Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Adventures of Pinocchio: More on Swindlers and Fools

Carlo Coloddi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio", first published in 1880 and the inspiration for Disney's animated classic "Pinocchio", is also set in a world of Swindlers and Fools, to the point of caricature, which makes illustrating the idea a bit easier. Pinocchio is obviously a gullible Fool; the Fox and the Cat are Swindlers, and so on.

The scene I was most struck by was one neatly capturing the concept of life as a finite pie: one in which you will be lucky to get a few crumbs; slices reserved only for those who take at the expense and suffering of those around them.

Life as a finite pie is - I would argue - a foreign concept for most of us, simply because we have never experienced it firsthand. We are lucky, because if we did, it is very likely that in short while most of us would be Fools, and a few of us would be Swindlers. Most of us would have nothing, while a few of us would have more than their share.

But let's get back to the example. In the scene, the Showman Fire-eater - the basis for the character "Sromboli" in the watered-down Disney version (the cricket, incidentally, is crushed and killed by Pinocchio in the original) - calls on his two puppets, Harlequin and Punchinello, to bring Pinocchio to him:

"Bring that puppet here: you will find him hanging on a nail. It seems to me that he is made of very dry wood, and I am sure that if he were thrown on the fire he would make a beautiful blaze for the roast."
At first Harlequin and Punchinello hesitated; but, appalled by a severe glance from their master, they obeyed.

So Harlequin and Punchinello bring in Pinocchio pleading desperately for his life, and the Fire-eater (who "had not a bad heart") for whatever reason takes pity on him. He is saved.

Remember, however, that in this world life is a finite pie. If Pinocchio is not going to burn for the mutton, something - or someone - else will. And that is precisely what happens:

" you can see I have no more wood with which to finish my mutton, and to tell you the truth, under the circumstances you would have been of great use to me! However, I have had pity on you, so I must have patience. Instead of you I will burn under the spit one of the puppets belonging to my company. Ho there gendarmes!"
"Take Harlequin, bind him securely, and then throw him on the fire to burn. I am determined that my mutton shall be well roasted."

The gendarmes grab Harlequin. Pinocchio, beside himself, now pleads for the life of his friend Harlequin, all to no avail. Finally, Pinocchio - for the first time in the novel - shows he may just have what it takes to become a real boy. He says:

"In that case, bind me and throw me among the flames. No, it is not just that Harlequin, my true friend, should die for me!"
These words, pronounced in a loud, heroic voice, made all the puppets who were present cry. Even the gendarmes, although they were made of wood, wept like two newly born lambs.

Fire-eater, similarly touched, grants a pardon to both Harlequin and Pinocchio. Note, however, what he has to say about it:

"I must have patience! Tonight I shall have to resign myself to eat the mutton half raw; but another time woe to him who chances!..."

Thus life is a finite pie. Every act has a measurable consequence; for every give there is a take. Pinocchio is spared, therefore Harlequin must burn. Harlequin is spared, therefore Fire-eater must eat his mutton half raw.

But wait a minute, you say. Eating mutton half raw is a great deal different then being burned alive!

Yes, that is true, but that is just the point also. Fire-eater is a Swindler (albeit one, apparently, with some relative measure of compassion); Harlequin and Pinocchio are Fools. The consequence for Fire-eater is inversely proportionate to his slice of the pie.

In a world where life is a finite pie, stratification becomes inevitable because if someone must swindle for gain, someone else must therefore be fooled for loss. In such a system, when gain for one invariably results in loss for the other, we are left only with some sense of moral ethics (individual character, compassion, empathy, courage, virtue, sacrifice, etc.) as the sole counteractive force tempering suffering and oppression. And when that fails, if we are lucky and happen to live in a place that allows it, we are forced to resort to laws (in this light, a litigious society could therefore be viewed as one of individual moral failing)...

Now in the world I personally have had the good fortune live in, none of this could happen of course. Because in my world, although you could make a strong argument there exists a Fire-eater, he happens to have a large pile of wood for his fire, and therefore it is vastly easier for him to pardon Harlequin and Pinocchio. He has no dilemma or conflict; he never has to consider whether or not his mutton will be half raw at their expense.

In this same world I have had the good fortune to live in, one could argue also that the large pile of wood is rapidly dwindling (and one could also argue that this same pile was itself derived from a world of Swindlers and Fools, hidden from us behind a curtain, across an ocean, or over a border).

The question, then, is what will happen to this world when the pile of wood runs out - when the only way that Fire-eater can get his mutton properly cooked (as he prefers it) is by tossing one of his puppets into the fire?


  1. What a delightful exploration of some fascinating literary topics. Very insightful, entertaining and creative.

  2. I'm afraid your gracious comment is tainted by nepotism