Saturday, May 23, 2020

An Aesop Fable On Authenticity: The Monkey and the Camel

Photo by Vivek Sharma on Unsplash
Something I'd been reading recently triggered the recollection of the Aesop Fable, the Monkey and the Camel. The way I remembered it, the story took place near an oasis in the desert, hence the presence of the camel in this story. When I Googled it for this blog post, I found several versions of the story. This one here is told most efficiently, the way that I recall Aesop's tales usually being told.

This version comes from an unknown translator, copyright 1881, Wm. L. Allison, New York

The beasts of the forest gave a splendid entertainment, at which the Monkey stood up and danced. Having vastly delighted the assembly, he sat down amidst universal applause. The Camel, envious of the praises bestowed on the Monkey and desirous to divert to himself the favor of the guests, proposed to stand up in his turn, and dance for their amusement. He moved about in so very ridiculous a manner that the Beasts, in a fit of indignation, set upon him with clubs, and drove him out of the assembly. 

Moral: It is absurd to ape our betters.

The Library of Congress has a version which someone embellished, describing the Camel's knotty knees and other such details, which don't really strengthen the story in my opinion. In this versions the writer adds a sentence describing refreshments served afterwards, "mostly of camel's hump and ribs."

Yikes! As if it weren't enough simply bad enough to be shamed and laughed at. Making a fool of yourself can get you killed?

This InfoPlease version doesn't even include the moral of the story, an almost unforgivable oversight, since the pithy "moral of the story" endings are what make Aesop's Fables so delightful.

Photo by Andre Iv on Unsplash
The Monkey and the Camel
At a gathering of all the beasts the Monkey gave an exhibition of dancing and entertained the company vastly. There was great applause at the finish, which excited the envy of the Camel and made him desire to win the favour of the assembly by the same means. So he got up from his place and began dancing, but he cut such a ridiculous figure as he plunged about, and made such a grotesque exhibition of his ungainly person, that the beasts all fell upon him with ridicule and drove him away.

* * * *
I quickly found a couple versions identical to the first one above, but once again, this Heritage History variation adds embellishments. The first is the addition of the reason for this celebration, and then it says the Monkey was asked to dance.

At a great celebration in honor of King Lion, the Monkey was asked to dance for the company. His dancing was very clever indeed, and the animals were all highly pleased with his grace and lightness.

Now the way I remembered it, it was just another night at the oasis and when the music started playing the Monkey did what he loves to do, and does well. He danced.

Then the Camel gets into the spotlight, but this storyteller once again goes too far. The only detail he or she does correctly note is the Camel's motivation. He was consumed with envy.

The praise that was showered on the Monkey made the Camel envious. He was very sure that he could dance quite as well as the Monkey, if not better, so he pushed his way into the crowd that was gathered around the Monkey, and rising on his hind legs, began to dance. But the big hulking Camel made himself very ridiculous as he kicked out his knotty legs and twisted his long clumsy neck. Besides, the animals found it hard to keep their toes from under his heavy hoofs.

What's curious is this next detail. Instead of being laughed at and shamed, this version suggests that the camel got punished for something altogether different.

At last, when one of his huge feet came within an inch of King Lion's nose, the animals were so disgusted that they set upon the Camel in a rage and drove him out into the desert.

Shortly afterward, refreshments, consisting mostly of Camel's hump and ribs, were served to the company.

Do not try to ape your betters.

My vote is a thumbs down on this version, too. Aesop had it right, as did Hemingway centuries later. Less is more.
* * * *
The point of the story is lost when we go too far. Envy gets people in trouble. And trying to be something you're not makes it that much worse.

We all have different strengths. Through self-understanding we're better able to play to those strengths. Karen Horney, Freud's first female student, wrote extensively on neurosis, pointing out the psychological origin of our neuroses being due to a split between our real self and idealized self. In other words, when who we are is out of sync with who we think we are, we're going to have problems.

Our lack of awareness with regards to how we come across can result in our making fools of ourselves. I've done that. It's worse than embarrassing.

Hence, the Oracle at Delphi has this inscription above the door: Know Thyself.

Self understanding is fundamental to living authentically in a world half mad with projecting images of whom we're not. Be real, be true and you will be happier.

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