Monday, September 17, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - III

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of potential …. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never. —Soren Kierkegaard

Humble Beginnings

Far beyond the three wish standard model is unlimited wishes. At first blush this sounds too good to be true, but, as we have seen, more may not be merrier. In "The Shoes of Fortune" a pair of shoes takes the wearer to any time or place he wishes, from 15th century Denmark to the moon to inside peoples' hearts and more. Tellingly, the last person to wear them tires of travels, as it is hard on the body. He regrets his insatiable desire for fleeting experiences and wishes for something better: "could I but reach one aim—could but reach the happiest of all!" With that wish he ends up in a coffin, dead. This does not bode well if our quest is ultimate happiness. It's no true test, however, since no one ever knows the power of the galoshes.

In "The Wishing Skin", Jack, a wood cutter, finds a skin made of wishes. His first wish appears to be clever—that the skin be his, so he never need part with it. Since the skin is made of wishes, it shrinks a bit after a wish is used. After the usual wishes, requested by his wife, for more wealth and power, she insists he make her the greatest empress in the world. (See the "The Fisherman's Wife".) By now he is only six inches tall and not much use to his wife, who puts him in a doll house. In the end he wishes to be a full-grown wood­cutter again, "with my wife in my own little cottage, not dreaming even of such things as kings and emperors." So, unlimited wishes turns out to be no better than the standard model.

Better is "The Pink" where we have the ultimate collision between multi-worlds: a boy is born "with the power of wishing, so that whatsoever in the world he wishes for, that shall he have." Now, surely, we will find answers to our questions posed at the beginning of our quest. Well…perhaps. His first wishes aren't really his, but told to him by an evil cook who steals him away from his royal parents. The cook tells him, when he is old enough to speak, to "wish for a beautiful palace for yourself with a garden, and all else that pertains to it." A couple of points here. Notice this is a compound wish, but be heedful not to generalize, as it's made by someone with unlimited wishes. You may not be so lucky with one wish. Secondly, it's pretty open ended, as in "and all else that pertains to it." Normally that could spell disaster, but who is filling in the blanks in this instance? Is there a Platonic ideal form of 'palace' to which a generic algorithm is simply applied? Is there some unseen sentient wish granter deciding based on his or her (imperfect) knowledge? Or is it, in this case, the boy himself? We have seen in the narrative of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" that the one carrying out the wish seems to be involved in how it is done. If you're serious about wishes, these are important questions.

After a while the cook, who, either has a bit of good in him, or is just tired of babysitting, decides it's not good for the boy to be alone, and asks him to wish for "a pretty girl as a companion." Of course they play together and "love each other with all their hearts."

Now the cook gets worried, as the boy is getting older and he may actually wish for something himself. He could wish to see his parents. So the cook decides his best plan is to kill the boy, or, rather, have the girl kill the boy. The girl, as you might expect, has a hard time stabbing the boy in his sleep and carving out his heart and tongue, so she pulls the standard ploy of substituting a hind's heart and tongue. (Note that a hart can also be used in such matters.) When the boy discovers the machinations of the cook, he uses his first wish that he, himself thought of—he turns the cook into a black poodle with a gold collar who "shall eat burning coals, till the flames burst forth from your throat." You are free to read the story, but, to our purposes, here is the entire list of what the boy (with unlimited wishes!) wishes of his own volition:
1. his girlfriend become a pink flower (because she is afraid to travel)
2. a ladder
3. over 200 deer, to be shot for a feast (Oh, those accused deer!)
4. that someone at the feast talk about his mother
5 & 6. that the pink and the poodle be returned to their former forms
That's it! I leave it to you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions, and keep them in mind.

If you think you could do better in wish selection, remember that the recipients were, in most cases, overwhelmed by the experience and could scarcely think clearly about wish strategy and the repercussions therein. Hence, we have the preoccupation with sausages, a ladder, or a young man's wish to ride firewood home. In the "Saga of Fergus mac Léti", traditionally the first appearance of leprechauns, the three wishes are for the power to swim under water in seas, pools, and lakes. Wishes are used to transform people into dogs, ravens, or carnations. Not surprisingly, many wish for a child. Surprisingly, some accept child substitutes such as a donkey, a hedgehog or even a sprig of myrtle. An ungainly lad named Peruonto is thrown so off balance that a certain princess, for all practical purposes, takes over and tells him what to wish for. At her urging he wishes himself "to become handsome and polished in his manner." What princess ever received a chance like that?! You can see from the movie Shrek how far we have come in our more reasoned, modern world approach.

Also, keep in mind that these are often the humblest, kindest, and/or poorest souls in the land, certainly without education. So to us, while many of their wishes seem naive and shortsighted, there slowly emerges another trend. Humble beginnings greatly increase your chance of acquiring wishes, and simple desires have a much better chance of success. In the "Poor Man and the Rich Man", the rich man clearly over thinks his three wishes. First, he considers the bavarian peasant, who focused on his heart's desire by asking for 1) plenty of beer, 2) as much beer as he could drink, and lastly, 3) a barrel of beer. Unfortunately, the rich man rejects this strategy as well as "all the riches and treasures in the world" because "I shall still think of all kinds of things besides later on". Of course he is right, but ends up using his three wishes in typical sausage-like fashion, only to get back to where he was before the wishes. Well, minus his horse with a broken back.

It may appear from these accounts that wish patrons appeared much more frequently in olden days than they do now. Remember, there were less people, but it may be something else. As with so many other sensations, these fabulous, almost unimaginable adventures of yore may have been reduced to dispassionate, calculating encounters in our post industrial revolution era. Is it just nostalgia, or is it that, where wishes were once rare but intense, they are now common but pedestrian. (See analysis in the comment section of "vague notions of lost innocence" vs "feelings, like species, can become extinct" vs "the power of a mounted knight…compared to the firepower of the modern state")

We now have a multitude of wish dispensers: birthday cake candles, wishing wells (for a small fee), shooting stars (sic), first stars (sic), 4-leaf clovers, wishbones, dandelions, loose eyelashes,
"if two people say the same thing at the same time, they must lock their little fingers and say alternately: Red, blue (or other color); needles, pins; Shakespeare, Longfellow (or other poets)",
"if you see a crow flying through the air, make a wish. If he does not flap his wings before he goes out of sight, the wish will come true. If he does flap his wings, look away, and if you do not see him again your wish will come true."

In short we can't even sneeze without having a wish. The point is that the experience has been lessened. We have gone from an era when only the kindest or poorest is raised to kingly status, to more of a "no child left behind" posture. Grade inflation only dilutes the reward. The best anyone can hope for from a birthday candle is a few moments of happiness and friendship. Certainly don't bother wishing for anything greater than a pony.

That is not to say that you will never encounter a talking beast, Jinni or magic currant bun. There is plenty of magic (re: alternate physics of parallel worlds) left. Science understands now more than ever that there are just short of an infinite number realities awaiting us. Perhaps we should keep our wishing on the light, whimsical side, such as turning the Bastille into a huge wheel of swiss cheese to the delight of rats everywhere or making a midget policeman taller so he needn't stand on a chair to make an arrest. Our chance for success seems, in those cases, better. And it's not that the past was a "Rousseauian paradise"—far from it. The grotesque and vulgar acts of violence, fratricide, cannibalism, and debauchery were not for children. We may now be able to match the horror with more efficiency, but we've lost some of the imaginative enthusiasm.

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