Living Like the Reeds: Aesop and Ammons

Let us begin with a simple image: reeds blowing in the breeze. In the hands of a painter, we have the beginnings of a new landscape. In the hands of a filmmaker, a calm opening shot.

In the hands of a writer, the seeds of a practical philosophy.

Aesop famously uses this image of wind-blown reeds in one of his fables, “The Oak and the Reeds.” As translated by Vernon Jones, the story goes like this:

An Oak that grew on the bank of a river was uprooted by a severe gale of wind, and thrown across the stream. It fell among some Reeds growing by the water, and said to them, “How is it that you, who are so frail and slender, have managed to weather the storm, whereas I, with all my strength, have been torn up by the roots and hurled into the river?” “You were stubborn,” came the reply, “and fought against the storm, which proved stronger than you. But we bow and yield to every breeze, and thus the gale passed harmlessly over our heads.”

The Oak and the Reed

In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables, D. L. Ashliman says that this fable may well be “the capstone to the pragmatic moral philosophy of Aesop” (xxix). Time and again, the fables instruct us to accept our circumstances, whatever they may be, rather than railing against them; examples include “The Ass and His Masters” (“Why wasn’t I content to serve either of my former masters…now I shall come in the end to the tanning vat”) and “The Crab and the Fox” (“I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea…”).

Yet it is “The Oak and the Reeds” that presents Aesop’s brand of pragmatism in its most generally applicable terms. The wind stands in for any obstacle or hardship that one may face, not just one’s station in life. Low or high, weak or strong, everyone encounters a strong gale at some point. The best that one can do, it would seem, is go along with such events, rather than resisting them and breaking down.

Had Aesop not predated them by a good three centuries, I would be tempted to group him with the Stoics, who advised taking a similar approach to hardship. Consider the following passage from the Enchiridion, Epictetus’s manual for Stoic living:

If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner, with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.”

Epictetus’ bather could get worked up regarding the unpleasant behavior of his fellow citizens, could stand as stubborn as the oak. But their actions are outside his control. Better that he accord his will with nature, bending in the breeze like the reeds, and take the behavior of others as a given. He will thus keep his own mind untroubled.

Certainly this is prudent advice. So long as the difficulties concern you and you alone, it is difficult to refute. Indeed, whenever I read the likes of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, I find myself wishing I had their cool and dispassionate resolve.

But suppose the breeze is something more than a personal obstacle. Suppose it’s something which affects a large swath of society: an authoritarian government, or systemic injustice. To bend like the reeds, as the Stoics would suggest, may well make an individual’s life more bearable. But it does little for everyone as a collective. One might say that the lives of fellow sufferers are as beyond our control as those of the oppressors, and at any rate we lack the power to actually resist. But I feel that merely rationalizes passivity.

For comparison, let us turn from Ancient Greece to the 20th-century United States. “Small Song,” a short poem by A. R. Ammons, also uses the image of reeds bending in the breeze. In its entirety, it reads:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away.

I plan on doing a full dissection of the poem in a later post, but for now let’s note the difference between Ammons’s and Aesop’s reeds. For the fabulist, the wind acts upon the reeds and not the other way around. Indeed, the reeds only ever act by lecturing the oak for not letting the wind act upon it. For the poet, the apparent passivity of the reeds is in fact an action. Their bending makes it obvious that the wind is present.

What do we make of Ammons’s twist on the reed image? Considered in isolation, it is a pleasing little paradox, a short sentence dense with potential meaning. Considered in the context of Aesop’s fable, though, and one might find a message about resistance. Absorbing the wind’s abuse consequently makes it visible. Think of the specific phrase “give / the wind away.” To be given away, one must be trying to hide something, to sneak it by without notice. Those reeds, because they bend, prevent that from happening.

Sure, when the oak falls to the banks, it does so with a great crash. But reeds do not bend in silence; they flap and rustle, and they do so for as long as the wind is blowing. The oak’s resistance leads to one loud crunch, and then nothing. The reeds, on the other hand, will not be silenced until the wind is silenced. Unlikely heroes though they may be, they resist, and they endure.

More Than Transcription: Why the Smallest Details Matter

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short sketch “The Replacement,” from his 1962 collection Snapshots, a teacher repeatedly commands his young students to be mindful of the punctuation in their reading passage, interrupting them to point out the presence of a comma, the absence of a period. The goal is to get the students (and, by extension, you the reader) to “pay attention to what you are reading,” “to understand what you are reading.” Whether the teacher is successful is debatable: near the end of the piece, a student reads with exaggerated emphasis on the punctuation but “in a voice as devoid of expression as his classmate’s.”

A recent essay by Benjamin Obler over at Electric Literature got me thinking about that Robbe-Grillet sketch. Descriptively titled “How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV for Good,” the essay details Obler’s experience in the world of caption writing, and how it affected his perceptions of the craft of writing and of television.

I’m not so much interested in Obler’s observations regarding the formulaic nature of television writing—I don’t watch enough scripted programming to have an opinion on it—as I am in his account of the caption writer’s values:

The Caption Writer is some kind type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their—

Writers will be familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s concept of le mot juste: the exact right word for a given situation. The caption writer, in Obler’s account, must strive for what we might call le caractère juste. To convey the audio track of a show through written text, one must fine-tune every aspect of the transcript: where to place a comma, when to use all-caps, how to describe a grunt.

These are not skills that necessarily come easily to a narrative prose writer. Even when a character in a short story or novel is based on a real person, all their qualities are ultimately creations of the author. There is no preexisting character to describe inaccurately. Not so with captioning, which requires an almost intuitive understanding of what the writer is hearing. As Obler puts it:

…all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Obler finds writing to this level of accuracy and precision to be quite a slog, and for good reason: it’s being applied to work that is not his own. Caption writing is socially necessary work, but it’s exhausting and it comes with no recognition (stations often cut away to commercials, Obler notes, before the captioner’s credit has time to load.) Why should he care if Sitcom Dad’s exasperation merits an “ugh” or an “ughhh”? What is Sitcom Dad to him?

But what if Sitcom Dad were his creation? In that case, I feel that the captioner’s commitment to accuracy, while being no less exhausting, would be far more rewarding. There’s a certain joy in rendering on the page what was so clearly heard in the head, in seeing one’s own idea so perfectly realized.

Or, if one prefers to write without a plan, such fine-tuning is a way to discover a voice, landscape, or gesture—or should it be a lilting “a voice, or a landscape, or a gesture,” or a curt “a voice, landscape, gesture”? Play around with it for a bit and you’ll find the answer.

Perhaps that why the teacher’s lesson in “The Replacement” reads like pointless drudgery: the only prize from the precision he demands is fidelity to the text. There’s no discovery in the reading process. There’s no understanding of how history would be different with a comma instead of a period.

On Reading Multiple Books at Once

One of my favorite YouTube channels, Philosophy Tube, recently posted a video simply titled “How to Read Difficult Books,” in which the show’s host, Olly Thorn, offers five tips for doing just that.

Some of Thorn’s tips are fairly standard fare: take notes, don’t be afraid of rereading passages, etc. But the first tip he offers is perhaps the most interesting: “Read Two Books at Once.”

It seems like an odd bit of advice, especially when it comes to reading philosophical texts (the kind that Thorn’s viewers probably have in mind when they ask about reading difficult books). Whether it’s because the language is now antiquated or the concepts are abstract, a philosophical text can be a great challenge to work through on a word-by-word and paragraph-by-paragraph level—even with completely undivided attention. Why suggest that someone tackle another book on top of that?

Thorn brings up one crucial reason, one which is kind of obvious when said aloud. Reading two books at once means you will have to stop reading one to work on the other. It encourages you to break a difficult text into discrete units, rather that rushing from one section to another. To quote Thorn:

Often with academic books, they’ll try and say a lot in the chapter and it’ll be quite meaty, and if I try to sit and read two chapters of an academic book in one reading, the points that it’s making will just kind of tend to bleed into one, and I won’t really remember it very well. But if I physically stop myself and then pick up a chapter of something else, then I find I retain it a lot more easily.

And course, there’s the fact that reading a second book can provide some relief from the first. Especially if one book is rather dense or dry, a little fanciful escapism can help even things out. (Poetry, I find, fulfills a similar function. You can revel in the aesthetic pleasures of language for moment, rather than just piecing together its semantics.)

For me, though, the reason to tackle multiple books at once is all about drawing connections. Suppose you are reading a book on ethics. It might help, for example, to read a play or a novel at the same time, because you can think about the moral decisions of the various characters in the context of whatever philosopher’s theory of ethics. Would that philosopher approve or disapprove of how they act? This approach was really helpful for me in my last semester of undergrad—Aristotle’s system of virtue ethics made more sense to me when I could apply it to Thomas Middleton’s play Women Beware Women, which I was reading for a different class.

I obviously can’t guarantee that any two texts will pair well together. (I’m not sure reading Shakespeare would make modal realism any clearer, for example.) But you may be surprised at the connections you’ll find; that’s more-or-less the thrust of the soon-to-be-defunct PBS Idea Channel. Even if the connections are tenuous, the simple act of making them can at least make the ideas easier to remember.

So don’t be afraid to double-up on the readings.

Just don’t do it like this:

Olly Thorn, Hardcore Reader