Classicist Jeremy Lefkowitz: Who Wrote Aesop's Fables?
Jeremy Lefkowitz: Who Wrote Aesop's Fables?
Assistant Professor of Classics Jeremy Lefkowitz joined the Classics Department in 2009. His teaching and research focus on Latin and Greek poetry, especially comic and satirical genres such as Greek and Roman Comedy, Iambography, Roman Satire, and Aesopic Fable. His current book project - provisionally entitled Aesop's Pen - reconsiders the literary history and cultural status of "Aesopica" (fables, proverbs, and other anecdotes ascribed to Aesop) by focusing on adaptations of fables in diverse genres of Greek and Latin poetry.
Lefkowitz teaches courses that draw upon his broad interests in Greek and Latin language, literature, and culture, including topics in epic, drama, myth, intellectual history, and the reception of the classical world in contemporary arts and media. Recent courses include seminars on Ovid, Virgil, Roman Comedy, and Intermediate Latin courses on "Catullus and His World" and "Death in Seneca."
Rosaria Munson: Thank you for coming. I'm really ... It's a joy to introduce Jeremy Lefkowitz. Who in his five years at Swarthmore, has been an incredible asset to our Department of Classics, the college as a whole, and also just to our lives, as his colleagues and friends. Jeremy graduated with honors with BA in Greek and Latin from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He took his MA in Classics at the Washington University in St. Louis, and then his PhD in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, at which point we snatched him up.
Since his arrival, he has taken a position of a leadership in our Department and has worked very hard collaborating with Grace Ledbetter in the reform and expansion of our program. Most notably, Grace and he have researched, constructed and implemented the new Classical Studies Major, which we have added to our existing linguistically based majors.
This new program is its first year of operation, and we find that it allows us to share the wealth of our Techs with a broader and more diverse set of students. Its heart and soul are represented by the newly designed Classical Studies Seminars, where we combine the study of the Classical Sources with a variety of Theoretical and Interdisciplinary approaches. And the reason why I mention all this is that the first of these seminars is being taught this semester precisely by Jeremy himself, in his entitled Ancient Drama in Performance.
Jeremy's teaching range is very broad. It includes all levels of Greek and Latin as well his incredibly popular course in Greek Mythology. I once heard a sophomore, one of our sophomore who took several courses from him say, "I think I'm majoring in Lefkowitz." To Jeremy and therefore to his students, the Classical world and the Modern world must be placed in perpetual dialogue. Each of them, as he himself explained in an article that is published in Italian 2012, in a collection entitled, "Classic Scholars Between Theory and Practice". He explained this idea, that the two, the Modern World and the Classical World, really need to provide clues for understanding each other.
Also, as a scholar in his particular discipline, Jeremy has been catapulted very early as it were into a commanding position. He has been invited to contribute several encyclopedia articles, numerous critical reviews and chapters in prestigious collections. These chapters include, and I'm going to just rattle off a few titles. One is called, "Ugliness and Value in the life of Aesop", published in 2008 in a collection edited by Ralph Rosen and in a case Sluiter. The collection is called, "Kakos: Badness in Classical Antiquity". Cause yes, one of Jeremy's specialties is Ugliness and Badness in Antiquity. Even though his [inaudible 00:03:45] sauce is beautiful and good, as well as not particularly ancient yet. And then there's another article that I want to mention. It's called, "Reading the Aesopic Corpus: Slavery, Freedom and Story-telling in the Life of Aesop", which will appear in a collection about slaves and masters in the Ancient Novel, edited by Paschalis and Panayotakis. And I also should mention a piece that has just come out very recently this year, entitled "Aesop and Animal Fables", in the Oxford Handbook of Animals and Classical Thought and Life, edited by G. Campo. In which Jeremy explores the connection, or lack thereof, between animals that appear as characters in fables and real animals. And that bring him to compare the discourse of Folklore to the discourse of Science.
Jeremy is one of the few experts in a difficult and burgeoning field. That of the Fable. It is a huge field, but one that has not been studied very systematically or very much as a whole. The Fable is like this creeping vine through Greek and Latin literature, through Poetry and through Prose and through a different literary genres. In a field that is co-limital to those of Comedy and Satire. And one of Jeremy's tasks has been to lay down the parameters of this field of complete Fable Narratives across the centuries, across many centuries. And this is what he's doing in his book in progress under contract with Oxford University Press, that is entitled "Aesopic Fables. Greek and Latin Fables from Hesiod to Oliver Haythorne." That is from Hesiod 8th century BC, among the earliest Greek Epics, to 13th century of our era. So, very, very long and cultural diverse period.
Whenever the fable happens to appear it presents itself, Jeremy says, as something humble. The offshoot of a tradition of story-telling characterized by an adorned style and simple message. Whose embodiment and metaphor are the ugly and sometimes represented as the form, although not here, and victimized Aesop. A slave who becomes liberated, and who in the act of becoming liberated, he becomes a sage and an adviser of the city through narrative. And to Jeremy this transformation symbolizes the transformation of the Fable itself, from folklore to literature. And that problem is very much at the heart of his whole work. He's inquiries about: What is the place of, so called, popular literature in the Classical Cannon. What are the characteristics of the individual voices who claim to be captured in popular voices? What are the motivations, the stylistic quirks, the moral position, the cultural and political context of these various often anonymous authors.
Now, exploring these issues is tantamount to asking, "What is the meaning of these narratives?" And that goes a long way towards explaining the uses of narrative in a larger sense. So, here he is, Jeremy Lefkowitz.
Jeremy Lefkowitz: Thank you, thank you very much Rosaria for that introduction, and thank you to everyone for being here. Can everyone hear me okay? Okay, great. So, there are two things I want to do in this talk today. First, I'm going to focus on the question I pose in my title of: "Who wrote Aesop's Fables?" And why I think it's one worth asking despite it's rather antiquarian tone. In this first part we'll consider what Aesop may have represented as an authorial figure, and we'll look at some evidence for how the earliest writers of collections of fables may have conceived of their literary projects. And then in the second part of the talk I'm going to share with you in an extremely abbreviated form an argument I made in a recent paper. That I just completed a couple of weeks ago, in which I look at ways and, which ideas about Fable writing and Fable Archiving surface in the Ancient Biographical novel known as The Life of Aesop, which I've been working for a few years now.
Okay, so I want to open by reading from the introduction of the 1956 collection of Italian Fables and Fairy Tales entitled: "Fiabe Italiane". Collected and edited by Italo Calvino. In the opening pages, Calvino reflects on the folklorist comparative method of analyzing and sorting fables. And he writes, "As I started to work to take stock of the material available to classify the stories into a catalog, which kept expanding, I was gradually possessed by a kind of mania. An insatiable hunger for more and more versions and variants. Colating, categorizing and comparing became a kind of fever. I could feel myself succumbing to a passion akin to that of entomologists, which I thought characteristic of the scholars of the Folklore fellows Communications of Helsinki. A passion, which rapidly degenerated into a mania as a result of which I would've given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the fable of the Donkey's Golden Dung."
Calvino goes on to articulate his method of restyling and rewriting fables in ways that he hopes will be perceived as somehow more authentic than the form in which they are encountered in other collections. Calvino, after all, did not get his fables directly from the mouth's of the people of Italy, but from the library. From diverse collections others had made from oral interviews throughout the various regions of Italy. Calvino describes his approach to rewriting Italian folktales in fascinating ways. And in terms that I think are relevant to what we see in the Ancient Fable writing tradition.
As a particularly reflective, sophisticated author who positions himself as a mediator between putatively popular story-telling and official literary culture, Calvino writes that he has selected, "The most unusual, beautiful and original texts." And that he took, again, "Those that lack the freshness of authenticity," and assumed the thorny task of restoring their lost originality. These are all difficult phrases to sort out, but freshness of authenticity and restoring their lost originality. Calvino's comments shed light on the multiplicity and plasticity of the fable genre. And on the ways in which these seemingly popular tales so often go through processes of being restyled and rewritten by authors with complex literary agendas.
But to what extent did Calvino's comments and methods reflect the attitudes of Greek and Roman authors towards the fable? Did Greek and Roman authors think of every fable as one variant among many? Did they think about the authenticity of fables in similar ways? And would they be sympathetic to Calvino's desire to restore this lost originality. That is to modify the language of the Popular fable so as to make them somehow more authentic.
So the reality, as I see it, is that those who wrote down the collections Aesop's Fables that have come down to us from Antiquity were inevitably much more like Calvino than they were like the quasi-legendary figure of Aesop. The famously ugly slave who according to legend, won his freedom through his own wit and wisdom, and went on to advise kings and heads of State throughout the Mediterranean world before his ultimate fatal confrontation with the Delphians. In, the Greeks thought, around the 6th century BCE. So, no scholar thinks that the Aesop of legend personally wrote down the fables that have come to be associated with his name. In much the same way that no scholar really thinks that the legendary Homer wrote with his own hand the texts that we know as The Iliad and The Odyssey. And so, in posing the question today of: Who wrote Aesop's fables? I would hardly be making front page news if I were to prove to you that Aesop himself did not write the fables.
Now, 118 years ago in New York City, Joseph Jacobs, a prominent folklorist and historian delivered a public lecture in which as this article from the New York Times reports, and it must have been a slow news day ... I looked it up it was a Wednesday. It was proven that Aesop was a fraud, as the headline reads: Aesop called a fraud. "Fables credit to him written by others," says Dr. Jacobs.
So, it's not difficult to imagine what Jacobs must have done in this lecture. I think he probably gave a series of completely accurate answers to what I would consider to be the wrong question or the wrong conception of the question. Nonetheless, I think it will be worthwhile here in brief, to think through what Jacobs would've done in this lecture. Both because it will provide you with useful orientation to the empirical evidence. The facts that demonstrate that Aesop himself did not write Aesop's fables. And because it will serve as a useful example of what I consider to be a somewhat outmoded antiquarian approach to the problem of fable writing. One that is quite different from the approach that I think I take in my own work.
So, in disproving Aesopic authorship, Jacobs most likely would've made at least the following four well-established points.
First, what do we know about Aesop? Well, from Herodotus we know, Herodotus writing in the 5th century BCE, we know that Aesop was believed to have been a slave on Samos, and that he had a reputation as a prominent story-teller. And the word that Herodotus uses is logo-poios, literally a story-maker. We first encounter specific fables connected to Aesop's name in roughly the same period. Beginning with Aristophanes, in the 5th century and then writers such as Plato and Aristotle, among others.
Sometime around 300 BCE, sometime late in the 4th century, Demetrius of Phalerum who, among other things, held the position of head of acquisitions for the library of Alexandria, which is a dream job for a bibliophile, I think. He put together the first compilation of Aesop's fables as an independent free standing collection. Demetrius' book is lost to us, and all we have is the briefest notice of it in Diogenes Laertius, who refers to it as a gathering together of Aesop's fables, and the word he uses is sunagoge of Aesop's fables.
And it's not until the first and second century CE, that we have surviving collections of Aesop's fables. Some anonymous and some by named authors such as Phaedrus and Babrius. So, now as true as all of this is, as I said a moment ago, one of the problems with this approach to the question of the writing of Aesop's fable is that no scholar really thinks. It's just that no scholar really though 120 years ago that Aesop himself wrote them with his own hand. So, it makes the whole act of disproving Aesopic authorship a kind of dubious exercise.
But there are even more significant problems with this approach. And this extends beyond Jacobs' lecture in 1896, and has to do more with widely accepted views of the Aesopic fable tradition, both in scholarship and in the popular imagination. And we have somehow gone from the idea that Aesop did not write the fables that go by his name to a general assumption that no one wrote the fables that go by his name. Or at least that no one of any consequence did. The prevailing idea for quite a long time seems to be that the hundreds of Aesopic fables that survive in Greek and Latin are somehow un-authored, or at least that they somehow represent a uniquely low popular mode of story-telling. And this in turn has led to a general lack of interest in reading and studying the material that is Literature.
It has also led to some under examined truths about the fable tradition preserving a kind of vox populi of the Ancient world. As no less a figure than Gian Biagio Conte puts it in his history of Latin literature, "The fable is the most universal and the most profoundly popular genre. The authors are fables." And those are his own scare quotes. "Are almost always the airs of a popular oral narrative tradition that has already been consolidated."
So, in some ways the central task of the work that I've been doing recently on Aesop has been to focus on the question of the literariness or more accurately, the writteness of this material. And again, just because Aesop did not write Aesop's fables, it doesn't mean that nobody wrote Aesop's fables. This slide shows an image of a 1st century CE papyrus, held in the John Rylands University library in Manchester, which contains just barely legible fragments of an Ancient Greek fable collection, which Van Perry, who was sort of the leading fable scholar of the 20th century, considered quite likely be from Demetrius' own collection. But I don't know, whether we can really say that. And I have it up really, just more for the effect it has of dramatizing the fable writing process. It's not something I'm going to discuss in any great detail.
In my work, I return again and again to the question of how fables came to be written down. And about how this universal, global story-telling tradition of greater antiquity, even than the centuries I've been mentioning, how it came to be so strongly associated with the figure of Aesop. And how to a lesser extent, why so many other authors wrote collections of fables barring Aesop's name in places and languages so far removed from the 6th century BCE in Samos.
So, if we limit ourselves to merely debunking the Aesopic authorship, we're missing something extremely important. In calling Aesop a fraud, we're approaching this tradition too much like a conventional relationship between an author and a literary corpus, when clearly something very different is at work. One of the greatest challenges one faces in contemplating Aesopic authorship and Aesopic writing is the enormous gap that exists right between the 6th century BCE, when he was supposed to have lived and then 300 years forward to when his first collection that does not survive by Demetrius of Phalerum was supposedly written, and then yet another 300 years to when our first collections that we do have, eventually emerged. So, really 600 years of intervening time between the time this author is supposed to have lived and the emergence of his work.
One of the things that interest me most about this rather complex and challenging relationship between author and corpus is the tension between on the one hand, the open obvious fiction that Aesop himself was responsible for all of these tales; and on the other the enduring interest on the part of later writers in claiming some kind of authenticity for their literary projects by associating what they were doing with the name of Aesop.
From the very earliest references to Aesop's name, we find the idea that Aesopic fables are not a fixed set of well-established stories, but that they can be invented to fit any circumstance. In any famous passage in Plato's Phaedo, Socrates composes and elegant little fable on the relationship between pleasure and pain, and he introduces this fable by explaining that if Aesop had thought of these things he would've made a fable about them. Now this is one of the earliest Aesop's fables that we have, and it's so obviously framed as an invention for the moment. Aristotle in a very different context, but still clearly discussing Aesopic fable, in the Rhetoric he compares the use of fables and public speaking to the use of historical example Explaining that the fable has an advantage over the historical example because while it is difficult to find similar things that have really happened. It's easier to just invent fables.
By the 1st century of the common era, the invention of new fables and an explicitly Aesopic mode had become central to the tradition. As seen for example, in the fable books of the poet Phaedrus and as can be seen in school texts such as the Proganosmita of Phaeon. Phaeon's elementary exercises call for students to manipulate and modify existing fables, and to invent new ones based on their knowledge of the tradition. What he's saying here is that you can start with epilogos, like a kind of moral attached to the fable and compose numerous fables from that moral. Or vice versa you can start with a fable and make up numerous morals for it. And that what you can get there is by having a whole sort of collection of fables built up in your mind. The students will be able to do this readily when their minds have been filled with many fables.
Intention with this pronounced adaptability, flexibility and openness of the fable tradition, is the notion of authenticity. The idea that individual fables or collections of fables are genuine examples of Aesopica. One of the most common ways of conceiving of the authenticity of Aesopic fables is the idea of simplicity. The narrative style and linguistic register of our earliest surviving collections of Aesop's fables suggest that deliberate and cultivated air of simplicity, and indeed we have someone who advocates that exact idea.
The rhetorician Nikolaos recommends an approach to fable composition that describes almost exactly what we find in the earliest extent prose collections that found the basis of what we've come to know as Aesop's fables. The language should be very simple, straight-forward and unassuming. And apparently that had something to do with the way animals would speak if they could speak. It has to befit the character of animals speech. The simple style of the fable, one of its trademarks is often a studied ruse designed to strip away evidence of artistry in order to give the prosaic narratives an air of archaism and authenticity. We have a similar line in Quintilian, that basically advocates the same thing.
Above all, what distinguishes a collection of fables such as our earliest Greek prose composition, Greek prose fables the Augustuna Collection, is the clarity and simplicity of its Greek. And the repeated patterns in its narratives. In particular the prevalence of a balanced division of the fables into three parts: the exposition, the action and a closing comment. So, while a tripartite structure is common throughout the fable tradition and really in folk tales generally, the writer of this particular collection of fables who we don't know who it was, seems to have devoted specially a lot of energy to creating a harmonious evenness among the parts.
So, in the Greek of this fable of the Wolf and the Heron, the various parts are exactly 16 words each. Even the moral at the bottom, the epimetheum is 16 words. I cheated a little bit, because I didn't count a particle that would've made one of them 17 words, but I think that's okay. Two thirds of the 231 fables in this anonymous Greek prose collection, The Agustuna, have this very type of tripartite structure, and there's some variation in the precise length of the parts, but there's a strong tendency towards uniformity. So, the brevity and simplicity and regularity of structure that we encounter here ... You can see that it's so balanced, right? It's so highly crafted and it's so studied that it emerges as a distinctive literary style.
Another quite different expression of the idea of authenticity in fable writing can be found in the work of the 1st century Roman poet, Phaedrus, who claims in the opening lines of his fable books that he is nothing more than a mere translator and versifier of Aesop. The very first words of his own book of fables is Aesopus ac autor, Aesop is the author or the source. For Phaedrus too, the real Aesop is imagined to have been composed in simple Greek prose, which he claims merely to have put into Latin verse. But even a cursory glance at his collections of fables reveals just how innovative and distinctive his voice is. Not only are there multiple fables on Roman themes, but he injects himself and his persona into just about every aspect of his presentation of the fables.
This includes everything from long autobiographical reflections, digressions in which he reflects on his own life and his own social situation. And he repeatedly draws a distracting level of attention to himself and his contemporaries in the Pro and Epimetheus in the morals that frame the fables. And there are some examples of that, which I'm not going to read here at the bottom, but basically what he's doing is instead of giving you a generalized universal moral to a fable, he'll wink and say, "You all know who this refers to." Or, "Anyone who knows me knows exactly what I'm getting at here," without actually giving you the moral. He uses the first and second person sort of constantly, when the whole idea, you'd think of a moral to a fable would be some kind of universalizing truth. He draws attention to himself and to his readers who will know his message with his cagey and extensively encoded messages in his morals that don't really explain or suggest any general application.
Among other things, these cryptic framing devices challenge the idea that fables carry gnomic meanings at all, undercutting the possibility of a straight forward relationship between the fable and the message. Again, to recap it's not just the matter of Aesop not having written these things, it's the matter of the ways in which writers in diverse periods, diverse languages, diverse media really, establish some kind of connection to the figure of Aesop while they quite obviously with different degrees of openness have their own distinctive literary agenda.
Don't be too afraid of this next slide. This stemma it presents really a very small selection of the authors and texts to which I've been directly and indirectly referring here. So, on the one hand again there's this huge gap between the very top Aesop and the 6th century BCE would be at the very top of this slide, and the things that are not in brackets, which are works that actually survived. On the other hand even leaving the problem of that gap aside, the many movements in and out of Greek and Latin, in and out of Prose and Verse, Prose here's in the dark blue and Verse is in orange. And note that the process of prosification is just as common as the process of versification.
So, you have this idea that perhaps the fable originated as something in verse that needed first to be stripped of that artistry because of this other idea that they ought to be rustic and simple and prosaic. In each of these cases there's an author claiming to present the authentic collection of Aesop's fables. In my current book project, which again don't be scared of this slide either, I plan to have this be something a little bit more aesthetically pleasing. But this is the table of contents, again, abbreviated of my current book project, in which my main goal iS to present the various authors who wrote Aesop's fables in Greek and Latin alongside one another in one volume. And to treat each one individually with commentary, translation and contextualization in order to emphasize the prolifany and complexity of this tradition and to explore the diverse ways in which each of these authors establishes a distinct vision of Aesopic story-telling.
So, now for the remainder of my time, I'm going to turn to an argument I made in a recent paper. I written version of which I just submitted a couple of weeks ago. It involves the Ancient biographical tradition of the legendary Aesop. A series of text known collectively as "The Life of Aesop". These biographical texts are particularly difficult to work with in part because their authorship and providence are unknown, and also because the texts survive in a number of different versions and risentions. And the nature of the relationship among all of them is not always easy to make out.
In some ways the openness and general messiness of the biographical tradition is perfectly suited to the messiness of the fable tradition as a whole. What we do know is that in addition to widespread interest in the fables themselves, Ancient Greeks and later Romans were very interested in Aesop's life, legendary or not, already from a very early period. As I mentioned earlier in 5th and 4th centuries BCE, authors such as Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, they referred the epis to Aesop and they referred to him by placing whatever they're mentioning, whatever fable or anecdote they're discussing in some kind of context of a moment in Aesop's life.
So, when Aristotle tells a fable in the Rhetoric, he doesn't just give the fable, he says, "Here's one that Aesop told on Samos when he was advising the people." In addition to these kinds of references there was also strong interest, again from a very early date in Aesop's famously unjust death at the hands of the keepers of the oracle at Delphi. So well known, and so often referred to was Aesop's death that the expression "Aesop's blood" became proverbial as an expression used to those killed unjustly.
This is the entry on the phrase "Aesop's blood" from The Sutta. Now at some point, probably in the Hellenistic period, so late 4th early 3rd century BCE all of the many references and anecdotes involving Aesop were strung together embellished and expanded until they eventually became what can best be described as a short novel. And this is The Life of Aesop.
This is an illustration from The Life of Aesop. Again, I know this is not particularly aesthetically pleasing. This is an image from the opening scene of The Life of Aesop, in which Aesop, who's here with his head turned away, is mute. He can't communicate, and he's been accused by these other two fellow slaves of stealing the master's figs. And Aesop has the idea, but he can't speak so he just uses gestures to make everyone vomit, and then we'll see who did what. I think that that slide has to be up there for a little while unfortunately. Just try to think of something else.
By the 1st century CE there emerges a very popular and very entertaining novel of the hideously ugly slave who's mute in the beginning, but then is given the gift of speech and story-telling by the Goddess Isis. And who after a series of often humorous and occasionally scandalous adventures rises to international fame as a kind of sage, before ultimately meeting his unjust fate in Delphi.
So, in this recent paper I'm returning to a text that I've now tried to figure out multiple times, and one of the things I've observed in working on the Life of Aesop and with scholarship on it is that the texts raises so many complex questions. And it is so loaded with potential for ideological analysis. So, not only is it popular and free floating in its circulation, and we don't even know who wrote it. It tells the story of this abused lowly figure who ends up in this confrontation with Delphi, the very center of power and authority in the Greek world.
The bulk of scholarly attention it has received has been in response to exceemingly bursting with ideological significance. As someone whose work focuses on how this tradition came to be written down, and how it circulated and how it was consumed as literature, I find few scholars have approached the life of Aesop as a valuable site for thinking about the fable tradition itself. Thinking about its status as a literary genre, its material survival, and textuality and it's relationship to independence on Aesop as an author.
While I'm not suggesting that we read stories like this as naively as factual recordings of the events of authors lives, I do think that even if the life of Aesop is full of legend and fiction, these imaginative speculations must ultimately derive from an encounter between the fables, the writers who adapted them, and their ancient audiences. As Barbara Graziosi has written concerning comparable stories and anecdotes about Homer in her 2002 book "Inventing Homer", such material "Constitutes evidence concerning the reception of the Homeric poems at a time when their reputation was still in the making." And in a similar way stories about Aesop, above all in this text, in this ancient biography can be read not as byproducts of, but as constitutive of the Aesopic tradition. Okay, finally we can not look at that anymore.
So, about two thirds of the way through the G resention of the Life of Aesop, just after Aesop has gained his freedom, and this is essential, and negotiated a peace agreement between Samos and King Croesus of Lydia, because right from gaining his freedom he's catapulted to becoming someone that heads of state want advice from. There's a curious passage in which we are told that the legendary fabulist wrote down and the Greek is sungrab samanos. I can't get accents to appear on PowerPoint, sungrab samanos. The stories and fables that go by his name even now, and deposited them in a library catalepen este bibilotequen. The image of Aesop writing down his fables in Lydia, may be the stuff of fiction, but in broaching the seemingly incongruous idea of Aesopic Authorship, but also draws attention to the reality that Aesop's fables were encountered in Antiquity, not only or even primarily as an oral tradition, but also as a written body of literature.
And of course, ancient reader of The Life of Aesop would've been keenly aware of the material nature of the text they were holding in their hands. Because the life circulated together with fables collections in our earliest manuscripts, its possible to conceive of the biography as a whole and in particular a passage such as this as lending a kind of authority to the fable collection that followed. So, an ancient reader could feel confident or perhaps take pleasure in the fiction that the product they were holding was an authentic edition of Aesop's fables written by the fabulist himself before its safe installation in this Lydian Bibliotheca.
So, what is of primary interest to me in this recent paper, and again this is going to be condensed and rapid, is the crucial moment at which this passage occurs in The Life. So, not only has Aesop acquired parrhesia, the ability to speak openly in public and eleutheria, freedom, in just a few sections before this passage in his release from slavery. He has also for the first time in the life begun to tell recognizable fables. That is while The Life presents Aesop as a skilled manipulator of language and a talented performer of wisdom in a wide range of circumstances, the legendary fabulist does not tell an actual fable until after his release from slavery.
Indeed, all of the known fables in The Life of Aesop appear between this scene and the end of the work, and this is just a list of the fables that are in The Life, which really is quite a few. It almost could be read as a collection of fables in its own right.
So, my focus in this paper was to describe the differences between Aesop's manner of story-telling during and after his enslavement. And to explore some of the ways in which ideas of writing and archiving functioned to mark the transformation of Aesop into a fully developed fabulist. It seems to me that the Life of Aesop clearly distinguishes two visions of Aesopic story-telling. One grounded in slavery and one with freedom.
The former involves the physical presence of Aesop, his impromptu responses to the context in which he finds himself and the manipulation of language and signs to turn the tables against or otherwise gain some advantage over his master or other addressees. And that all occurs on the first 90 chapters, and it would include a moment like the fig scene that we had the image of.
The latter involves the telling of actual fables, having recognizable formal features and content. And these only occur once he's gained his freedom until the end of the work. While Aesop's physical body figures prominently in representations of story-telling during the period of his enslavement, after he's earned his freedom his body is less prominent and attention shifts to the content and quality of the fable he tells.
So, looking into my first category, what do I mean by improvisational and situation-based, and why do I think that matters? There's a persistent emphasis in these sections of The Life of Aesop, on Aesop's ability to find the right thing to say and to make use of what is at hand. In the fig episode the Greek word that's used to describe his resourcefulness is paluperia, he's described as being able to find the right thing that's nearby to use to get himself out of a jam, which in this case is a jug of warm water and gesturing how to make everyone else force themselves to throw up. And later on in section 34 Aesop's master Xanthus realized his slave is heresi logos. That he has a knack of finding the right thing to say.
Leslie Kirk's recent book pays considerable attention to this dimension of Aesop. Whom she interprets as a cultural bricalor figure, who's popular form of Sophia involves the skill crafting or bricolage available to societies' abjected and disempowered. And I find that to be a very productive and interesting line.
But for our purposes here, I want to place more emphasis just on how context bound these performances are. When Aesop turns the table on his master by taking his words too literally or by exposing his pretensions in other ways, which he does a number of times. There is always an element of appropriation. Aesop finds himself in a particular situation and he makes use of whatever he can to craft some response. Even his own body.
And as a typical example, and I should add that I see the entirety of the first 90 chapters of The Life of Aesop as a series of these kinds of scenes. This is from Xanthus, his master, has given him an order that begins this passage. So, his master says, "Pick up the oil flask and the towels, and let's go to the bath." And Aesop says to himself, "Masters who show an unnecessarily stern attitude about the service they want have themselves to blame for the trouble they get into. I'll teach this philosopher a lesson in how to give orders." He happens to actually be a philosopher, it's not like a derogatory term. So, he picked up the articles mentioned and without putting any oil in the flask followed Xanthus to the bath. Xanthus got undressed, handed his robes to Aesop and said, "Give me the oil flask." Aesop gave it to him, and when Xanthis took it, turned it up and found nothing in it he said, "Aesop where's the oil?" Aesop said, "At home." "Why?" "Because you told me to take the oil flask and the towels, but you didn't mention oil. I wasn't supposed to do anything more than what I was told. If I slipped up on my instructions I was going to be answerable at the cost of a beating." And that was all he said.
The ending of this passage, and the bottom half if this slide is what I'm going to refer to now, the ending of this passage is also typical of the first 90 chapters of The Life of Aesop, and its implication of Aesop's vulnerable body into the situation. The emphasis on the body surfaces on a number of different way. There's the repeated use of physical gestures. Both when Aesop is mute and when he can speak. Or the pointing and pleading and mimicking that he does. There are the reactions of those who see the hideous, the ugly Aesop and register some kind of response. One young child bursts into tears on seeing Aesop. That's how ugly he's imagined to be. And there are bodily themes in the episodes themselves. There's sex, urination, defecation, everything you can ask for in a comic novel.
Many of these elements come together in the same scene, and of course there's the constant violence against Aesop's person. So, you can see here the bottom half of the slide, a series of references to physical violence or threatened violence against Aesop during his enslavement. So everything that he does, really, is in some way determined by the fact that he's in this precarious position. And he acts with whatever he can find to avoid being beaten.
And this all stands in sharp contrast to the type of actual fable telling we encounter once he's gained his freedom. Where the meaning of Aesop's communications depend less on his physical presence and his impromptu responses, and instead involves his delivery of a more standardized stable and fixed type if wisdom. So, I'm going to suggest that in these performances of wisdom, Aesop's words take on some of the qualities of the disembodied literary artifact. And I think I'm justified in making that jump for a couple of reasons.
For one, I can reiterate that there are no examples of what anyone would consider to be a fable in the first section of Aesop's life, when he's a slave. They all occur between the moment when he gains his freedom and his death. And there are numerous ways in which Aesop, once he haws gained his freedom is recognized and honored as a source of universal wisdom. The things he says take on only standardized forms of proverbs and fables from that moment on. So, the fables that he tells may still be applicable to specific situations, but they are now free standing and they are separable from the content in a way that the vomiting of figs, or playing tricks with oil flasks are not really separable from the situation.
So, a typical example of the way he communicates once he's free, I've given the fable of the Frog and Mouse that he tells in chapter 133. And I'm just going to highlight those elements of it that make it a conventional, traditional fable. Well, there are talking animals, that's one. We don't get any talking animals before his freedom. There's his very conventional opening in the Greek when all the animals spoke the same language, which starts, a lot percentage of the fables in the earliest collections that we have. There's this even the motif is very typical and traditional of this reciprocal hosting that eventually leads to disastrous results. And the moral that's formal and conventional in form. That, "So too in death I shall be your doom." But it's a little more personal than you'd get in a normal fable collection.
So, one more point I want to emphasize quickly before moving to my conclusion is this: once he's a freed man. That is once he's become an established teller of fables, and is no longer the slave bricalor we no longer hear a word about Aesop's body. We don't hear about his ugliness so prominent in the first half of the work. We don't hear about any beatings or any other forms of physical violence. He does get executed by the Delphians, but that doesn't involve any reference to his body.
The writing down and archiving scene of The Life is an expression, or crystallization of a more diffused and productive tension that I see surfacing throughout the fable tradition. And it leaves us with this following scheme here. In slavery, you have the prominence of Aesop's body, the improvised performance and the physical punishment but ultimate survival. And once he's gained his freedom we have the existence or the putative existence of a physical corpus of fables. We get official, traditional, conventional versions of proverbs and fables, and we get his death.
And I think that there's probably something more to be said there about the idea of the death of the author, but I'm not going to bother you with that here. So, in the fictional world of The Life of Aesop, the conditions and exigencies of enslavement and freedom give rise to two distinct modes of performance. By looking closely at some key differences between Aesop's enslaved and free performances I found that Aesop's nonverbal communication and improvisatory wit are connected with this physical vulnerability as slave in various ways. While his transformation into a kind of authority on human nature is bound up with his magnumition and with his subsequent mastery of a coherent seemingly fixed body of wisdom. So, to put it in another way, the slave's body is replaced by the free author's putative corpus.
The distinctions drawn between enslaved and free performances in The Life, also reflect a dynamic tension that surfaces in virtually every phase of the fable's history. Namely a tension between one: a putatively oral improvisational and precarious past embedded in slavery. And two: a written fixed and stable present circulating in the material reality of the literary text. So, rather than reading two that is the literary text as supplanting one that is oral performance, and leading only to Aesop's hubristic fatal encounter with the Delphians, I think we ought to attend to how rich and productive the tension between the two has been for authors and for fabulists throughout the history of the tradition. The two visions of Aesopic story-telling I have been describing are mapped onto a life cycle or career in The Life of Aesop with the results that the first vision in slavery is imagined to be the fable's genre past. While the second vision in freedom is the fable's present or future.
A strikingly similar idea can be found in the middle of the prologue to the central book of Phadresus's five books of Latin fables. Again, in verse that we saw earlier. He writes, "Now I will briefly explain why the fable genre was invented. The slave being legally vulnerable since he didn't dare say openly what he wished to say transferred his personal feelings into fables. And so avoided accusation with joking stories, where he Aesop cut a path, I have built a broad road." So, Phaedrus represents the preliterate history of fables as something associated with slavery and something dangerous. But his literate product is something very different.
Regardless of questions of historicity, Phaedrus presents himself as a free writer. One who wants his readers to think that he is writing down material that was originally oral and derived from slave experience. Thus, in padreus, which again is our earliest surviving collection of Aesopica, the fables presented as a translation into Latin and versification from prose of material that was originally Greek prose and socio-politically low. But what Phaederus created is analogous to all our surviving Aesopica, including The Life of Aesop. As it survives in its literary record and its many different manifestations it is always in the state of having already undergone a process of becoming a literary product.
I'm going to stop there. Thank you.