The ant and the grasshopper
December 31, 2002
There is a well-known fable, almost certainly by Aesop the African slave and storyteller whose popular and trenchant tales using animal characters were a small, but delightful part of 'the glory that was Greece'. The fable is 'the ant and the grasshopper'. Most Guyanese over the age of 50 will probably know it : storytelling and fables, like ring games and home-made toys, have gone out of fashion in our modern, electronic societies. Here is a modern rendering of the fable :
Winter had been unusually harsh, and a grasshopper, shivering with cold and very hungry, approached a large ants' nest where industrious workers had stored their stock of food for the ant-community's use during the lean winter months. He saw an ant scurrying towards the protection of the warm nest, and asked him if there were any spare scraps of food he might have from the ants' ample supplies, since he was cold and hungry. " But where are your own winter food supplies ?" asked the ant in a businesslike voice. " I didn't have enough time to gather any" said the shivering grasshopper. "Why not ?" retorted the ant, one eyebrow slightly raised in disapproval. "You knew that winter would come. We gathered food during the summer so that we would have enough for the Winter. why didn't you? " "Well", said the grasshopper a bit apologetically, " I was busy singing for you and all the other forest creatures all summer long." "Indeed !" was the ant's parting shot as he disappeared into the nest. " Well now you can sing all winter long."
It's a sadly familiar conflict : the impractical dreamer, living in a world of art versus the practical realist firmly rooted in the material world . Everyone needs food and shelter. Who needs art ? The answer is 'everyone'. The famous and irascible poet and critic, Ezra Pound, was once in conversation with a well-dressed, well-off, practical-minded female socialite. The discussion centred on the importance of the arts. " But, Mr. Pound" the woman asked, sceptical and unconvinced, "tell me. What is art for ? What does it do ?" Pound looked at her for a moment or two, then answered with another question : " tell me, madam, what is a flower garden for ? What does it do ?"
We inhabit two worlds, whether we know it or not. There is the world we all know well, the 'real' world of work, money, poverty and wealth : the everyday world in which happiness and misery are inseparable twins, and the race is to the swift : a world where only the fittest (or the smartest or luckiest ) survive. That's the world we find ourselves in. But there is another world in which we live imaginatively. It is the world we would like to live in, the world as we wish it could be : the world of our dreams and hopes and imaginings. That is the world that kept alive the heart of the slave in captivity, that made and continues to make possible the miraculous survival of whole nations of repressed and marginalised peoples It has always been the role of that imaginative world, the world of cultural identity and religious belief, to keep the human spirit alive in those dark times when the 'real' world has seemed a poor alternative. We need our artists to remind us of that other world, to hear their singing in the midst of the dust and noise of the 'real' world as, ant-like, we hurry to gather and store up the wealth and food we fear will be in short supply when winters of discontent arrive.
Sometimes their song will be unwelcome, a distraction in the midst of urgent, practical necessity. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the angry Roman crowd, stirred up by politicians for their own ends, tear the hapless poet, Cinna, limb from limb in their blind lust for revenge. Art, like religion, can be a dangerous calling, reminding people of what they might aspire to be, instead of accepting what they have become. The artist's role is not always a comforting one. Listen to the voice of that very great and much quoted (though often underestimated ) Guyanese poet, Martin Carter :
After today, how shall I speak with you?
Those miseries I know you cultivate
are mine as well as yours, or do you think
the impartial bullock cares whose land
... Old hanging ground is still green playing field.
Smooth cemetery proud garden of tall flowers.
But in your secret gables real bats fly
mocking great dreams that give the soul no peace,
and everywhere wrong deeds are being done.
Rude citizen ! Think you I do not know
that love is stammered, hate is shouted out
in every human city of this world ?
Men murder men, as men must murder men
to build their shining governments of the
( 'After One Year', Poems of Succession, p.71 )
It is as though that poem were written today, not forty years ago. It is still as deeply affecting now as it was in the 1960's, and still as urgent a call to end the senseless conflict that divides people from themselves and each other. We are all in the same leaking boat. There is no point in looking only for political or economic solutions, or in apportioning blame.'
We must all start now, together, bailing out the water that can drown us before we reach safety. And it is only the shared vision of that other world, the world we'd all like to live in, that can motivate us. And that is where the arts come in. The value of the arts is of the same order as the value of our dreams, visions and hopes. To live in a world without the imaginative arts would be to live a life devoid of meaning beyond mere practical existence : a life without music or song or dance or beauty or the awareness of another's pain. A joyless, selfish world. The ant and the grasshopper need to be more than simply 'constitutional' neighbours, each pursuing his own calling without recognising the value of the other's. There has also to be genuine respect and mutual understanding. As W.H. Auden ( being a poet ), once put it :
"...We must love one another or die."