Aesop and the New Criticism

 

by Brenton Woodward

 

 

An old man lives alone in the forest[1], in a shack at the base of a cliff. He hunts and gathers[2]. The hardpack floor is smooth from the years of his shuffling feet. On the roughhewn table are two wooden bowls and a skinning knife, no more than a finger of dull metal after all its sharpenings. A heap of pelts is his bed. Yellowed vellum panes the small windows. On one of the sills lies an ancient chisel[3], more worn than the knife. A turkey hen hangs by a cord[4] from the ceiling. Outside, stacked firewood sits against the leeward wall. A ladder of lashed pine lies by the windward wall. The cliff looms behind. It is covered in pale markings for fifty feet along its width and for ten feet up, spidery yellow lines cut into the brown patina of the stone face[5]. Some of the markings are reminiscent of the

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[1] The loss of the pastoral as both an aesthetic and ecological artifact in the face of industrialization is inarguably the major causative factor in the rise of modernism and its attendant disillusionments and fixations on the mechanical.

 

[2] Naturally, a return to the pastoral state becomes a central fantasy in the superficially-ironic-yet-substantively-aching-with-earnestness canon of postmodernism. This is usually achieved through a subjection to proto- or post-apocalyptic landscapes necessitating the development of neo-Neolithic lifestyles in the Luddite anarchy of these wastelands.

 

[3] The fantasy of the pastoral is, of course, an entirely fabricated ideal that has caused as much, if not more, harm than good (see the trope of the “noble savage,” the paradoxically related policy of manifest destiny, the recent natural food craze, etc.). Humanity has always and will always rely on manufactured tools and thus industry in primitive forms; any scenario including a lack of such reliance would necessitate either a pre-human or post-human population.

 

[4] Humans are not the only animals to utilize tools, however. Chimpanzees and other apes have been known to fish for termites using long sticks, throw stones at predators or rival troops, and even fashion spears with which to hunt. Recently, the phenomenon of tool use has been observed in animals as various as dolphins, crows, and octopi. Incidentally, the presence of such behaviors in some populations but not others (not to mention their propagation within populations via instruction) points to the existence of culture among animals. Animals have even been taught to use money. The wall of civilization, of industry, of commerce, that separates the pastoral from us is too permeable to even be a window; it is the shadow of a membrane.

 

[5] This leaves only one truly and uniquely human trait: art. As the only thing that separates us from other animals, art would seem to be an important thing, perhaps the most important thing. What it is, however, is simply another means of attention-getting: the wordless cry of an infant, the bleat of a lost lamb. Art is phatic utterance, pure noise, completely non-informational. There can be no value judgments about it, no moralistic assignations of descriptors like “good” or “bad.” Its only purpose is to declare its own existence, to make any impression at all. In this attempt, art cannot be original, derivative, high, low, valid, unworthy, meritorious, revolutionary, or controversial. It can only be successful or unsuccessful.