The Ant and the grasshopper.

In yet another ignorant literary reference, Sepp mentioned the above fable, not knowing that there is an ambiguity to its message. This is probably because the Tale has become popular with the Reactionary Right as a tale about hard work and foresight.

The fable concerns a grasshopper that has spent the warm months singing while the ant (or ants in some editions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and upon asking the ant for food is only rebuked for its idleness.

There was, nevertheless, an alternative tradition in which the ant was seen as a bad example. It relates that the ant was once a man who was always busy farming. Not satisfied with the results of his own labour, he plundered his neighbours’ crops at night. This angered the king of the gods, who turned him into what is now an ant. Yet even though the man had changed his shape, he did not change his habits and still goes around the fields gathering the fruits of other people’s labour, storing them up for himself. The moral of the fable is that it is easier to change in appearance than to change one’s moral nature.

Later versions of the story deal with the tale’s ambivalent moral lesson about hard work and foresight. For example, Jean de la Fontaine set the story of “La cigale et la fourmi” portrays the Ant as a flawed character, reinforced by the ambivalence of the alternative fable, led to that insect too being viewed as anything but an example of virtue.

Jules Massenet’s two-act ballet Cigale, first performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1904, portrays the cicada as a charitable woman who takes pity on “La Pauvrette” (the poor little one). But La Pauvrette, after being taken in and fed, is rude and heartless when the situation is reversed. Cigale is left to die in the snow at the close of the ballet.

The English writer W. Somerset Maugham reverses the moral order in a different way in his short story, “The Ant and The Grasshopper” (1924). It concerns two brothers, one of whom is a dissolute waster whose hard-working brother has constantly to bail him out of difficulties. At the end the latter is enraged to discover that his ‘grasshopper’ brother has married a rich widow, who then dies and leaves him a fortune.

James Joyce also adapts the fable into a tale of brotherly conflict in “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” episode in Finnegans Wake and makes of the twin brothers Shem and Shaun opposing tendencies within the human personality:

These twain are the twins that tick Homo Vulgaris.

In America, John Ciardi’s poetical fable for children, “John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan” (1963), makes an argument for grasshoppers fiddling and poetry over fanatical hard work. Ciardi’s ant, John J. Plenty, is so bent upon saving that he eats very little of what he has saved. Meanwhile, Fiddler Dan the grasshopper and his non-conforming ant wife survive the winter without help and resume playing music with the return of spring.

John Updike’s 1987 short story Brother Grasshopper deals with a pair of brothers-in-law whose lives parallel the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. One, Fred Barrow, lives a conservative, restrained existence; the other, Carlyle Lothrop, spends his money profligately, especially on joint vacations for the two men’s families, even as he becomes financially insolvent. However, at the end comes an unexpected inversion of the characters’ archetypal roles, as when Carlyle dies, Fred—now divorced and lonely—realizes he has been left with a rich store of memories which would not have existed without his friend’s largesse.

The moral aspect is apparent in La Fontaine’s retelling of the fable, where the ant suggests at the end that since the grasshopper has sung all summer she should now dance for its entertainment. However, his only direct criticism of the ant is that it lacked generosity. The Grasshopper had asked for a loan which it promised to pay back with interest, but

The Ant had a failing,
She wasn’t a lender.

The readers of his time were aware of the Christian duty of charity and therefore sensed the moral ambiguity of the fable. This is further brought out by Gustave Doré’s 1880s print which pictures the story as a human situation. A female musician stands at a door in the snow with the children of the house looking up at her with sympathy. Their mother looks down from the top of the steps. Her tireless industry is indicated by the fact that she continues knitting but, in a country where the knitting-women (les tricoteuses) had jeered at the victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution, this activity would also have been associated with lack of pity.

In recent times the fable has again been put to political use by both sides in the social debate between the enterprise culture and those who consider the advantaged have a responsibility towards the disadvantaged. A modern satirical version of the story, originally written in 1994, has the grasshopper calling a press conference at the beginning of the winter to complain about socio-economic inequity, and being given the ant’s house. This version was written by Pittsburgh talk show guru Jim Quinn as an attack on the Clinton administration’s social programme in the USA. In 2008 Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin also updated the story to satirize the policies of ‘Barack Cicada’. There have been adaptations into other languages as well. But the commentary at the end of this Indian reworking of the tale explains such social conflict as the result of selective media presentation that exploits envy and fear:

There is not much left to discuss on this story, as it has covered the current situation of news media, so called social activists, politicians of India. The news hungry electronic medias sometimes misproject a situation, where injustice is done to the right person. And what happens is that, ‘many lier’ triumphs over ‘single right’ person or situation.

There is yet another take on this tale which points out that the grasshopper provides entertainment through the arts, which is a counter to the ant’s industriousness. The beauty produced by the grasshopper is just as important as the ant’s “productivity”. Although, the ultimate in ethical ambiguity of the tale comes from, believe it or not, Michelle Malkin’s version of the tale:

But it was the Ant who had the last laugh. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he told his shiftless friend. “Why bother saving and slaving and toiling and moiling? I’ve spent all my savings. I’m walking away from my mortgage. Thrift is for suckers,” the Ant said as he headed out the door, leaving the Grasshopper empty-handed.

The amusing part is that the tale was posted on September 26, 2008 @ 10:27 AM, a month prior to Barack Obama’s being elected President. The amusing thing is that Obama wasn’t inaugurated president until 20 Jan 2009–that would make it almost four months after Malkin’s post that Obama was officially president of the US. The attempt is to post the blame on Obama for the sub-prime crisis when Bush was still president.

Ultimately, the message isn’t one about hard work, but it is also about art and charity. The Ant can be seen as a preditory and unethical character who is far worse for society than the grasshopper.

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6 thoughts on “The Ant and the grasshopper.

  1. …the Tale has become popular with the Reactionary Right as a tale about hard work and foresight.

    Foresight, indeed. That ‘foresight’ you reference, Laci, could have been the millions of Americans who invested their hard-earned money in 401-K’s and other pension funds to see to their retirement.

    Then came some right-wing legislation, in the dead of the night, that permitted the fund managers and investment managers to ‘fiddle’ with those monies, investing in worthless shit and high-risk papers.

    Date: September 2008.

    Well, so much for the fiddling ant and so much for the American dream.

    By the way, my father read an Aesop Fable to us each evening at bed time. The ant-grasshopper fable- which may have been a lesson in conservatism- seems to have backfired for all of us ‘children’ who grew up in the 1940’s, thanks to the ever-cunning right-wing.

    Were Aesop a visionary, he would have added an [*] at the end of his tale with the following caution:

    * The lesson of this fable is invalidated if/when greedy, ideologue right-wingers are in charge of governance.

    1. Note the revision of this post toward the end, but that is pretty much the point that this tale is making. I find it interesting that Michelle Malkin would write a version that ends this way in September 2008:

      But it was the Ant who had the last laugh. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he told his shiftless friend. “Why bother saving and slaving and toiling and moiling? I’ve spent all my savings. I’m walking away from my mortgage. Thrift is for suckers,” the Ant said as he headed out the door, leaving the Grasshopper empty-handed.

      Amusingly enough, the right tries to pin the Sub-prime crisis on Obama, in particular, Malkin, in her confused version of the tale.

  2. The problem with fables is that they are fables.

    To be sure, fables extolling virtues such as foresight and thriftiness are nice but of little use when the system is gamed against them.

    I guarantee that Sepp is one major illness away from destitute.

  3. Muddy, this was a wonderful post! I don’t want to think about Sepp if I can help it.
    Beyond trying to tie this to his comments, I found this a great philosophically written piece on many levels! a haiku:

    I am both ant and grasshopper
    A hybrid
    I work but I live to play

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