Finding the Right Genre: Politics as Fable (Doris Lessing)

I’ve been thinking about “the political” a lot these days and reading a lot of online journalism following the news, and I keep bumping into  the question of genre, namely trying to figure out a way to wrap my mind around the recent hub of political upheaval here in the United States with Hurricane Sandy and Obama’s re-election, the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas, the ongoing violence in Syria, the constitutional crisis in Egypt, and so on and so on, these being only the sliver of currents that interests me most directly. (The new leadership in China and civil war in Congo are barely on my radar, or on the radar of anyone I know.)

One can approach the cascade of political events in how many different ways? As an academic, one can turn to anthropology, area studies, history, international studies, political science, religious studies. But there’s nothing to hold together all these different discourses and the multiple insights they bring to bear on any one particular political flash point. How do you frame it all together in such a way as to do justice to the heterogeneity that defines a genuinely cosmopolitan political worldview?

As genre, it’s the “fable” that ties it all together. For these thoughts I owe to Doris Lessing and to the Jewish Museum.

One of the texts on view at the Jewish Museum’s exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts were several manuscript editions in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin translation of  Kalila and Dimna, also known as The Fables of  Bidpai. It’s an old, old text (2000 years old?) from India that made its way across the Persian and Arab Orient and into Christian Europe. Anyone, a cultured person, with a claim to an education would have known this text. I saw the manuscripts, hoped against hope, and found Ramsay Wood’s translation on sale at the Museum bookshop. Having finished reading a lot Kafka, I’m wanting to get Kalila and Dimna, named after two brother-jackals who appear in many of the fables.

So far, I’ve only read the splendid introduction by Doris Lessing (she wrote it in 1979). Her words are the most sensible and elegant thing I’ve read about politics in a long, long time. They shed light on the fabular quality of “the political,” a quality that goes unobserved in most discussions of the topic.

About the fable, Lessing writes:

“Thereafter the tale unfolds in the characteristic way of the genre, stories within stories, one leading to another…What this method of storytelling or design is supposed to illustrate is the way that in life one thing leads to another, often unexpectedly, and that one may not make neat and tidy containers for ideas and events. –or hopes and possibilities—and that it is not easy to decide where anything begins or ends…When the ‘frame’ story stops, temporarily, and a cluster of related tales are told, what is happening is that many facets of a situation are being illuminated, before the movement of the main story goes on. There may even be more than one ‘frame’ story, so that the we are lead gently into realm after realm, doors opening as if one were to push a mirror and find a door.” (pp.13-14)

As Lessing notes, the sitz im Leben of these fables are political, having to do with principles and practice of right order and right governance. The legend of these stories are traced back to the advice of the sagacious Bidpai to King Dabschelim, the tyrannic successor to the governor installed in India by Alexander the Great, or, in another version, by a sage to good and honest king with three lazy, stupid sons (pp.13-14).

In this light, one way, the best way, to grasp how “the political” gets stitched together, is not by the chronology of “events” per se, but by story-telling, by the fabular design templates that organize events alongside related events, alongside ideas, hopes and possibilities into or by means of frames and multiple frames, one group of story signaling or sliding into the next across multiple facets, from one realm into the next, without a clear beginning and end.

So story slides from Hurricane Sandy into the elections, into the fiscal cliff, as Syria slides into Israel-Gaza which slides into Egypt, which slides to the United States, which slides to Iran which slides to China, and somewhere in all this are the stories of mothers, and children, and fathers, and the way people fight, and the lies people tell other people, and the lies they tell to themselves, all based on “the usual story of faulty perception and fantastic expectation” (p.222).

Reading Lessing’s introduction to the fable, her introduction to Kalila and Dimna is perhaps indication indeed why so much political theory and critical theory, and off-the-cuff political commentary leave me cold. So much of the theory works to freeze frame political life under rubrics without any note to living political tissue, to the sometimes simultaneous and sometimes sequential imbrication of that tissue across multiple planes.

My only caveat so far is that, in Lessing’s introduction to the fable, we are pushed “gently” from realm to realm, whereas I tend to think the pushing proves more often to be rough and rude. Another way to say this is that the fable tells its tale in charming sorts of way, whereas “the political” is almost never that. My criticism, though, might have more to do with Lessing’s words than with the fables themselves. Let’s see if Kalila and Dimna bear that out. Clearly, when I read the English translation of the Fox Fables by Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, translated into English by Moshe Hadas, the stories recounting the animal life of politics was anything but gracious.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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