον οἱ Αἰσώπειοι καὶ Λιβυκοί.
The translation above by J. H. Freese is older and technical English, which compares pretty well to Aristotle's older and technical Greek.  We could compare this with a newer English translation, one by W. Rhys Roberts, which actually shows how Aristotle (whether he intends to or not) is performing the kind of "rhetorics" that he, by logic, is trying to map out rather objectively.  Note how translator Roberts uses several English language devices -- (a) the grammar parenthesis, (b) the abbreviation "e.g., for example," and (c) the appositive -- to make more of a direct comparison in the last line here:
... and the fable (e.g. the fables of Aesop, those from Libya). 
Now, when we look at the statements of Chesterton and Aristotle side by side, what we may begin to notice are similarities.  Both Chesterton and Aristotle narrowly construct what Aesop's fables are (i.e., what they are vs. what they are not).  The categories of both Chesterton and Aristotle could be severely critiqued as not only limiting but also, in some instances, as inaccurate.

(Chesterton, for example, says "fables" are "not fairy tales," and he goes on to assert that Aesop "understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn.... Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not AEsop's all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls."

Notice in the words I've bolded above how Chesterton works to essentialize what fables are and are not; in essence, they are other than fairy tales, are abstractions, are pieces, are dependent on the essential nature of animals, are not fairy tales.  Notice how "other," how "impersonal," how "awful," how "Egyptian and Indian," how "abstract," how supposedly "Natural" Chesterton's categories for Aesop's fables must be for him.  However, when you read the fables of Aesop yourself, you can easily find counterexamples to Chesterton's assertions.  He can't keep Aesop or his fables in the box he constructs for them.  If you yourself read Aesop's fables, you can easily find in some of them humans interacting with animals as the Greek gods and goddesses interact with their humans.  You can easily see that the animals are personal and not always predictable.  And when we read Aesop's fables, ironically and fascinatingly, you see how Chesterton himself does much of what Aesop does -- what he tries to ignore the fable teller doing:  they both use comparisons to make points for, and with, the reader and listener.  This is like Aristotle too, who is using comparisons while disparaging certain "essential" aspects of fables qua rhetoric.  Aristotle is trying to be logical, at best trying to sound logical.  He opens his treatise on Rhetoric with a definition:  "Rhetoric is the antistrophos of Dialectic."  Essentially, rhetoric is different from dialectic -- and both are under logic, which can define them.  The funny, ironic thing is that Aristotle ends up abandoning pure logic when giving examples of fables, which he categorizes and essentializes.)

What is most interesting, when comparing Chesterton and Aristotle writing, is how the two white men are comparing Aesop (likely a slave) and his fables to black people and their fables.  Chesterton says -- insinuating that Aesop could have been "ugly and offensive" -- that readers of Aesop really "may justly rank him with a race:  ... a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves."  Chesterton then names Uncle Remus, an African American storyteller.

Aristotle, who writes to elite pure Greek males, makes this comparison:   τούτου δὲ ἓν μὲν παραβολὴ ἓν δὲ λόγοι οἷον οἱ Αἰσώπειοι καὶ Λιβυκοί.  To compare that with our barbarian English it goes something like this:  "There are stories thrown violently alongside your own:  Aesop's and Libyans'."  And just as Chesterton's readers and listeners understand the "race" and the name of "Uncle Remus" so Aristotle's readers and listeners understand the black race and his naming of the Libyans.

Uncle Remus, of course, is the black storyteller of African American folktales ostensibly.  And the Libyans, who might they be?

In the Odyssey, Homer suggests where Libya is.  And he insinuates what it's like, Afric, exotic, a place where goods and slaves are bought and sold.  The Greek hero Odysseus says, "I wandered to Cyprus and Phoenicia, and to the Egyptians, and reached the Ethiopians, Sidonians, and Erembi, and Libya, where rams become horned suddenly" (4.83-85) and "he put me on a seafaring ship to Libya, falsely advising me that I'd be bringing back cargo with him, but so he could sell me there and get an untold price for me" (14.295-97).

But Libya for the Greeks is also a woman.  She is a half goddess and a foreigner raped by a god to produce foreign men.  And Libyans also are related to Gorgones:
Pliny (H. N. iv. 31) thought that they were a race of savage, swift, and hair-covered women; and Diodorus (iii. 55) regards them as a race of women inhabiting the western parts of Libya, who had been extirpated by Heracles in traversing Libya.
The most famous Gorgon, of course, is the infamous Medusa:
In her images, her hair sometimes resembles dread locks, showing her origins in Africa. There she had a hidden, dangerous face. It was inscribed that no one could possibly lift her veil, and that to look upon her face was to glimpse ones own death as she saw your future.
So, when Aristotle compares Aesop to Libyans and their stories with one another, there is something either intentional or at best unconsciously denigrating.  Aristotle was not fond of slaves, or barbaric foreigners, or females, or their rhetorics.

I'm running out of time here.  But I do want to say that during black history month it's helpful for us to think more about "fable."  The Greek word Aristotle uses here (in his Rhetoric 1393a line 30) is παραβολὴ [transliterated with the English alfabeta as parabolḕ].  In other contexts of Aristotle's writings, translators tend to render that in English as "comparisons."  Bible translators tend to make it "sayings" or "words" when bringing the Greek translation of the Hebrew into English (i.e., from the LXX).  When it's "Jesus" telling the fables or giving the sayings or speaking the words, then Bible translators tend to technically assign that to him as "parables."  What's lost is the apt comparison of Jesus and his rhetorical methods to Aesop and his methods.  What's lost is the violence of a story thrown beside one's own, of a para bola.  What's lost is the simultaneous safety that hearing such a story provides the listener with ears to hear -- since the story is not exactly my story, I can suspend judgment.  What's lost is the apt comparison of Jesus to women, to black women especially.

Now, most of you already know I am neither black nor a woman.  But you do know how interesting, helpful, I think it is to compare afrafeminist methods with good parabolizing, as good translating.  When Suzanne calls my bible-reading influences "very feminist," I am very grateful how she notices.  And yet I think some of us, like me, have still a lot to learn from very (black) feminists such as Gayl Jones, who, like Chesterton's Aesop and Aristotle's Aesop, throw violent stories (call them fables, comparisons, and parables) beside our own.

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