Michael Hase: What is
postmodernism, or: What's the effing Fox up to
Length: 6,180 words = 36,300 characters
(Attn: Michael Hase)
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The story referred to in this
Klaus Bung: The Hedgehog and the Fox
- 'The Hedgehog and the
Fox', in: THE WORLD OF ENGLISH, Peking, No 161, Aug 2001, p26-33
- 'The Hedgehog and the
Fox', in: PPHOO, Calcutta, Jan 2002, p 106-111
Michael Hase: What is
postmodernism, or: What's the effing Fox up to
Length: 6,180 words = 36,300 characters
(Attn: Michael Hase)
Klaus Bung's fable 'The Hedgehog and the Fox',
which he claims is not set in his native Berlin, and was inspired
neither by a biblical prophet nor by Tolstoy nor by the Hitopadesh,
pokes fun at postmodernism, a topic which has been hotly debated among
Calcutta intellectuals ever since the visit here of Jacques
Derrida. Many contradictory explanations are being aired, some of
which, to my mind, are typical examples of disinformation. During
my last visit to France I tried to squeeze out a clear opinion from the
French counterparts. I failed to do so. I thought it would
be useful for our readers to get a straightforward account of
postmodernism if they were to appreciate a parody of it and therefore
(after several failed attempts with experts on postmodernism) invited
my friend, Prof. Dr. Hase, to write some notes on postmodernism and on
Klaus Bung's story.
Pradip Choudhuri (Editor, Pphoo Magazine, Calcutta)
What is postmodernism, or:
What's the effing Fox up to
16 August 2001
My dear Friend Pradip,
I know nothing about
postmodernism and that, as most postmodernists will readily agree,
uniquely qualifies me to write about it. For I will do anything
to get my name into the newspapers and to earn a rupee or two. If
the postmodernists are not happy with what I am doing, I can only reply
that I have learnt from them that there is no such thing as the truth,
that there are only narratives and that those purporting to tell the
truth, like an anatomy textbook, are in no way superior to a fairytale,
a pornographic story, or an act of perjury. I have seen their
writings on the philosophy of science, on physics, on mathematical
psychology, on chaos theory, and feel I am in good company if I write
about something I do not understand and which is not meant to be
understood but only to be admired.
My only other excuse may be that ignorance is
bliss, and if I can give you a few names and dates, the titles of a few
books and a few internet addresses, you and your readers may be
slightly better off than they were before, may have a few more missiles
than before to throw at each other. Don't throw them at me.
I have admitted my ignorance and malevolence and everything I write is
a blatant lie. That includes this sentence. I am hiding
behind a pseudonym: My name is Hase (hare) and I know nothing.
Postmodernism is a kind of philosophical (or
anti-philosophical movement) that has been strongly influenced by the
work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) (as his
Hindi name indicates, his ancestors were Indian and he came from the
'nether' regions. Hence his enthusiastic fight for the rights of
ooper man (superman)). Its most prominent exponents are French
but many of them have obtained much influence in American universities,
in many quite different faculties (philosophy, sociology, literature,
history, etc), and acrimonious disputes are fought between supporters
and opponents of these ideas. English academics tend to be more
sceptical about these ideas, and oppose them. I personally
cannot see postmodernism as a unified philosophy but rather as an
assembly of disparate ideas arising in different disciplines and having
little in common, except that they tend to go against common sense, and
are therefore difficult to explain to common sense people, who think I
must be joking if I say that (certain) postmodernists deny that there
is such a thing as truth (there are only opinions, and all are of equal
value) and that there can be serious and sane academics who try to
propound such views.
This is, I presume, the reason why the Editor
of Esquire liked the postmodernists being targeted in the absurd story
of the Hedgehog and the Fox when he wrote to Klaus Bung: 'It was fun to
watch you ridicule postmodernism (rightly deserved, too). Good
luck...' Such stories are better than essays, for if a system is
designed to be invincible by reason, a priori unaccountable to reason,
even in its absurdity, then it must be attacked by ridicule.
- Jacques Derrida (1930-....) (keyword: deconstruction, a
meticulous approach to analysing literature and the social context in
which it was created [my very rough definition]): I take him seriously.
- Jacques Lacan (1901-1981): psychoanalysis: I strongly
- Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998): philosophy, sociology: I
strongly distrust him.
- Michel Foucault (1926-1984): social sciences: power in
society: I distrust him.
- Jean Baudrillard (1929-....): I strongly distrust him: for
me what he does is intellectual anarchism, and this is what Hérissonne
does to Renard, who, being rational in his approach and expecting
rational and predictable responses, is quite defenceless against
her. However, Baudrillard has some very clever ideas, worth
considering and then to be taken with a pinch of salt, i.e. in
moderation (not in excess as Baudrillard does).
- Stanley Fish (1938-....), American Professor of Literary
Criticism: I distrust his excesses. Keyword: 'interpretive
communities': Truth is what a group of people (interpretive community)
agrees upon, a matter of opinion of a group of people; there is no
point in an outsider trying to produce evidence that an opinion is
wrong. There are no wrong opinions. There is no truth.
Many little essays on individual postmodernist
'philosophers' can be found on the Internet. Their names are
listed below. They will to some extent support what I am writing
here or enrich the picture, especially if you think that what I am
writing here about postmodernist opinions is absolutely incredible and
must be a joke.
Many postmodernists are right-wing
The story of the Fox seems directed especially
against the absurd doctrines of Lyotard, Baudrillard and Fish.
Doctrines which claim that
- there are no valid doctrines (grand récits), the best that
can be had is detail
(I comment: This statement in itself is a hugely general doctrine, and
it claims to be true).
- there is no truth but only opinion
- no opinion is better or worse than any other, e.g. the
opinion that the earth is flat is no worse than the opinion that the
earth is a globe
- there is no reality; reality is a product of our brains;
there is no difference between proper perception and hallucination
- science does not try to find truth, cannot find truth, but
only supports the opinions of the organisations which pay the
- there is no difference between a scientific text and a
fairy tale or a novel; the only difference is their difference in
style; some people prefer to read one style, other people prefer
another; these are just different kinds of narratives
- there is no difference between ideology and science.
(There used to be, and for me still is, a basic distinction between
things which can be proved to be true or untrue (science) and things
which cannot possibly be proved to true or good (ideology).
Ideology are statements about e.g. religion or politics (Marxism,
Fascism), statements about good and bad, e.g. it is bad to kill, it is
good to save lives; and commands (normative ideology): e.g. You must
obey your parents. Go home now. Get fucked!
Ideological statements cannot be proved; they
are neither true nor false. Scientific statements are either true
or false, even though it is often difficult to know which is the case.
Postmodernists deny this distinction between
science and ideology; for them everything is ideology. Nothing
can be proved, nothing can be agreed upon, communication is impossible.
I know that scientists often make mistakes,
that they sometimes deceive and commit fraud, but I do not accept that
therefore there is no such thing as scientific truth.
Even the vedantists, who say that the visible
world is only an illusion or that it is only the creation of the mind
(as in some of the texts beloved by Ramana Maharshi) do so only in
comparison with a higher level truth, an absolute truth, for which we
search. They do not deny that truth, of a different kind and by
different means, can also be found at the relative, the material, level.
Some postmodernists typically engage themselves
in disciplines which they do not understand (e.g. history or
physics). They joyfully parade the errors or deceptions
which inevitably occur in the search for truth in those
disciplines. They then draw conclusions which nobody would draw
who was seriously engaged in the search for truth in that
Even the statement 'There is no truth' can only
be meaningful if it is made on the understanding that at least this
statement is true. It is therefore self-contradictory and need
not be taken seriously.
If these postmodernists had seriously studied
the disciplines on which they base their criticism and if they were
participating in its search for truth, they would better understand its
methodology, improve it where necessary, and they would not reach the
absurd conclusions which they reach out of sheer ignorance of the
specific discipline which they pretend to contribute to, conclusions
which merely expose their own incompetence and ignorance.
Their behaviour can only be understood as the
irrational scramble for power, jobs, money, prestige, promotion,
admiration and media attention.
Generally I have sympathy with many of the
statements made by the postmodernists whom I distrust. But I do
not agree with their idiotic (exaggerated) conclusions.
However, the absurdity of the situation is that
I cannot prove them wrong if I adhere to their own theories.
Arguments and evidence are, in their eyes, irrelevant. Whatever
arguments I advance, they will be declared to be just an opinion.
They will not even consider them. Arguments are irrelevant.
No speaker can be held to account for what he says. Perjury is
impossible. Progress towards agreement on the basis of truth is
(Therefore, if I may anticipate one conclusion:
their books and papers are not worth reading and their opinions are not
worth discussing. Treat the authors as insane.)
If I show such a person a piece of paper with a
cross and say 'This is a cross', he will say 'No, this is a
circle. It is only your opinion that this is a cross; in our
opinion it is a circle and both opinions are equally valid.'
That is the reason why Renard is defenceless
The only thing to do is to ridicule these
people, which is what Klaus Bung does in his story. And why does
Baudrillard spend a lot of money to send his son to university for five
years to become a medical doctor, if what they teach at medical school
are only opinions which are no better than those of a street-sweeper in
Paris or a witch doctor in Africa?
These people are just playing a game with the
general public and are getting paid for it through their publications,
professorial salaries, etc. And, like certain established
religions, they have set up the rules of the game in such a way that
they cannot be exposed. (I am thinking of religions who preach
that belief is a virtue and doubt and inquiry are sins.)
Honest people, like you and me, are emotionally
incapable of participating in such a game. We would fear the
ridicule of our friends. But if we play the game ruthlessly
enough, if we are thoroughly dishonest, we can succeed.
I could go, take a sledgehammer, and hit
Baudrillard in the mouth and knock out all his teeth. If he
complains, I will say: 'I did not hit you in the face, that is only
Baudrillard wrote an infamous article in which
he claimed that the Gulf War of 1991 (Kuwait, Iraq, USA) did not take
place and that it did not matter whether it did or not. ('The
reality gulf', in: The Guardian, London, 11 January 1991, p 25).
All the war preparations were nothing but a media circus. We
could not tell the library pictures on television from recordings of
real events. Nobody could be sure whether the actual war had
started. There there was no war. There were only television
pictures, which bore no relation to reality. He did not mean this
as a joke, he was serious about it. His arguments have been
analysed by Christopher Norris in his book: 'What's wrong with
I admit that it is difficult for us to
distinguish truth and falsity in media presentations. But that
does not mean that, in the majority of cases, no such distinction
exists, that with sufficient effort, certain individuals could not find
out the truth on certain things.
That, however, does not justify the claim that
there is no such thing as the truth (a startling claim that can win you
a professorship because of its novelty, but a false claim).
If you generalise from your observations in a
more moderate fashion and state merely that people are often mislead by
the media and by people in authority and that, when it comes to
people's thoughts and motives, it is difficult or even impossible for
an outsider to determine the truth, and that there are cases where even
I do not know what motivates ME, then this is nothing but common
sense. It has been known not only since the time of Plato and the
Greek sophists but is illustrated in the pages of the Mahabharata, in
countless ancient Indian stories and in Vedanta philosophy, and there
is therefore no point in showing off with it and pretending that it is
a great modern discovery.
Some postmodernists, e.g. Lyotard, have argued
that in debate it is fair that you throw anything at your partner at
random, it does not matter whether it is true but only what impression
it makes, what responses it causes, whether you can fluster your
partner, and whether you can get away with it (which does not depend on
its truth or falsity).
Postmodernism is bad enough in academic circles
and in intellectual debate, but it is disastrous if it is practised in
personal relationships. It is quite destructive, and if both
partners practise it against each other, no more communication and no
civilised lifestyle is possible. That's why Renard cannot
practise it against Hérissone, but she can do so against him. One
person must agree not to retaliate in kind.
And that seems to be the topic of 'The Hedgehog
and the Fox'. The absurdity of the story appears artificial and
meaningless if one does not know that such things are seriously
proposed in academia.
This site has information about Lyotard and
- Sarup, Madan, 1993: 'An introductory
guide to post-structuralism and postmodernism.' Second edition, 206
pp. Harvester-Wheatsheaf, New York and London (A sympathetic
introduction by a Marxist, but not lacking in criticism.)
- Norris, Christopher, 1992: 'Uncritical theory.
Postmodernism, intellectuals and the Gulf War'. 218 pp.
Lawrence and Wishart, London (Thorough criticism of the philosophical
foundations of postmodernism. Attacks Baudrillard's claim that
the Gulf War never happened. Explains how Derrida's program of
deconstruction distinguishes itself from the follies of
postmodernism. Critical chapters on Stanley Fish, Lyotard, the
dangers of postmodernism in politics.)
- Norris, Christopher, 1996: 'Reclaiming the truth.
Contribution to a critique of cultural relativism'. 256 pp.
Lawrence and Wishart, London (Thorough criticism of the philosophical
foundations of postmodernism. On truth and reality and defending
these ideals against postmodernist attacks. Chapter on Marxism as
opposed to postmodernism.)
- Norris, Christopher, 1990: 'What's wrong with
postmodernism. Critical theory and the ends of philosophy'.
287 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA (Thorough
criticism of the philosophical foundations of postmodernism.
Strong attack on Jean Baudrillard and Stanley Fish. Defence of
Derrida against ill-informed anti-postmodernists who, Norris says, have
not taken the trouble of reading him thoroughly. Unlike the 'bad
postmodernists', Derrida does believe in truth and tries to prove his
opinions by meticulous analysis of the evidence.)
- Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont, 1999: 'Intellectual
impostures. Postmodern philosophers' abuse of science.' 276
pp. Profile Books, London (A professor of physics and a professor of
mathematics analyse the 'work' of Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce
Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Félix
Guattari, Paul Virilio, and show that several of them are trying to
make their work difficult to understand and to appear profound by using
meaningless mathematical formulae, quoting scientic terms and theories
which they do not understand, deliberate attempts to throw dust into
the eyes of their readers (similar to Hérissonne). The book gives
excellent and crystal clear expositions of the scientific theories
which have been abused.)
- Lyotard, Jean-François, 1979: 'La condition postmoderne'
(The postmodern condition). 111 pp. Les Edition de Minuit,
Paris. (English translation: The postmodern condition. Manchester
University Press, Manchester, UK, 1984) (A good way to get to
know the basic ideas of Lyotard in a short book. Some of his
observations are correct, e.g. about the failures of great
philosophical systems of the past, Marxism, philosophy has never yet
produced any reliable truth, nor has religion, but his conclusions
[there is no truth, or: money decides which is the truth in a society]
are exaggerated and silly.)
- Fish, Stanley, 1980: 'Is there a text in this class?
The authority of interpretive communities.' 394 pp., Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA. (A collection of essays,
the most fundamental of which is the one from which the book has its
title. If one reads it sympathetically, the essay states nothing
which common sense does not tell us, namely that we interpret what
other people say (and write) partly by the context in which they speak
and partly because of what we expect from them and that we filter it
through our prejudices, e.g. often we do not listen properly. My
conclusion from this would be that we should listen carefully, not jump
to conclusions, and be aware of the likelihood of misunderstandings and
do everything in our power to avoid misunderstandings and to correct
them, and to forgive other people who have misunderstood us.
Stanley Fish foolishly, but profitably for his career and publicity,
concludes that no text (and no utterance) has a meaning of its own, no
interpretation is better than any other interpretation and there is no
point in trying to support one's interpretation of a text by analysis
of the text, or reference to comments made by the author, or anything
else. No more debate about the interpretation of a text is
possible or necessary. Any reader can decide, without any
restraints through the text or anything else, what a text means 'for
him'. That is called 'reader empowerment'. French
intellectual Roland Barthes (1915-1980) also propounded some such
In general my feeling is (similar formulation
in Sokal): Many of the postmodernist assertions can be taken in two
ways: radically or with common sense. If they are applied
radically (their words taken literally), then they are impressive,
startling but blatantly wrong; if they are interpreted with common
sense, then there is nothing new about them and they are not worth
debating or reading about, and their authors do not deserve
Many postmodernists, however, do insist that
their views are taken literally (and so does Hérissonne), in spite of
their absurdity, and it is therefore proper that they are attacked
vigorously, and they deserve to be called charlatans.
Example: Certain postmodernists claim that
communication between human beings is absolutely impossible, and will
throw this in your face whenever it suits them. This is a very
novel statement, startling, but it is blatantly untrue; for when I send
you in these notes the titles of books about postmodernism, then the
chances are that I will have communicated the titles successfully.
If, however, we interpret the sentence
'Communication is impossible' moderately, as something said in anger
after a marital row, and we take it to mean that communication through
words is often very difficult and that misunderstandings are frequent,
then there is nothing new about it. (Two months ago a police
woman in the East End of London was told on her crackling radio set
that a burglar in her area had escaped with 'a fax and a phone.'
What she heard was different. Two minutes later she saw a man
with a 'saxophone' coming out of a pub and arrested him. OK,
communication is difficult but not impossible.
turned on by the goto command
'Renard could be turned on only by the goto
command which is very rare these days.' This requires an
to turn on the light; to turn on the radio:
this is easy.
This turns me on (of music, of a person, etc) =
I like it, I find it attractive, I find it exciting, even: I find it
Concerning Renard, the word has all these
meanings at the same time, the technical one and the sexual one: that
makes it strange and funny.
The goto command (goto: written as one word!):
this is a command in one of the early popular programming languages,
called BASIC (all capitals!; this is an acronym) which tells the
program to jump forward or especially backward several lines. It
permitted programmers to write very chaotic and badly structured
programs. Later on better programming languages like PASCAL came
along and using the goto command became a sign of very bad programming
style. That's why the story says that it occurs very
rarely. But when it occurs, because it is so rare, and so
perverse, it turns Renard on. This is really quite a
postmodernist joke, typical of men and of modern people fascinated with
technology, very unnatural (but often found in the computer freak
community), to be turned on not by a beautiful woman but by a perverse
Webster's Dictionary says: : **BASIC** noun
[Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction
Code] (1964): a simplified language for
programming a computer
And that is really saying a lot
"Renard agreed that our postmodernist world,
must be imaginary, or even virtual."
There is some subtle irony and a lot of
nonsense in the way the phrase <And that is really saying a lot>
Firstly, the reader will observe that the
breathless sentence preceding 'that is really saying a lot' is the
longest sentence of the story, 158 words long. So Renard is quite
literally 'saying a lot', he is so eager to agree with all the nonsense
that has been proposed to him.
But the phrase also refers specifically to the
assertion 'that our postmodernist world, must be imaginary, or even
I will first show you how that phrase is used
in normal English.
I searched for the phrase 'that is really
saying a lot' on the Internet and found 163 occurrences.
Example: It is a sunny day and that is really saying a lot. The
struggle through rainy days of animal care...
Explanation: It is seldom sunny. Normally
one cannot say 'it is sunny', so if one says 'it is sunny' that is an
Example: Woah, dude! This is probably the
best stunt game on the Game Boy Color! Not
that that's really saying a lot...but hey, I was impressed.
Road Champs has tons of tricks, really cool graphics, and lots and lots
of gameplay value! If you ever wanted to take the extreme fun of Dave
Mirra or Tony Hawk with you, then this is the game to do it!...
Explanation/Implication: Most games on
the Game Boy Color are not very good. If this particular game is
'the best stunt game on Game Boy Color', then that is NOT saying a lot,
because this game does not have to be very good to be better than the
Example: Let me start by saying I am
Scorpio with my Moon in Gemini at midheaven. The way my planets are
configured, Gemini plays just as much a part of my life as Scorpio. That is really saying a lot, since I
am very Scorpio. Having planets in Scorpio tends to balance out the
Gemini. Can you tell I have played around with astrology? ...
Implication: This man's character is very
much like Scorpio. If Scorpio were weak in him, it would be easy
for him to say the Gemini is important in his life; Gemini would not
have to be strong to be important in his life. However, since
Scorpio is already strong in him, Gemini must also be very strong to be
equally strong. Therefore it is
saying a lot if he says Gemini is equally strong.
Example: Poem about a turkey (bird):
Why don't they choose some other kind of
Ostriches are leaner and better for you
And I sincerely believe they are even
uglier than me.
is really saying a lot coming from a turkey.
They are so ugly they must keep their
head in the ground.
They should be the bird of choice when
November rolls around. ...
Implication: This turkey says that
ostriches are even uglier than him. Since turkeys are considered very
ugly, calling an ostrich uglier than a turkey is saying quite a lot, it is very
strong words. If I said that Mrs Thatcher is uglier than Helena
(the most beautiful woman in ancient Greece), that is NOT saying a lot, because it is not
difficult to be uglier than beautiful Helena. Even if Mrs
Thatcher were quite beautiful, she could still be uglier than Helena.
I hope that makes the normal situation clear.
Now to the story itself.
Renard agreed that his pain, like the rest of
our postmodernist world, must be imaginary, or even virtual. And
that is really saying a lot.
In saying that there is no truth and no reality
and that the world is a product of our mind, some postmodernists (and
other, e.g. Indian, philosophers before them) say in effect that the
world is 'imaginary', that it exists only in our imagination (and
Renard only imagines that he is suffering). This is fine as far
as it goes.
But the phrase 'or even virtual', is plain
nonsense - as I will explain.
'virtual' is a very popular word in the
computer world today and also in the 'postmodernist world'. It
is, in a way, the opposite of 'real'. It means 'imitation', the
same effect achieved in different ways. A virtual disk drive on a
computer is something you cannot touch, but you make the hard disk
behave as if the computer had several real floppy disk drives.
'Virtual reality' (on computers) are images
which permit you to imagine that while looking at the screen you are
surrounded by houses, etc.
'Virtual sex' is a relationship over the
internet in which through words and images you are stimulated in a way
which may have the same (or similar) effects as real sex.
A 'virtual book' may be a text which appears on
the screen and which you can read as if it were a book, but you cannot
touch it, you cannot take it into the park or into bed. It is not
real, it is only virtual.
Many virtual things are transitory, more than in the
classical world. They exist only on the computer screen and only for as
long as the power is on. The moment you switch off the power of
the computer, its virtual world ceases to exist. Similarly the
aeroplane is a 'virtual bird', but the moment the engine fails, it
ceases to be a bird and falls to he ground.
The English philosopher George Berkeley
(1685-1753) said that even what we call 'the real world' exists only as
long as there is a person perceiving it (similar to saying it exists
only in the mind). But the whole world exists only because God is
permanently there watching and perceiving it.
Edward Lear (1812-1888), I think, wrote the
following limerick about that theory:
There was a
young man who thought: 'God,
Must think it exceedingly odd,
When he finds that this tree
Continues to be
Though there's no-one around in the quad.'
Your astonishment's odd.
I am always around in the quad.
And that's why this tree
Continues to be,
Since observed by
That much about the word 'virtual'.
The phrase "imaginary, or even virtual" is
nonsense because the word <even> implies that a virtual world is
less real than an imaginary world. This is not the case.
Often the opposite is true. A virtual disk drive is more real
than an imaginary disk drive. The story here makes fun of the
fashionable way in which many people use and abuse the word
She should know best. She
'She should know best. She always
does.' 'She should know best' = simply: 'She will know
best, she does know best.' Sincerely stated by the Fox, he is
convinced of her. 'She should know best' is a common expression
and is often meant seriously and sincerely. E.g. Father says to
his child: 'Mother knows best.'
But 'she always knows best' also means 'she is
a know-all', an unpleasant person, assertive, always pretends to be
right, does not accept criticism or being doubted, who says 'I know
best and you don't' (i.e. the character of Hérissone). It is also
very un-English to behave like this, Germans and French people are much
more likely to behave like this or to tolerate such behaviour. In
England it is simply ill-mannered to 'be too clever'. See
Somerset Maugham's story 'Mr Know-All' which gives a very good
description of this type, and also of Hérissonne. In such cases
'She always knows best' means 'She thinks
she knows best, and often she doesn't'.
When Renard says 'She always does' = 'She
always does know best', he speaks out of conviction, pays her respects,
but the reader is meant to take it as a criticism (the other meaning of
the expression), namely 'She always behaves as if she knew best'.
The English writer John Gay (1685-1732) wrote
the libretto of a popular opera called 'The Beggars' Opera' (first
staged in 1728), whose characters were beggars, gangsters, thieves,
prostitutes - the London underworld of the time. It was a
caricature of society and especially the corrupt politicians of the
time, including a corrupt chief of the police. The music was by
Johann Pepusch (1667-1752) and many of its tunes, all very simple,
became pop songs at the time.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht
(1898-1956) (text) and the German composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
(music) produced a modern piece inspired by the Beggar's Opera called
the Dreigroschen-Oper (the Threepenny Opera), (first performed in
Berlin in 1928) because it was to be an opera not for and about the
aristocracy but for poor people, who cannot afford to pay more than
The Threepenny Opera opens with a street ballad
about a notorious gangster chief and killer Macheath, (German 'Mackie
Messer', in English 'Mac the Knife', based on Jack the Ripper).
Macheath does not kill with his own hands, he has gangsters who do it
for him, it is his gangsters who are caught and who go to prison.
The ballad runs like this: Whereas a shark has dangerous teeth and
everybody can see them in his face, Macheath has a knife but it is
hidden and nobody can see it. When the shark kills a person, his
fins are red with blood, but Macheath is wearing white gloves and his
crimes cannot be seen on them. Wherever anybody is killed in
London, Macheath is passing by somewhere in the vicinity. But he
is dressed like a gentleman and nobody suspects him of these
crimes. The ballad ends with the words:
It is impossible to
prove anything against him,
It is impossible to get at him,
For a shark is not a shark,
If one cannot prove the fact.
This ballad became very famous in England and
America because it was sung by Jazz trumpeter and singer Louis
Armstrong (1901-1971). An English version of this ballad can be
found on the following site:
Names mentioned in the Fox story
The following names may require notes:
- Linnaeus (1707-1778),
Swedish botanist, the first to devise a system for classifying
species. I think he deals only with plants and not with animals,
but Hérissone throws anything printed, meaningful or meaningless, at
Renard to confuse him and make him accept that she is not a hedgehog,
i.e. to maintain her power over him.
- Alfred Brehm
(1829-1884), German, published a very popular multi-volume work on the
lives of animals (Tierleben) in 1876. The book is still in print
today; perhaps radically revised.
- Gorgias (ca. 483-375
BC), Greek sophist (kind of philosopher) born in Sicily, lived in
Athens. He is the protagonist of a dialogue by Greek philosopher
Plato (ca. 427-347 BC) in which Gorgias argues, much like many
postmodernists (and in keeping with reality, but not with morality),
that it is more important to be strong than to have justice on one's
side ('might wins over right') -- as was demonstrated, for example,
during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Sadam Hussein attacked Kuwait
not because he had the right to their territory but because he was
stronger than them, and when the Americans attacked Sadam Hussein not
because he was wrong (which he was, but the Americans would not have
intervened against a strong country) but because he was weaker than
them. That is the situation between Renard and Hérissonne.
Hérissone is stronger because she has no moral scruples; she uses her
bristles and her books to hurt and defeat Renard even if she is wrong.
- Aristotle (384-322
BC), Greek philosopher, is quoted in the battle between Renard and
Hérissonne because he was the classical authority on zoology (and many
other things), even though he is out of date. In the Middle Ages people
trusted Aristotle's books more than the evidence of their senses.
For them Aristotle ***was*** the truth. Hérissonne beats Renard
with a book which nobody today takes seriously any more. Absurd,
especially since she does not believe in books of any kind.
- Salazar: Antonio di
Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) was dictator of Portugal for 36 years,
from 1932 to 1968. He ruled in Portugal longer than Hitler did in
Germany (1933-1945). It is therefore absurd for Hérissonne to
proudly claim that she is wise by knowing how to survive under, and
discover the lies of, dictators, as if this were a virtue, and ignoring
the fact that Germany had an even more brutal dictatorship under
Hitler. This is plain sarcasm. She can do with Renard
whatever she likes. He is helpless.
- Renard, Hérissonne:
These are the normal French words for fox and female hedgehog.
These names on the one hand indicate the type of animal in question,
but, the words being French, English speakers will not see that
immediately and take them as names rather than common nouns.
Since Renard and Hérissonne meet in France, which is half-way between
Portugal and Germany, the choice of names or nicknames is not totally
- The last line of the story,
'And if they have not killed each other...', parodies the classical
ending of many of Grimm's fairytales: 'And if they have not died, they
are still alive today'. - The brothers Grimm were German,
and collected and published German fairytales (folk stories).
They became a children's classic not only in Germany but also in
England, France, and many other countries. Jakob Grimm
(1785-1863), Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859)
I must confess that I have a vested interest in
this story, for my great-great-great-grandfather was a Buxtehude hare
and had a contest with the great-great-great-grandfather of Hérissone,
who was even then a Buxtehude hedgehog. The two had a race on the heath
of Buxtehude and the hedgehog won, as one would expect even of a
protomodernist hedgehog. Things have simply got worse since then, and
postmodernist hedgehogs are even more ruthless. The story is absolutely
true (like the gospel and the periodic two-times table), for it can be
found in the Fairy Tales (gay stories) of the Brothers Grimm.
They conclude wisely:
"At the seventy-fourth
time, however, the hare could no longer reach the end. In the middle of
the field he fell to the ground, blood streamed out of his mouth, and
he lay dead on the spot. But the hedgehog took the louis-d'or which he
had won and the bottle of brandy, called his wife out of the furrow,
and both went home together in great delight, and if they are not dead,
they are living there still.
This is how it happened
that the hedgehog made the hare run races with him on the heath of
Buxtehude till he died, and since that time no hare has ever had any
fancy for running races with a Buxtehude hedgehog.
The moral of this story is,
firstly, that no one, however great he may be, should permit himself to
jest at any one beneath him, even if he be only a hedgehog. And,
secondly, it teaches, that when a man marries, he should take a wife in
his own position, who looks just as he himself looks. So whosoever is a
hedgehog let him see to it that his wife is a hedgehog also, and so
For anyone who has not caught on yet, I should
point out that my German name, Hase, means 'hare' and that, whereas
lies in Germany have proverbially short legs (Lügen haben kurze Beine =
Lies have short legs), I have long legs because I manage to get away
with them -- or was it the other way round? .
Since I do not exist and have been lying
anyway, I cannot engage in any discussion of this silly topic and of my
silly article. Everything I have stated is wrong anyway, and I
herewith withdraw it unreservedly.
===(end of article)===
Prof. Dr. Michael Hase
Department of German Literature
University of Bhuxtehude
Michael Hase, Rochdale Writers, 68 Brantfell Road, Blackburn BB1-8DL,
Attn: Michael Hase