Monday, 21 February 2011

Chris Port Blog #103. Motionless in Poetry

© Chris Port, 2011

(With apologies to William Blake)

Foxes, foxes, f**k and fight
In the chicken scraps of night...

Last night I woke to terrible screams. I looked out of a black window. A white face just blinked back. Somewhere out there, foxes were rutting behind the bins. Either that, or someone was taking an awfully long time to be murdered. Damn this fatigue. How I longed to be out there again...

The Fox Scene (Chaos Reigns) from Antichrist, Lars von Trier, 2009

One night I was walking home, slightly the better for drink. I was in a shadowy writing mood, so I took the dark alley route (perhaps hoping to mug a mugger for a story - "Here's a tenner, now give me your life story - all of it"). Instead, I came across a thoughtful fox.

He was poised, staring like a mad cat I know who sees ghosts. I was very quiet (writers are odd). I was downwind of him, and this was a human hunting ground. No twigs or leaves. Just soft shoes and asphalt. I was so close I could have reached out and touched him. I thought about it, but decided that I was rather attached to my hand. So I touched him with a long gaze instead.

When you're stealing an advantage, every second is an eternity of power, so it's difficult to say how long I mugged him. Perhaps a full ten seconds, perhaps half a minute. Time had no meaning. I was just living in a delicious 'now' between watch ticks. Then a second hand moved. Something in his eyes flickered. He turned, clocked me, and was gone. But as he bolted, I swear I saw an anthropomorphic look in his eye. I could swear I saw a look of ... embarrassment. That was just wishful thinking on my part. But I smiled. I thought of Ted Hughes and his Thought Fox.

But then I thought of D.H. Lawrence and his drinking Snake.

‘For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.’

I hadn’t missed my chance. I had no pettiness to expiate. I had drunk every drop of a moment, and the taste is still on my lips. Now there’s something they don’t teach you in schools...

“Well fancy that, a talking fox.”

(Extract from a discussion thread on Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand)

[See Blog #82. Conversation Thread on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged - "What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?"].

As you may know, the fox is reputed to be a wily creature. One day, a fox was slinking through a field when he heard two horses arguing. His ears pricked up. Horses were normally such placid animals. What could they be arguing about?

He drew closer. An old racehorse was berating his young rival.

“Listen” said the old horse. “All I’m asking you to do is lose one race. Just one. You’re young. You’ve got years of racing ahead of you. But look at me. I’m knackered. Please. Just let me win my last race on Saturday.”

“I’m sorry,” said the young horse, “I can’t do that. It would be cheating. Worse than that, it would be letting my owner down. He’s spent a lot of money on me. I owe him to try my hardest.”

“Oh don’t be such a prig!” snapped the old horse. “Don’t you realize what will happen? If I lose this last race, my owner will think I’m past it. He’ll send me to the glue factory for sure. My death will be on your conscience. But if you let me win, then my owner will think I’m good breeding stock. He’ll put me out to stud. I’ll spend my retirement in green pastures, pleasuring young mares. Please. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve earned my time in the sun. Please do this one favour for me. Have pity.”

“I’d like to help you, truly I would,” said the young upstart. “Please don’t think I’m without a heart. But life is harsh. It’s survival of the fittest. If you’re not fit enough to win, you’re not fit enough to breed. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

The old horse was about to remonstrate when he heard a discreet cough.

“Excuse me,” said the fox, “I couldn’t help but overhear. I’ve listened carefully to both sides of the argument, and I think I have a solution acceptable to both of you.

Young horse, you have spirit and energy. So in the first few furlongs, you take the lead.

Old horse, you have experience and stamina, so you tuck in behind and slipstream. Then, when the time is right, you take him on the bend.

Young horse, you let him steal the lead then tuck in behind him. The crowd will be screaming with excitement. Your owners will be getting the race of their lives.

Then, when it comes to the last few furlongs, young horse, you put on that extra spurt of speed. You’ll both be neck and neck, each nosing ahead, the roar of the crowd like the wind in your ears. It’s down to a photo finish... And you cross the line... together.

That way, young horse, your owner will be ecstatic. Youth and energy were a match for age and experience. If you can do that in your first race, what glories lie ahead?

And old horse, you’ll have shown that you’ve still got it. The future took you on, but it couldn’t beat you. No glue factory for you. You’ll be breeding to your heart’s content.”

The young horse looked at the old horse, and smiled.

And the old horse looked at the young horse, and smiled.

“Well fancy that,” he said, “a talking fox.”

The horse story is actually an old shaggy dog story (or shaggy fox in this case).

However, transposed to this context it is now made to serve as an allegory with hidden meanings.

1) What might the old horse, the young horse, and the fox represent in human affairs? Think nations, politics, economics...

2) In what ways might their arguments be applied to human affairs?

3) Do both arguments have merit? Do both arguments have flaws? Can you identify them?

4) After considering the implications of both arguments, do you side with one against the other? If so, why? Is the fox’s suggestion a compromise, a con, or an ‘everybody wins’ solution?

5) What is meant here by ‘winning’ and ‘losing’? Is it the race itself that’s important? Or is it people’s enjoyment of the race?

6) If everybody is happy and gets what they want, isn’t this better than some being unhappy? Or are we being deceived by a trick here? Is some ‘law’ of nature being cheated with dire consequences later?

7) What is meant by the last line? In the original ‘shaggy dog’ context, the audience is ridiculed for getting sucked into anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to animals).

8) Cynics dismiss anthropomorphism as sentimental, misleading and self-centred (e.g. Disney films). 

The Antichrist and The Hound ("Chaos Reigns" fox and Disney mash-up)

However, the point about anthropomorphism in Aesop’s Fables is not that animals have human qualities, but that humans have animal qualities. Over 2,000 years before Brecht, Aesop made us unfamiliar to ourselves so that we might see ourselves more critically.

9) Does anybody ‘earn’ their place in the sun? Regardless of past achievements, is it ‘right’ to burden the young with subsidizing the old?

10) The ‘law’ of nature has nothing to say about justice or gratitude. It’s only the here and now and the self that counts. In what ways should human beings follow the ‘law’ of nature? In what ways is being a human being going against the law of nature? 

How would you apply some of your findings, and Rand’s philosophy, to the following solution to an apparent economic problem...?

History lesson for neo-positivists. Teachers talking maths in 1930s Italy... (From Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997).

"Third grade. Listen to this work. Really. It’s quite shocking. The problem. Supporting a lunatic costs the state four marks a day. Supporting a cripple costs four and a half marks. An epileptic, three and a half marks. Figuring the average at four marks per day, and considering there are three hundred thousand, how much would the state save if these individuals were simply eliminated?"

"Completely unbelievable!"

"That is exactly how I reacted. Completely unbelievable. I can’t believe an elementary school child is expected to solve something like this. It’s a difficult calculation. The proportions, the percentages. They’d need some algebra to solve these equations, right? That would be high school material for us."

"No, no. It’s just multiplication. What did you say it was? Three hundred thousand cripples?"


"Three hundred thousand times four. We’d be saving around one million two hundred thousand marks a day if we killed them all. It’s easy."

"Exactly. But you’re an adult. In Germany, seven year-olds are given these problems to work out. A most amazing race indeed..."

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