by E.C. Messer
Beset by the desire to identify and explain the effects of Poetry—his word for drama—upon his sensibilities, Aristotle explains the difference between tragedy and comedy this way: tragedy begins in order and ends in chaos; comedy begins in chaos and ends in order. The tragic fable of Hamlet, for example, shows the disintegration of the State; the comedic fable of Tartuffe the reinstatement of the nuclear family.
In the traditional fables and fairy stories of Western literature, there are no tragedies: the wicked are punished, the good rewarded. Benefits gained by the former and hardships suffered by the latter, in the interim, are of no consequence to the story’s driving force, its resolution. There are, however, many Aristotelian comedies to be found among these fabulist ranks.
A Tall Tale From Ditmarsh, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is an ideal tiny, bizarre encapsulation of the impulse toward order. Its opening, “I want to tell you something,” implies monologue, from which dialogue originally emerged. At first it appears to be all chaos—neither comedy nor tragedy but farce, or, in modern terms, absurdism. Absurdism can be funny, funnier even than certain comedies, but it is not itself comedy. It’s laughing while Rome burns, sometimes laughing because Rome is burning.
Ditmarsh, instead, is the kind of controlled madness that reinforces order: to consider the anvil and the millstone swimming across the Rhine acknowledges the existence of anvils, millstones, rivers that can be swum. More than that, it insinuates the whole domestic, quotidian world of tools to be hammered into useful shapes, grain to be ground into bread, and human mouths to consume it for sustenance.
The open-ended nature of pseudo-absurdism allows for infinite variation. Local household objects and native fauna may be substituted as the storyteller desires. In London the Thames might replace the Rhine, in Japan an usu for pounding mochi replaces the millstone, here in San Francisco a bicycle across the bay replaces sails across fields. Folk tales are fundamentally artisanal, but the result is the same: a Brechtian estrangement without which we would be unable to understand the most ordinary objects and behaviors.
And there’s even a catharsis, for those who require a catharsis: “Open the window so the lies can fly out.” Literally a release, a banishment, a moral exorcism that leaves the listener (reader) with truth—the ultimate order—restored. Unless the window won’t open.
E.C. Messer lives in the sunniest part of San Francisco with her husband and four cats. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ecmesser. She would like very much to know you.