Why? What do you mean, why?

by Mary Jackson (November 2011)


When he was five, my nephew’s idea of a joke was:

“Two girls walking down the street.  Which one has the blue dress on?”

“I don’t know. Tell me.”

“The one on the right.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

He had the bare bones of a joke – question, followed by “I don’t know”, followed by triumphant answer – but not the heart and soul, hence the indignant confusion. Then he grew up, after a fashion, and can tell a story, or at least tell a story from a non-story. Some people never do and never can, as Matthew Parris observes in The Spectator:

Do you remember that classic 1980s American TV series about a group of elderly American women, The Golden Girls?  [...] One of the central characters (she was called Rose) was forever lapsing into interminable accounts of uninteresting events. Her companions would try different means of cutting her short, doing so with a brutality born of desperation. One such intervention became almost a catch-phrase among her circle: ‘Where is this story going, Rose?’

I’ve always remembered it. And the more time I spend in the company of those now my age or older — men and women in their sixties, seventies or eighties — the more am I struck by that candid remark. What is it about advancing years that impels some (not all) to recount things that happened — today, yesterday, last year or when young — that are no more than that: just chronological reports of things that happened, in the order in which they happened, with no moral, no twist, no real plot, no implication, and no logical beginning, substance or conclusion? It’s just a chunk of day-to-day reality, creeping in its petty pace, and reported in sequence.

A friend once told me of a competition he’d run for the most boring imaginary title for an autobiography. The winning entry was No, I tell a lie, it must have been the Tuesday. It’s a telltale indicator of these ‘Where is this story going, Rose?’ reports that they almost invariably bog down at some point while the narrator struggles to retrieve a fact, a date or a name that has temporarily escaped him, but is of no possible interest or importance to the tale

[...]

A good storyteller will supply his readers or hearers with data that will turn out to be needful to their understanding as the story unfolds — so that if he tells you it was the holly tree as opposed to any other landmark where our hero stopped and turned back, you’ll know that’s going to matter. Rose, however, will recall and inform you that it was the holly tree just because she can. She remembers it was the holly tree.

Rose is not the first. Aesop's fables could be early wildlife documentaries. From The Times:

It has always been assumed that the fables of Aesop, the slave and storyteller who lived in Greece from 620 to 560BC, came from a fertile imagination. But scientists have now cast doubt on the “he-made-it-all-up” theory. In an experiment, crows were shown a clear tube containing a small amount of water, floating upon which was an out-of-reach worm. Just as they did in Aesop’s fable, the birds piled in some stones until the worm floated to the top.

Watch the video - that crow is no bird brain.

So if The Crow and the Pitcher is less of a fable and more of an observation, scientists now have a job to ascertain which other stories describe real events. It should be easy enough to set up a rerun between a tortoise and a hare to see if Aesop’s unlikely winner can repeat the trick. When a dog crosses a bridge carrying a bone, does it really drop it in the river on encountering its own reflection? Under laboratory conditions, would a dog that had slept on straw in a manger refuse to let cattle eat it?

Volunteers are needed to see if it is true whether the sun makes people take a cloak off quicker than the wind. Does an ant, which has assiduously gathered food over the summer, really react so badly when a lazy grasshopper asks for a bite to eat? Does a cockerel, offered a gemstone, throw it aside and ask for corn?

Finally, the question of the intelligence of crows is not yet settled, science or no science. In The Fox and the Crow, the crow sits on a branch eating cheese. But, subjected to the intense flattery of a fox, the crow sings and drops the cheese. The cunning fox promptly devours the cheese. This is a call for conference papers: would that really happen?

As it happens, I saw that crow and fox thing play out through my back window only the other day. The crow finished his cheese, belched with satisfaction, and crowed, as only crows can, "Do you think I was born yesterday?"

The ant and grasshopper story is true, but not how Aesop told it. It was a squirrel, not an ant, and under New Labour, the squirrel ended up paying more tax to support the grasshopper and being prosecuted for hate speech when he complained.

As with fables, so too with parables - some of them cannot have happened as reported. And we're never told what happened next. Take the labourers in the vineyard - you know, the one where the workers who come at the eleventh hour get the same wage as the ones who started in the morning. They took their penny that day, but the next day they probably joined the eleventh hour crowd too. "Bear the burden of the day and the heats? We should coco," they would say (in Aramaic). 

The sheer randomness of life - animal or human - makes it difficult to squeeze morals out of true stories. An old school friend, whose Biblical knowledge is even shakier than mine, once conflated three parables into "The Return of the Lost Samaritan". A Samaritan got lost, presumably,  then found his way home. On his way he bumped into a Priest and a Levite and a third man, naked and bleeding. Need any help? No, you're all right, mate. I fell among thieves, but these chaps have got it covered. By the way, if you see a sheep wandering by itself, can you grab it for me? Fine. Got to go now, as I've got a fatted calf to kill for my sons. They've been working so hard and stuck with me through thick and thin, so fair enough.

No moral at all, and no lessons learned, but I bet it happened in real life at least once.

While some of the parables of the Bible may be a little implausible, there is generally a point to them. The moral that forms their punchline makes the reader nod and say, "Ah, yes". The stories of the Koran and Hadith, on the contrary, are dull, arbitrary tales of nonsense culminating in threats. Here is an “I tell a lie, it was a Tuesday” moment from those endless collections of duff hadiths:

Abu Rayhaana said: We went on an expedition with Allah's Messenger S.A.W. and I heard him say:

"The fire is forbidden to the eye which weeps from the fear of Allah, stays awake in the path of Allah (Jihad) and I forgot the third, but afterwards I heard that he said ‘the eye which lowered it gaze from that which Allah has forbidden to see."

Reported by Ahmad and al-Haakim. The latter declared the hadith as sound and az-Zahabi and an-Nasaa`i agreed with him on this. The narration here is that of a-Nasaa`i.

Hardly worth the wait for that third one. I prefer the Python version: three? Nothing. No third thing.

"Or else" is the implicit or explicit "moral" of the stories of Islam. "And Allah knows best" is all the explanation you will get. Islam, in consequence, is both dangerous and dull. Most things in life - think of accountancy versus lion-taming - are one or the other, but Islam manages to be both.

Author Sebastian Faulks picked up on the dullness of the Koran. From The Sunday Times:

Best known for historical works such as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, his new novel addresses contemporary London. Its characters include a health fund manager, a literary critic and a Glasgow-born Islamic terrorist recruit. Researching the latter, he read a translation of the Koran which he found “very disappointing from a literary point of view”.

He also criticised the “barrenness” of the Koran’s message and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, especially when compared with the Bible.

“Jesus, unlike Muhammad, had interesting things to say,” Faulks said.

“He proposed a revolutionary way of looking at the world: love your neighbour; love your enemy; the meek shall inherit the earth. Muhammad had nothing to say to the world other than, ‘If you don’t believe in God you will burn for ever’.”

Would eternal damnation were all -- Muslims are taught to help the unbelievers on their way.  

Back to little boys making jokes -- here is one from little Johnny, which reflects Islamic morality perfectly:

One day at the end of class little Johnny's teacher has the class go home and think of a story and then conclude the moral of that story. The following day the teacher asks for the first volunteer to tell their story, little Suzy raises her hand.

"My dad owns a farm and every Sunday we load the chicken eggs on the truck and drive into town to sell them at the market. Well, one Sunday we hit a big bump and all the eggs flew out of the basket and onto the road." The teacher asks for the moral of the story. Suzy replies, "Don't keep all your eggs in one basket."

Next is little Lucy. "Well my dad owns a farm too and every weekend we take the chicken eggs and put them in the incubator. Last weekend only 8 of the 12 eggs hatched." The teacher asks for the moral of the story. Lucy replies "Don't count your eggs before they're hatched."

Last is little Johnny. "My uncle Ted fought in the Vietnam war; his plane was shot down over enemy territory. He jumped out before it crashed with only a case of beer, a machine gun and a machete. On the way down he drank the case of beer. Unfortunately, he landed right in the middle of 100 Vietnamese soldiers. He shot 70 with his machine gun, but ran out of bullets, so he pulled out his machete and killed 20 more. The blade on his machete broke, so he killed the last ten with his bare hands"

Teacher looks in shock at Johnny and asks if there is possibly any moral to his story. Johnny replies, "Don't mess with Uncle Ted when he's been drinking".

And don’t mess with the Mohammed when he’s been praying.  Why? What do you mean, why?


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