I’ve been reading the Fables of Robert Louis Stevenson. They’re a forgotten corner of Stevenson’s oeuvre. They constitute a tiny volume — less than 100 pages. One might say they were neglected by Stevenson himself; at the time of his death, they were an unfinished fragment.
I learned of Stevenson’s Fables more than twenty years ago, while reading a Zen writer, R. H. Blyth. Blyth is a little-known writer, but he has a high reputation among students of Zen. Blyth finds Zen in Stevenson, Dickens, Shakespeare, Wordsworth — he finds Zen in many writers who never heard the word “Zen.”
Blyth quotes many writers in foreign languages — French, German, Italian, even Chinese and Japanese. He may be the greatest quoter in world literature, but sometimes he’s too fond of quotations. Blyth was widely read, and had a knack for learning languages. I recommend Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.
Blyth rarely quotes Stevenson’s novels, such as Kidnapped; Blyth focuses on Stevenson’s poems and fables. For example, he quotes a poem from Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses:
The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.
The child and the cow are both whole-hearted, and this whole-hearted quality is Zen. “The Zen of the cow (‘with all her might’) appeals to the child’s Zen (‘with all my heart’).”1 Stevenson puts himself into the mind of the child. “The Zen of A Child’s Garden of Verses can be tested by the fact that in most of them it is impossible to think that they were not written by the child himself.” Stevenson grasps the child’s Zen, and expresses it in poetry. “What is most remarkable about Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is that he sees the child’s Zen and reflects it back to the child in the form of poetry.”
Stevenson’s Fables are remarkable for their style and wit as well as their Zen. Here’s a fable called “The Sick Man and the Fireman”:
|There was once a sick man in a burning house, to whom there entered a fireman.
“Do not save me,” said the sick man. “Save those who are strong.”
“Will you kindly tell me why?” inquired the fireman, for he was a civil fellow.
“Nothing could possibly be fairer,” said the sick man. “The strong should be preferred in all cases, because they are of more service in the world.”
The fireman pondered a while, for he was a man of some philosophy. “Granted,” said he at last, as a part of the roof fell in; “but for the sake of conversation, what would you lay down as the proper service of the strong?”
“Nothing can possibly be easier,” returned the sick man; “the proper service of the strong is to help the weak.”
Again the fireman reflected, for there was nothing hasty about this excellent creature. “I could forgive you being sick,” he said at last, as a portion of the wall fell out, “but I cannot bear your being such a fool.” And with that he heaved up his fireman’s axe, for he was eminently just, and clove the sick man to the bed.
Kierkegaard said, “The comical always lies in a contradiction.”2 Stevenson’s fable is comical because of the contradiction between the relaxed tone of the conversation, and the fact that it takes place in a burning building. The fireman has none of the urgency that one would expect in such a situation; he says he’s talking “for the sake of conversation.”
We saw above that Zen is whole-hearted. This whole-hearted quality prompts decisive action. Zen doesn’t split hairs, it doesn’t get bogged down in knotty questions. The fireman in the fable acts decisively, he cleaves the sick man with his axe. Blyth says,
|Most of our talk about duty, religion, patriotism, Zen, is of this useless, circular character. In Buddhism, the body is called “a burning house.” We talk and talk while our life burns away.... Fine words butter no parsnips. The question is, what are we to do in this continual, continuous dilemma which we call human life? ...The Gordian knot must be cut.|
The fireman ends the discussion, he cuts the Gordian knot. Stevenson isn’t recommending violence, he’s using violence as a metaphor; he’s recommending decision, action.2B
This decisive quality can be a virtue in literature as well as in life. We see this decisive quality in the epitaph that Stevenson wrote for himself, in which he summarizes life and death in eight lines:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Stevenson slices through the problems of life and death, he cuts the Gordian knot, he simplifies. Great literature often simplifies. In his essay on Wagner, Nietzsche praised Wagner for being “a simplifier of the universe.”3
The professional scholar goes in the opposite direction; he’s fond of complexity. For example, a scholar who was trying to boost the reputation of Stevenson’s Black Arrow said that it offered “insight into the complexity of the human condition.” For scholars, “complexity” is a compliment, “simplicity” a pejorative. In this respect, as in many other respects, the professional scholar is the opposite of the real writer.
Stevenson has simplicity in his style as well as his content. His epitaph is notable for its simple language as well as its simple thoughts — no complexity here. Stevenson has boyish high spirits, and a boyish love of adventure. He’s not a favorite with contemporary scholars. In the Norton Critical Editions, only one volume is devoted to Stevenson. For many years, he was entirely excluded from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
So a whole-hearted attitude is Zennish, and it expresses itself in decision/action. The opposite of a whole-hearted attitude is an attitude of boredom, indifference, half-heartedness. As Blyth says, “Stagnation of life is the real tragedy of this world, for it is the waste of life.”4 Stevenson asks God to awaken him violently, lest he stagnate:
Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take
And stab my spirit broad awake;
Or, Lord, if too obdurate I,
Choose thou, before that spirit die,
A piercing pain, a killing sin,
And to my dead heart run them in!5
Zen is about being awake, about appreciating the present moment. Thoreau is a Zennish writer; at the end of Walden, Thoreau says, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
But there’s a difference between Thoreau and Stevenson. Thoreau lived deliberately, Stevenson impetuously. Thoreau generally stayed close to home, Stevenson traveled widely. Thoreau was a bachelor who’s famous for living alone in a tiny house, Stevenson was married and had a large group of relatives around him on Samoa. Stevenson was Thoreau’s toughest critic; he said Thoreau was a “skulker,” a “prig,” who lacked manliness and “dash.”5B
Blyth is evidently impressed with Stevenson’s Fables; he quotes them at length, as examples of the Zen spirit. One early reviewer of the Fables said they’re “almost more remarkable than any of [Stevenson’s] more elaborate compositions.”
Alice Snyder argues that an old-fashioned fable, like “The Hare and the Tortoise,” presents an appearance and a moral — the appearance being that the hare is faster, the moral being that the persistence of the tortoise wins the race. Stevenson’s fables are different: “The interesting thing about Stevenson’s fables is that they prove morals, not appearances, to be deceptive, and ask us to invert them, as it were.”
Is Stevenson upending traditional morality, as Nietzsche did? One critic said that Stevenson’s fables “are essentially modern in their structure, and go to the very root of the paradox that all the deep modern thinkers find in human life, though they do not pretend to find any solution of that paradox, but leave it where they found it.” This critic doesn’t explain what that paradox is, but perhaps Stevenson’s fable “The Sinking Ship” will help us to grasp it.
|“Sir,” said the first lieutenant, bursting into the Captain’s cabin, “the ship is going down.”
“Very well, Mr. Spoker,” said the Captain; “but that is no reason for going about half-shaved. Exercise your mind a moment, Mr. Spoker, and you will see that to the philosophic eye there is nothing new in our position: the ship (if she is to go down at all) may be said to have been going down since she was launched.”
“She is settling fast,” said the first lieutenant, as he returned from shaving.
“Fast, Mr. Spoker?” asked the Captain. “The expression is a strange one, for time (if you will think of it) is only relative.”
“Sir,” said the lieutenant, “I think it is scarcely worthwhile to embark in such a discussion when we shall all be in Davy Jones’ Locker in ten minutes.”
“By parity of reasoning,” returned the Captain gently, “it would never be worthwhile to begin any inquiry of importance; the odds are always overwhelming that we must die before we shall have brought it to an end. You have not considered, Mr. Spoker, the situation of man,” said the Captain, smiling, and shaking his head.
“I am much more engaged in considering the position of the ship,” said Mr. Spoker.
“Spoken like a good officer,” replied the Captain, laying his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder.
On deck they found the men had broken into the spirit-room, and were fast getting drunk.
“My men,” said the Captain, “there is no sense in this. The ship is going down, you will tell me, in ten minutes: well, and what then? To the philosophic eye, there is nothing new in our position. All our lives long, we may have been about to break a blood-vessel or to be struck by lightning, not merely in ten minutes, but in ten seconds; and that has not prevented us from eating dinner, no, nor from putting money in the Savings Bank. I assure you, with my hand on my heart, I fail to comprehend your attitude.”
The men were already too far gone to pay much heed.
“This is a very painful sight, Mr. Spoker,” said the Captain.
“And yet to the philosophic eye, or whatever it is,” replied the first lieutenant, “they may be said to have been getting drunk since they came aboard.”
“I do not know if you always follow my thought, Mr. Spoker,” returned the Captain gently. “But let us proceed.”
In the powder magazine they found an old salt smoking his pipe.
“Good God,” cried the Captain, “what are you about?”
“Well, sir,” said the old salt, apologetically, “they told me as she were going down.”
“And suppose she were?” said the Captain. “To the philosophic eye, there would be nothing new in our position. Life, my old shipmate, life, at any moment and in any view, is as dangerous as a sinking ship; and yet it is man’s handsome fashion to carry umbrellas, to wear india-rubber over-shoes, to begin vast works, and to conduct himself in every way as if he might hope to be eternal. And for my own poor part I should despise the man who, even on board a sinking ship, should omit to take a pill or to wind up his watch. That, my friend, would not be the human attitude.”
“I beg pardon, sir,” said Mr. Spoker. “But what is precisely the difference between shaving in a sinking ship and smoking in a powder magazine?”
“Or doing anything at all in any conceivable circumstances?” cried the Captain. “Perfectly conclusive; give me a cigar!”
Two minutes afterwards the ship blew up with a glorious detonation.
Blyth says that this fable “shows Zen on its destructive side.” He says, “The most important word in the fable is ‘glorious.’ Glorious means Good, as distinguished from good. The word ‘good’ is a relative word as opposed to ‘bad.’ The word ‘Good’ is absolute and has no contrary.”6 Perhaps Stevenson is suggesting that the world is good in an absolute sense, good simply because existence is better than non-existence, good despite the death and suffering that are embedded in life.7 In a piece called “The End,” I argued that human existence might be good in this absolute sense, even if the sun burned out and life came to an end.
If the U.S. is in terminal decline, and the earth is in terminal decline, and the sun is in terminal decline, should we give way to loud wailing and lamentation? Or should we accept the fact that existence is temporary, and make the most of the present moment? Blyth says, “‘The skill to please without eternity,’ is the property of all existing things. Eternity, infinity, are not necessary to the true life, which is complete, with which we can be satisfied and pleased, at any moment, in any place.”8
We can’t listen to our favorite song an infinite number of times, it would cease to be pleasurable. We can’t grab happiness and hold onto it. Blyth quotes Blake:
He who bends to himself a Joy,
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.9
Let’s return to Stevenson’s fable “The Sinking Ship.” Blyth calls our attention to the phrase “Doing anything at all in any conceivable circumstances.” This phrase, according to Blyth, is “the freedom of Zen. A man must be able (that is, willing) to do anything on any occasion whatever. Hundreds of verses in the writings of Zen express this perfect freedom, which alone allows us to act perfectly.” Blyth quotes several of these verses, such as
Stones rise up into the sky;
Fire burns down in the water.
The freedom of Zen makes it a popular guide for artists, athletes, etc. Freedom means creativity, it’s the opposite of stagnation.
The freedom of Zen is sometimes at odds with ethics. Stevenson’s Zen sometimes violates conventional morality. Any mysticism/religion sometimes conflicts with morality. Kierkegaard said that religion sometimes involves a “suspension of the ethical.” Kierkegaard said that when Abraham raised his arm to slay Isaac, Abraham was following a religious command, and violating an ethical command.
Have the Ten Commandments served a useful purpose over the years? Should a new set of Ten Teachings be developed, one that’s better suited to modern life? If there were a Twitter hashtag called Ten Teachings, millions of people could suggest teachings, then the wisdom of the crowd could select the best set of Ten Teachings, a set that could be used by parents and teachers, committed to memory, and translated into every language. Such teachings could be useful for moral control and also useful as guidance for living.
In an earlier issue, I mentioned the Eight Teachings of a Zen master:
|1.||Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Ch. 23, pp. 359, 360
There are 20 fables in Stevenson’s little volume, and Blyth comments on 7 of them. I found one critical essay on Stevenson’s Fables: “Stevenson’s Conception of the Fable,” by Alice D. Snyder, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, January, 1922, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 160-168, jstor.org/stable/27702630
I haven’t found any Stevenson critic who’s aware of Blyth, aware of the “Zen view” of Stevenson.
I found a book called The Proper Pirate: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Quest for Identity, by Jefferson Singer. This book comments on some of Stevenson’s fables, such as “The House of Eld.” Singer calls his book The Proper Pirate because he thinks that Stevenson was torn between propriety/civilization and piracy/bohemianism. According to Singer, “The House of Eld” represents revolt against home/parents, but also an admission that revolt doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. (One could also read “The House of Eld” as revolt against traditional religion/morality, which didn’t bring happiness, but instead led to Communism, Fascism, etc.)
On the “proper” side, we have statements like this: “I defend civilization for the thing it is, for the thing it has come to be, the standpoint of a real old Tory.” On the bohemian side, we have statements like this: “If I had to begin again... I believe I should try to honor Sex more religiously. The worst of our education is that Christianity does not recognize and hallow Sex. It looks askance at it.... Well, it is so; I cannot be wiser than my generation.”(letter to cousin Bob, September 1894; see also The Proper Pirate, p. 170)
D. H. Lawrence, 35 years younger than Stevenson, did just what Stevenson said he’d do if he was starting his career again: Lawrence respected the body and sex, focused on the body and sex.
According to Jefferson Singer, “The Argentinian writer Borges counted [Stevenson’s Fables] as a great influence on his own allegorical and enigmatic tales.”(p. 39)
Stevenson’s Fables may have been inspired by Bulwer-Lytton’s Fables in Song. Stevenson wrote a review of Bulwer-Lytton’s work.
If you want a biography of Stevenson, the first and most intimate is the one by Stevenson’s cousin, Graham Balfour. Another Stevenson biography is Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, by J. C. Furnas. Consider also Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections, edited by R. C. Terry. back
|2.||Concluding Unscientific Postscript, II, 3, 4 back|
|2B.||Sidney Colvin, a friend of Stevenson’s, published an edition of Stevenson’s letters after Stevenson’s death. Colvin introduced these letters with an interesting sketch of Stevenson. Colvin speaks of the “maxims of life which he was accustomed to forge for himself and to act by.” Colvin quotes two maxims that recommend decision/action:|
1. “Acts may be forgiven; not even God can forgive the hanger-back.”
2. “Choose the best, if you can; or choose the worst; that which hangs in the wind dangles from a gibbet.”
Colvin says that Stevenson had a gift for conversation. “It was only in talk... that all the many lights and colors of this richly compounded spirit could be seen in full play.... The talk would stream on in endless, never importunate, flood and variety. A hundred fictitious characters would be invented, differentiated, and launched on their imaginary careers; a hundred ingenious problems of conduct and cases of honor would be set and solved, in a manner often quite opposed to conventional precept; romantic voyages would be planned and followed out in vision, with a thousand incidents, to all the corners of our own planet and of others.”
Colvin quotes W. E. Henley, a friend of Stevenson’s: “He will discourse with you of morals, music, marbles, men, manners, metaphysics, medicine... with equal insight into essentials and equal pregnancy and felicity of utterance... He will stop with you to make mud pies in the first gutter, range in your company whatever heights of thought and feeling you have found accessible, and end by guiding you to altitudes far nearer the stars than you have ever dreamed of footing it... He makes you wonder which to admire the more — his easy familiarity with the Eternal Veracities or the brilliant flashes of imbecility with which his excursions into the Infinite are sometimes diversified. He radiates talk, as the sun does light and heat.” back
|3.||Untimely Essays, “Wagner in Bayreuth,” #4
Years later, when Nietzsche wrote his autobiography, he said that his essay on Wagner was really about himself: “The essay ‘Wagner in Bayreuth’ is a vision of my future.” Nietzsche would have been proud to be called “a simplifier of the universe.”
In his essay on Wagner, Nietzsche uses the GordianKnot metaphor, but he reverses its meaning. He says that the simplifier is the person who doesn’t cut the knot, but rather the person who binds together the loose ends after the knot has been cut. Nietzsche praises Wagner because “he rivets and locks together all that is isolated.” This is a good description of my work, I try to bring together the various disciplines, I try to combine and simplify. back
|4.||Zen in English Literature, Ch. 19, p. 297 back|
|5.||From a volume of poetry called Underwoods. back|
|5B.||Sidney Colvin says, “effeminacy, or aught approaching sexlessness, was perhaps the only quality in man with which he had no patience.” Does this explain his harsh criticism of Thoreau? back|
|6.||Blyth, Ch. 1, p. 12. Note the similarity between Stevenson’s sinking ship (as a metaphor for human life) and Buddhism’s burning house. In fact, Stevenson himself uses the burning-house metaphor in one of his fables, as we saw above.
If Stevenson has something in common with Nietzsche (as I suggested above), perhaps that’s because he and Nietzsche were contemporaries; perhaps that generation looked askance at conventional morality. Another member of that generation was Oscar Wilde, who also criticized conventional morality; for example, Wilde said, “Moderation in all things — including moderation.” Nietzsche was born in 1844, Stevenson in 1850, Wilde in 1854. Stevenson seemed to realize that he was a product of his time; earlier I quoted his remark, “I cannot be wiser than my generation.”
Another factor to consider is that Stevenson may have written some of his fables in Samoa. He may have felt that Christian missionaries were interfering with healthy native traditions. This may have strengthened his animus against conventional Western morality. back
|7.||In “The Sinking Ship,” Stevenson uses a violent image, just as he uses a violent image in “The Sick Man and the Fireman.” Some readers in our time might be troubled by this, it hits too close to home, it reminds them of contemporary terrorists who actually view such violence as glorious. But when we read Stevenson, I think we should try to see things from his perspective; we shouldn’t let contemporary terrorists shape how we read literature.
The image of a “glorious detonation” could be viewed aesthetically, could be viewed as an example of the sublime. In an earlier issue, I quoted Grant’s description of a battle: “The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires... and by firing houses.... The sight was magnificent, but terrible.” Magnificent but terrible is a good definition of the sublime; Stevenson’s “glorious detonation” could be called magnificent but terrible, i.e., sublime. back
|8.||Zen in English Literature, Ch. 17, p. 260 back|
|9.||Blyth, p. 295 back|