Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Fable revisited / Why bother with Gilbert's Grapes

Remember the fable of the Fox and the Grapes? Some things about that fable have always struck me as being a little off. To begin with, since when do foxes eat grapes? I mean, these are foxes, right - red bushy little predators who eat rabbits and squirrels and are the preferred quarry of Quorn and co - they're not Paul Giamatti in Sideways. You don't see busloads of foxes making tours of Napa Valley to sample the grapes, do you? So how come this one fox wanted grapes? Plus, why a fox anyway? I've always thought of foxes in fairy tales / fables as being fairly ambiguous creatures. You never know how they're going to turn out. Sometimes they'll prove to be cunning wily creatures (I have a sudden mental flash of Hendrix signing "Foxy!") at other times they'll be total dupes. It's not like lions or something, where the minute they show up in the story you just know they've got some sort of come-uppance coming to them. So I think it's interesting that the fable is about a fox and not about some other animal (say a turtle or something)

Thinking about it, I realised that what's principally bugged me about the fable all these years is the implicit assumption that the 'right' thing for the fox to do would have been to humbly admit his own inability to get to the grapes without in any way denigrating them or denying his yearning for them. Some sort of "desire of the moth for the star / of the night for the morrow" (Shelley) thing should have happened.

Personally, I think what the fox should have done is basically realise that grapes weren't his thing. After all, there's a reason why the fox isn't able to get to the grapes - evolution hasn't conditioned him to be a grape eater, it isn't natural for him. So rather than saying the grapes must be sour, the fox should say something like - I don't really like grapes that much anyway. I'd rather get myself a juicy rabbit. Grapes are for the birds.

Some people will argue that this is escapism - it's taking the easy way out. There is, I admit, some truth to that, but I think there's a risk of erring too much on the other side. The trouble is that there's a thin line between giving up on something too easily, and striving to make something work when it really isn't worth it, and the fable takes too one sided a view of that trade-off. One reason it does this is that it makes no allowance for the existence of alternatives. Life, I think, is seldom about such all or nothing choices - on the contrary, it is often about making one's way through a minefield of opportunity, trying to pick the one alternative from the many that will give us the greatest satisfaction. So it would be perfectly legitimate for the fox to:

a) Either not pursue the grapes at all, sensing that they were going to be difficult to get and not feeling they were worth it
b) Trying a couple of times and then deciding that the grapes weren't meant for it and making a general decision not to seek grapes any more.

Of course, the fox needs to be objective here - if it really needs the grapes then it must not dismiss them so easily but must continue to look for creative ways to get access to them. My point is simply that it is a valid response for the fox to re-evaluate its craving for grapes in the light of the experienced difficulty of getting at them, and decide that it doesn't want them after all. This is different from simply putting a brave front on things - the point is not that the fox should pretend that the grapes don't matter to him, the point is rather that he should try and get to the point where they genuinely don't.

A friend asked me the other day how I deal with insecurity. My answer - by changing my own aspirations to fit what I think I can achieve. This sounds suspiciously like what the fox does with the grapes, and in some ways it is. My point is that I often find that the things I think I want and feel insecure about not being able to get are usually expectations that society has foisted on me / conditioned me to believe in. They are not things that I truly need - I want them only because I'm expected to want them. If I really think about it, I could manage easily and happily without them and wouldn't have to go around stressing about how I was going to get them.

Understand that this is not an argument for saying that the grapes are sour - I have no doubt that many of the things I no longer aspire to are things that will bring great joy into other people's lives. I'm just unconvinced that they're right for me.

What was it Eliot said in Ash Wednesday?

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?


meditativerose said...

Nice ... now only if they had case studies in kindergarten ...

Heh Heh said...

repeat CP, but i like to think of it as "changing the basis of competition". people dont realise that life is a lot like Calvinball. You can change the rules as you go along.

meditativerose said...

Another thought abt insecurities ... if you are truly convinced that the only things you haven't been able to get are things you don't really want, you could fall into the trap of feeling that you just haven't stretched yourself enough yet ... which will make you take huge risks just to make a statement (to yourself, more than to the world). May be ok, if you're not risk averse, but is still unecessary, and driven by insecurity.

TDREC said...

Where is the entire stretch/ challenge if one changes the basis of competition constantly? Why must I always be good at everything I do?

Will I enjoy something only if I am good at it all the time? Can I not settle for being good occasionally? (analogy: Hit 100s of golf balls badly, but the one good swing makes it all worth it)

Anyway, repeat CP from me too. Going in with modest expectations that the grapes aren't life defining after all could help in securing them.

Insecurity is what prevents the fox from jumping high. And insecurity/anxiety is caused by the fox giving the grapes too much importance.

Not sure if this "Nishkama karma" attitude of sorts helps in "salvation", but I definitely think going with the flow and at least trying can help take one to new destinations. Give me breadth over depth any day.

meditativerose said...

Whoa ...

I personally don't think it's necessary to do either - stretch yourself, or change the basis of competition (they are mutually exclusive technically, but a lot of times the second is just self-delusion). If I'm comfortable with myself and where I am (i.e. I come to terms with my mediocrity/know roughly where I stand), I don't need to prove myself to be the best to enjoy anything. I am totally ok with breadth as opposed to depth - that's how I live my life and I love it.

Interesting thought about insecurity being what keeps the fox from jumping high ... I've seen both of those (and in the same people) - take a huge risk to make a statement, or don't try hard enough, so failing doesn't count ... though I think the latter happens when you care more about the outcome.
So it's not necessarily about thinking that the grapes aren't life-defining, but accepting that they might be, but you still might not get them, but too bad ... you win some, you lose some ...

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Happiness is achieved when reality meets aspirations.

Your catch is that aspirations can be downgraded to meet reality.

In any case, happiness means stagnation. It sucks.


Falstaff said...

MR: Ya, I think all fairy tales should come with a disclaimer that says there is no one right answer.

HWSNBF: tch! tch! "Changing the basis of competition" - such a consultant thing to say! :-). Will forgive you for the Calvinball funda, though, which I totally agree with.

MR: Not sure about that - I think the bigger risk is that you could just convince yourself that anything you can't instantly get is something you don't want, with the result that you never stretch yourself at all. By definition, your argument implies that you want to stretch yourself so that's one thing you really want but haven't got.

tdrec: On the breadth vs depth issue - see my next post (coming shortly). Let me just say that I don't think you have to be good at something all the time - I think you (or at least I) do need to believe that you will get better at it over time. If you don't see that happening in any appreciable way, you change the basis of competition and move on. Notice also that changing the basis of competition is about stretching yourself in new directions - the idea is not to adjust aspiration levels to where you already are, but just to pick something that you may be able to stretch yourself in rather than something that looks like a lost cause.

Totally agree that not caring about something can actually lead to better results than fretting about it too much. What was it Eliot said: "Teach us to care and not to care".

MR (finally): I do think that stretching yourself is important. As JAP says, happiness means stagnation, contentment is just a nicer sounding word for boredom. Of course, that's not to say that the challenges you set for yourself couldn't be relative vs absolute (again, more in my next post) but you need to have some challenge.

JAP: Agree - but changing aspirations doesn't necessarily mean downgrading them - which is the problem I have with the parable. It's not about accepting your lot, it's about finding something else to pursue.

siuiltree said...

This may be slightly off topic - but I must point out that YES, FOXES IN THE WILD DO EAT GRAPES!!!

... as well as many other foods (worms, insects, corn, acorns, grasses) besides the mice, rabbits, etc. that most people assume. In fact, they are usually considered quite oppurtunistic omnivores, and a real fox would never turn away nourishing food it naturally eats, whether or not a human thinks it is part of their diet.

I believe that assumptions like this are very common because modernized humans hardly ever learn directly from nature or observe in real life the animals that they discuss.

The wilderness and its inhabitants, such as foxes, are extremely complex. At the same time, we are handed over-simplified representations of both by a media not based upon primary experience, thus we end up with a sense of false familiarity with the subject. This gives rise to those myriad misconceptions about animals (i.e. - "a fox wouldn't eat grapes") that can be opposite to reality.

A lot of times, especially in older cultural representations, animals don't act as they are "supposed" to in such stories (i.e. foxes are supposed to be clever), in other words, they are not acting within the stereotype we are familiar with. Those who originated this fable and those who were its audience, however, apparently were more familiar with the real life complexity of wild animals than most humans today (They knew that foxes eat grapes and they did not stereotype them into being clever 100 percent of the time).

Now you may ask "what in the heck does my topic have to do with zoology?" but as you can see, it might change your interpretation of the fable.

Also, it is important to evaluate our assumptions about wildlife.
I mean, throughout history, animal species have been persecuted merely because of their reputations.
(For example, farmers were previously bent on killing foxes because of the reputation of the fox as a sneaky chicken killer, until they realized that it was rarely foxes killing their livestock, and in reality foxes keep rodent populations in check that could destroy crops, and are therefore beneficial to farms)

Besides this, humanity's current distance from the natural environment of which we are actually a part certainly has interesting philosophical implications.

Anonymous said...

If you do your homework, there are many types of foxes that do eat grapes, and the old saying is the little foxes spoil the vine. It was symbolic to say that the little things we put up with in life can spoil our relationships, as in Song of Soloman. There are many little foxes to deal with that can get in the way of what is truly ours. Interesting your other comments are about contentment, or lowering your standards to what you can realisticly do right now. Sometimes we are called to the seemingly impossible, we may have aspirations or dreams that stretch us, and cause us to grow as a person. One of the little foxes here could be eating the grapes of an inspired dream, doubt, discouragement, et. Some dreams have that mixed in as part of the journey we must overcome. There are many foxes in life that can get in the way or spoil what is truly attainable. Following the thought in Song of Songs, catch the foxes that spoil the vine. Not to let anything get in the way of spoiling what is truly yours, not to seem selfish, but what is truly God given to you to have, once you deal with the small stuff that gets in the way.