On the Subject of Truth, Tulips and Happy Endings

  • I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been working on a novel that takes place in Vermont. Anyone who wishes to read it, in progress, is welcome to E-Mail me. The novel will have some poetry in it, some fables and whatever else makes a good story. For lack of anything better, I’ve posted this first fable. I wrote it this morning. Eventually it might make its way into the novel. I’m not an artist, nothing like my wife, but I’ve thrown in my drawings for the fun of it. Edit: I shamed my wife into giving me one quick drawing. Enjoy.

A Fable on the Subject of Truth, Tulips and Happy Endings

There was once a well-respected Soothsayer who lived by a brook. He fished in the brook and every morning returned with something to eat. Every day children, old wives, girls and young men visited him seeking advice and notions of the future. The soothsayer always told the truth and what the soothsayer foretold always came true. As a small matter, fortune telling is an idle thing; but the future is devilish and full of trickery.

Children, among the wisest fortune seekers, forget what they’re told, but the soothsayer’s reputation spread and those with the least forethought were the most eager to foresee. The soothsayer had two visitors. The first was a young man in search of a wife. The second was personage of very great importance.

The young man came to the soothsayer first and was told a very peculiar fortune. The soothsayer said: You must be willing. You must find the tulip that blossoms at the bottom of the lake. You must pay no mind to anything else. You must pull it up by the roots. You must not let go. If you do as I tell you, your wife will fall out of the sky and into your arms.

The young man left as despondent as he came. Such a ridiculous fortune could not possibly come true.

The second visitor was a very important mayor of a very important town. He came to the soothsayer seeking advice. He said to the soothsayer: I am assured that few personages of equal importance have come to you. The Soothsayer, who was fishing at the moment, assured him that no one like the mayor had ever visited. The mayor, who was naturally complimented by the soothsayer’s remark, at once troubled the soothsayer for a fortune.

The soothsayer said: There will be a very great rain storm. The waters will flood your village until only the weathercocks, at the very tops of your houses, stand above water. The portly mayor’s face turned red and his eyes bulged. ‘When,’ he sputtered, ‘when will this terrible storm arrive?’ The soothsayer tossed his hook back into the brook and answered: in four weeks and two days.

The mayor hurried back to his town and, having considered the problem thoroughly, immediately announced that the village, built in a comfortable valley beside a gurgling brook, must be moved to the top of the hill. Now it just so happened that there was already someone living atop the hill – a beautiful girl with a tidy garden.

When the the mayor and the townspeople came to her, she would not let them touch her garden, especially because the garden was where her favorite tulip bloomed every spring. A horrible argument ensued but the girl, hands on her hips, stood her ground. So did the indignant tulip.

This piqued the mayor because the tulip was exactly where he wished to build himself a statue. He decided that once he had saved the townspeople, they would see the wisdom in building him a fine statue. In the meantime the mayor ordered that the town, with its cobblestone streets and crowded little houses built one next to the other so that each leaned on the other, be built around the girl’s shed and garden.

He also order that a great wall be built around the town. By means of the wall, the town would be protected by the great flood. The crafty stone masons built the wall as tightly as the hull of a boat. By the fourth week and the first day, the town was finished and the one gate through the watertight wall was shut. The girl and the tulip paid no mind to any of it.

On the fourth week and the second day, the terrible storm began, but a very strange thing happened. The gurgling brook merrily carried the rain away but, in the town atop the hill, there was nowhere for the water to go. The town, with its high walls, turned into a great big bathtub. Since the wall was just as high as the topmost roof, the town filled with water until only the weathercocks were dry – just as the soothsayer had foretold. Outwitting the future is a devilish and tricky thing.

The tulip thought it a very strange thing to be at the bottom of a lake, but once the sun came out and its light filtered gaily to the very bottom, the tulip blossomed. There is a time for tulips to blossom and the affairs of men and weather are of very little concern to tulips.

It just so happened that the young man, in search of just such a tulip, had come looking for the girl who knew a thing or two about tulips. Imagine his surprise when he found, not a girl, a garden, or a tulip, but the walls of a town. Taking off his boots, he climbed the wall; and imagine his surprise when he saw a lake fall of weathercocks, one after the other, drying in the noonday sun.

Could the girl, the garden, and the tulip be at the bottom of the lake?

He took off his socks and dove into the water. He swam to the very middle and dove straight downward. He passed the girl who was floating upward, like the townspeople, as surprised as anyone to be at the bottom of a lake. The girl was beautiful but the soothsayer had told him to pay no mind to anything but the tulip. The young man swam to the tulip. He pulled and the harder he pulled, the harder the tulip’s roots clung to the earth.

He pulled and he pulled. One by one the roots let go until, all at once – and all but for one little root with which the indignant tulip refused to let go – the water began to pour out of the hole that was left behind. But this was of little concern to the tulip. A mighty struggle ensued. The tulip clung to its patch of earth with its one root as the young man clung to the tulip for dear life. Down went the water. Down went one townsman after another, then the horses, then the carriages, then houses and all in the great big whoosh of a whirlpool.

The tulip was never so indignant, all the while thinking the young man was trying to pull it up. But all he was trying to do was save himself.

Finally, everything but the town’s walls and the girl had been swept into the hole. At the last minute, the young man put the tulip back into the hole, like a cork in the drain of a tub, and caught the girl just before she also fell into the hole. It was as if she had fallen out of the sky for, indeed, she had been floating above him the whole time. The girl looked at the young man and the young man looked at the girl, and they fell in love, and in just a little while they were married. The young man decided that as long as one is willing, wonderful things can happen in the most unexpected ways.

He and his wife took down the walls. They made a fence around the tulip – who had entirely forgotten the whole affair – and lived happily in their shed next to the garden.

11 responses

  1. This is a wonderfully charming fable, Patrick, and it really brought me back to my childhood when my mother read all kinds of stories like this to me. The image of the girl falling from the sky into the boy’s arms reminded me of a Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which is a wonderfully charming work in its own right (like most of his are) that I’d highly recommend. But I did greatly enjoy this piece. It deserves to be in a children’s book with illustrations.

    • Thanks Jonathan. Writing fables and poetry is how I began. I’ve always had a soft spot for fables. I’ve never watched Castle in the Sky. Could never get my kids interested in it (none of whom like Anime), so I’ll have to watch it by myself. I think Anime is already “dating” the generation of the 90’s. So many of my kids’ generation really don’t care for it.

  2. [[[I think Anime is already “dating” the generation of the 90′s.]]]

    There is a growing appreciation for anime and its best works and directors amongst cinephiles and film scholars. Roger Ebert was actually a major force in that by championing many of the best films anime has produced (like his putting Grave of the Fireflies on his Greatest Films list), and Miyazaki is frequently hailed as one on the best directors, period, of the last 20 years. I’ve long said that if the medium is to survive in the West it’s going to have to do more than be a cult sensation appealing to teenagers that grew up with Akira (which was, admittedly, how I was introduced to it, but it has so much more to offer than that). It’s a shame it’s still ignored as much as it is, because I feel there are a handful of masterpieces that are as good as anything live-action film has produced. In fact, I put the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion up on the Mount Olympus of the greatest works of art ever produced in any medium, period–but it’s not the easiest thing in the world convincing the majority of that!

    • My sample is pretty small. :-) It’s likely that interest in Anime was a fairly faddish phenomena for a narrow generation. If I search around I find many posts like this one. In the interest of full disclosure, I myself have never liked Anime, finding almost all of it formulaic, kitschy and 2-dimensional — of course I feel that way about any cartoon that takes itself too seriously. None of this is to say that some “anime” masterpieces might not exist, but I would be a poor judge of it. I’ve never even heard of “Neon Genesis”. There’s stuff, from my generation, that older and younger have never heard of. Just be aware that your love of anime might be dating you. Did I mention Space 1999?

  3. This turned out longer than I expected, but I do hope I can enlighten you as to my interest in anime and it’s place in both Western and its original culture.

    Anime was a “fad” in the sense that it developed a cult following when Akira exploded in the western world and turned a lot of people from that generation onto anime; but that’s like saying dancing is just a fad because of the appeal of Dancing with the Stars. Anime has been around as long as (if not longer) than American animation has, and it’s a thriving medium of Japanese popular and intellectual culture whose audience isn’t limited to one demographic. When Neon Genesis Evangelion finished its run, it had philosophers, culture critics, and businessmen rattling on and on about it, which is something that never really happened in the US with any animated work. There is a gross bias in the west (in general) that animation is only good for children’s programming and satiric comedy ala South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. but that is a thoroughly Western notion. Animation is highly respected as an art form in many countries, including Japan. Spirited Away was actually the highest grossing movie in Japan for a while before Titanic was released there (which gives you an idea of its cultural significance), and Miyazaki is as big a name there as, say, Steven Spielberg is here.

    One thing I would say is that your experience of anime being “kitschy and 2-dimensional” is not surprising considering that America only gets a very small amount of the anime that’s produced, and what is exported tends to be that which will appeal to adolescents, who are still the biggest audience for it in America. So one has to be very selective in viewing anime, since the majority of it is crap (but isn’t that true for any artistic medium? Isn’t 99% of all poetry written crap?) But the works of Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Ueda/ABe certainly appeal to more mature and aesthetically adventurous viewers. I consider it a small miracle that a series like Paranoia Agent or Texhnolyze ever made it over here given how arty they were. Evangelion is one of those rare works that’s as radical as it is traditional and it parodies the very genre its apart of while offering up a ton of psychological and philosophical and mythological/allegorical discourse. I’ll simply say this about it: there are only two works of art that I’ve spent years studying and still don’t feel as if I understand everything there is to know about them: one is Hamlet, and the other is Evangelion. It gives you an idea of the kind of class I consider that work in.

    I don’t know if liking anime “dates” me because, really, I found anime long after the initial boom of the late 80s/early 90s. When I found it was no longer the cool/hip/in thing, and the only reason I latched onto it at all because I was already a voracious cinephile who was intent on exploring ever nook and cranny of the moving picture art-form, including that of animation. Even outside of anime I’m a huge fan of Disney, Pixar, and the stop-motion animated works of The Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmajer, and films like Persepolis and The Triplets of Belleville from France, or Waltz With Bashir from Israel. One thing you’ll learn about me if you talk to me long enough is that I have an affinity for the artistic fringes, and anime is just one of those fringes for which I have an affinity for (but no more than for, say, the graphic novel or the films of Stan Brakhage).

    Let me say this about that article you linked to: those types of anime fans are representative of the “faddish” types that erupted in the west after Akira, and by that I mean the type of obsessive, cosplaying, fansubbing, scanlating, fanboys and fangirls who love anime because of the escapist fantasy aspect. I can’t deny that that audience dominates anime fans in the west, but I am simply not a part of that group (that’s why I stick out like a sore thumb on anime message boards). I’m a fan of anime like Roger Ebert is a fan of anime, ie, as a cinephile and critic who just happens to love when a different medium is used in highly artistic ways. Since most of my favorite animes are mini-series (and require some dedication of time), may I recommend you watch the film Grave of the Fireflies? That film always explodes the idea of what anime is and can be for people who have only experienced the medium in a very limited context. It’s one of the most poignant films ever made, and made with a subtle craftsmanship and understated beauty that would make Ozu proud.

    • You make a compelling case for Anime.

      I’ll look for the movies you recommend and keep an open mind. Your point concerning 99% of art form is well-taken.

      I remember watching “Spirited Away”. I liked the story, and the animation/art had its moments, but I still found it 2 dimensional (even garish in some places). That ‘game show’, hyper, color-saturated garishness that seems to appeal to the worst aesthetic instincts of the Japanese and Chinese (standing as a monumental contradiction to the minimalist Zen and Chan aesthetic) has never appealed to me. While watching “Spirited Away”, all I could think about was how much better it would have been if Pixar had done it. :\

      That said, I’ve also never been a fan of modern blues and Jazz. Some listen to modern Jazz as though they sipped the wine of Odysseus. My disinterest in Anime, I’m sure, says more about my tastes than the quality or artistic merit of the art form.

  4. Well, if you didn’t like Spirited Away then you’re probably not going to care for Miyazaki, because his other films are cut from roughly the same cloth. Though My Neighbor Totoro may be more subdued than his others. Miyazaki appears one dimensional until one starts reading his films through a lens of Japanese mythology and how that’s combined with modern ecological concerns. Still, nobody would accuse him of being an overtly intellectual filmmaker like Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii or Hideaki Anno are. Miyazaki is primarily about the aesthetic of the animation itself, and if you don’t appreciate that aesthetic then everything else probably isn’t going to matter.

    Although, I’m not sure why Pixar would appeal to you if “game show, hyper, color-saturated garishness” doesn’t appeal to you, since I find most Pixar more guilty of that than a film like Spirited Away (and I will likely always take the personal touch of hand-drawn and colored cel animation over CGI. CGI will always be just too clean looking and clinical for my taste, as much as I do love Pixar).

    As for modern blues and jazz, I only dabble but I’m not a major connoisseur of either myself. Though I do like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miles Davis (if you’d consider either of them “modern”).

    • //Although, I’m not sure why Pixar would appeal to you if “game show, hyper, color-saturated garishness” doesn’t appeal to you//

      When the Japanese set their minds to it, there’s not a culture on the planet that can rival them for over-the-top, garish kitsch. I stand firm on that. ;) That said, Americans aren’t bad at it. I can forgive Pixar because I appreciate the added complexity required to make characters lifelike. Computer animation creates the illusion of a 3-D world and that can make poor animation not just bad, but weirdly scary and creepy.

      I give you: Exhibit A.

      This has to be one of the worst computer generated movies ev’ar – bar none. It’s creepiness goes places horror movies only dream of. I dare you to make it past the first 10 minutes. Just read the reviews. Cartoon based animation might be able to produce the same creepiness, but I think that the animators would have to make a concerted effort. This is because we aren’t fooled into thinking that we’re watching a 3-D world when watching wooden, near expressionless cartoon characters. Only the most minimal touches are frequently necessary to communicate a given emotion on the face of a cartoon character – and that includes anime. With computer animation it’s a whole different ballgame. The artist has to create the illusion of blood, gravity and, to put it simply, life. A movie like Rango just blows me away. The characters have to breathe. Sometimes you will see the stock cliche of the anime character who is simply pasted to a moving background. I frequently find anime characters to be blandly expressionless. As you say, though, most of the stuff I’ve been exposed to is probably second and third rate.

      However, I don’t mean to put down good anime. I only mean to explain why I appreciate the work of pixar in a way that I haven’t yet learned to appreciate in Anime. The world created by Nemo is really incredible. It’s that illusion of weight, heft, breath and life that I really appreciate in computer animation – along with a good story. I didn’t like Cars and couldn’t be bothered to watch the sequel.

  5. “Kitsch” is one of those words like “pretentious” that I tend to avoid like the plague because they’ve gone from having any coherent referents to just being generalized negative adjectives that are applied to whatever a “critic” doesn’t like. I always feel that if I’m going to use either word I have to go through the rigamarole of defining the word and then arguing convincingly why I feel that definition fits with whatever it is I’m talking about. Plus, like the thin line between genius and insanity there can frequently be a thin line between high-art and kitsch, so I tend to tip-toe around it.

    But, with all of those qualifiers in mind, I think much of Japanese kitschiness simply comes from their cultural heritage, which is so different from that of the west. We eventually inherited the traditions of naturalism from the realism novelists, and of course Brando pioneered the popularity of the “method” in the popular consciousness in films. Japan, however, has always taken more from the unnatural expressivity of Kabuki and Noh. The melodrama that, say, Kurosawa is often accused of goes directly to his interest in those theatrical traditions. Anime seems like that type of expressivity applied to animation.

    I agree with you that Pixar’s greatest artistry goes into the nuance of their animated characterizations. They study the human face and then attempt to capture each subtlety in their animation. But that entire paradigm goes back to Pixar’s model of the Golden Age of Hollywood (and you could certainly pick worse models than that wonderful era!), and they probably do it better than anybody (animated or live-action) out there today. The reason I say I prefer the animated style of anime isn’t just in the difference in 2D cel and 3D CG, but also in the fact that anime is more reliant on the expressivity of the entire mise-en-scene rather than the nuaned expressivity of the face.

    If Pixar is modeled on the Golden Age of Hollywood, then anime is more often modeled on the art of silent films, which gets closer to my ideal cinematic aesthetic (as I feel film should be more of a pictorial rather than a dramatic medium). It also creates a difference in how subtle nuance and craftsmanship is achieved; the western tradition is found in the primacy of telephoto close-ups, shallow depth-of-field, and the expressivity gleaned from the face, while the eastern tradition is found in wide-angles and deep focus with more broadly painted gestures set against a more symbolic and expressive background. So much of what can be seen as kitschy in anime because of the lack of nuanced facial expression and characterization (eg) is often the result of reading not just the character, but the character’s placement within the overal image. Evangelion, eg, is a tour-de-fource in directorial devices (mise-en-scene and editing) that are used for various expressive purposes, and if all you’re doing is focusing on the characters you will miss at least half of where the art is–and I’d say much the same goes for the work of Miyazaki. It’s interesting to note that most of the great western directors that popularized wide-angles, long-takes, and depth-of-field (Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, et al.) were all inspired by the Japanese, especially Kenji Mizoguchi. Kubrick even admitted to modeling the famous opening of Full Metal Jacket on a similar section in Pt. 2 of Kobayashi’s The Human Condition Trilogy (and speaking of that fine line between art and kitsch, watch that trilogy!).

    One final word I’ll say about the differences in the medium outside the cultural aspect is that CG strikes me as that no-man’s land between live-action and 2D animation. It seems the modern paradigm of a lot of CG is to be as realistic as possible, but if you go too far in that direction you end up in Mori’s Uncanny Valley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley A film like The Polar Express is a good example of said valley. I do think Pixar and Dreamworks avoids that valley because they are so influenced by the more cartoonish aspects of animation (John Lasseter worships Miyazaki, eg) so they always make sure to never make things too realistic. I haven’t seen (and have no attention of seeing) Puss n’ Boots, so thanks for the warning!

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