Friday, May 04, 2007

That Iniquitous Frog in the Well.

"A proverb, one might say, is a ruin which stands on the site of an old story in which moral twines about a happening like an ivy around the wall." -- Illuminations, Walter Benjamin

We begin with that iniquitous proverb, of the frog in the well. The moral twines of this proverb is deceptively simple : The frog is an arrogant one. It looks up into the night sky and sees the moon shining only for it. It thinks that it owns that piece of night sky. The irony is that it does not know that it is living in a well. That its rule of the "universe" is only within the confines of the well. The proverb tells us about pride, arrogance and humility. Beyond that, it tells also of perspective. To look beyond our confines and understand the larger world, to expand our worldview. Never be the frog in the well, this proverb implies. The frog is iniquitous.

But a proverb, one might say, is a ruin standing on the site of an old story. And so it may be useful perhaps to rebuild the story behind this proverb of the frog in the well. It is a necessary re-building since this proverb and its attendant morals are always implied when the Government engages the citizens of Singapore in issues of controversy. It is the preferred rhetorical device of those in positions of authority.

The most intriguing puzzle to unlock this story is to figure out how the frog came to be existing in a well. As biologists and naturalists can tell you, frogs do not naturally appear within wells. So there is another hidden narrative in this proverb, a narrative which has been lost. Probably an important element in the old and complete tale of the frog in the well.

If frogs do not appear naturally in wells, then it can be surmised that the frog in this proverb must have been deliberately put into the well. It would also seem most likely that the frog was put in the well when it was but a tadpole, un-cognizant of the ways of the world. And so it grew up within the confines of the well. The well was its world, its only world.

But what evil-doer would do such a thing? To imprison another creature in an artificial world. Perhaps, the frog was deliberately put into this well precisely so that it would only see the world of the well. So that the evil-doer could manipulate the frog, test the frog, like a laboratory animal. A social experiment. At its extreme, the evil-doer, he who put the frog into the well, is playing God. By this social experiment, the God-figure maintains its supremacy over the frog. A supremacy situated precisely with the moral twines of the proverb. The God-figure always knows He has the real world to trump the frog; the arrogant frog that thinks it knows the world. Whatever perspectives the frog can come up with to challenge the omniscience of the God-figure, the latter has the ultimate answer to counter it; the God-figure has the real world and He knows it. And so, a cruel complexity to this proverb emerges as we tease a story into existence; the iniquity of the frog diminishes.

The well itself must be questioned. In this proverb, the well is a man-made structure. Those circular wells often associated with farms, perhaps with animals and other livestock. Presumably, the well is possessed by a farmer. So in this proverb, in which the frog was put into the well when it was but a tadpole, the well becomes the definition of a narrow world-view. But the well in which the frog lives its life is also the only possible world for the frog to learn about its existence; the well defines the limits of the frog’s knowledge. It cannot learn beyond the restrictions of the well. It cannot go beyond the walls, it cannot challenge the law of matter. Even if it wanted to. It is not given the choice. It was placed in the well. It did not ask to be born in the well.

The only possibility, perhaps the only consolation, left for the frog is that changing disc it sees high up in its world. The mouth of the well, in the eyes of the frog, is the only view that has change. That view is like its TV. That view is its only way to learn that there is possibility of change, because only that view, in the frog’s world of the well, can change. But it is a precarious view. What is to stop the God-figure from covering that "view" with words and pictures which change everyday? It is almost like the Socratic Cave analogy except that frog is trapped in the well. It is bound in that space. It can only learn in that space. It is a cruel story indeed that emerges.

And seen in this light, with the bare skeletal structure of a story, the moral twines of the proverb is complexified or more accurately, its morality becomes layered, No longer can we simply see this proverb as a humbling of the arrogant and iniquitous frog. To the One who delivers the revelation to the frog, to bring it down to its proper space, to damn its entire understanding of its existence, we ask : Why not lift the frog away from the well? Why not take it out from its forceful imprisonment? Why not set it free to learn from the real world? To the One who belittles the frog and reveals the true world, who has put things into the proper perspective, we ask : why not go down the well and experience what the frog can see and ponder how can the it ever see the “proper” perspectives?

As the frog is wrongly humbled, the One who reveals is in need of greater humbling. This is perhaps the moral complexity lost as the story became a proverb.

The sharp will see this as a critique of the Singapore political system. So let it be.

But we have to imagine something more cruel.

A frog in a huge test tube.

Hoping against hope to smash the glass into pieces.

But it cannot.

This is the condition why Singaporeans leave.

Quote of the Day --

"The widow anxiously studied that regular flight of meteors, and in it read the confused and slowly told fable of a dragon that had always watched over a vixen, in spite of the vixen's long ingratitude and crimes ... It was evening; the sky was filled with dragons -- this time, yellow ones. The widow murmured a single sentence, "the vixen seeks the dragon's wing," as she stepped aboard the ship." -- A Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges

15 Comments:

Anonymous Luna said...

Splendid use of imagery. Bravo.

12:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assured and deceptively languid writing, and delightfully subversive to boot. :)

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Keep it up. I feel how you feel and see how you see, the only difference is our age which can be miles apart, but does it matter?

It is neither deceptive nor subversive. It is but obiviously clear to those who think. It offers an alternative view to view the frog, which may one day develop legs strong enough to leap out of the imprisonating well, when the God-like evil doer dies ......

Nothing in this world lives forever!
Empires rose and empires crumbled.

Marcos, Soekarno, Chiang Kai Shek,
Saddam Hussein and Hitler - where are they now?

Perseverance and patience are virtues everlasting and virtues worth amassing especially for the young, intelligent and capable, and also for the young at heart who loves to throw in his last ounce of sweat to sweat it out with you, for the betterment of greater good for the greater whole.

Patriot who waits.

6:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely written.

The frog will reach the top of the well. Those who put the frog there will find that they will become frogs in sealed wells, no light, no sky.

Nothing is forever, nothing.

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Promises and hopes are like the water in the well. When it dries up, the frog will find ways to get out of the well. That's survival instinct! The frog will get out of the well one day...

1:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The proverbial frog seems happy to have the well all for itself!

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Stoned said...

Well, except that based on what you said, those of us who leave cannot be the frogs in the well which were put there by an evildoer and cannot leave.

So we, here, are the frogs in the well, and those people who leave are... something else.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The welled frog will only be able to get out when the well gets flooded> With the worldwide freak weather conditions< I am very optimistic that the welled frog will get help from Nature to get out!

3:38 AM  
Anonymous Lau Min-tsek said...

Wonderful writing.

Is this in response to Philip Yeo's comments in Aaron's blog? About some of the commentators being frogs in a well.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

eh? why can't the frog deliberately jump into the well itself? and could it have been that its parents decided to lay it in the well as it is a safe place, away from predators? it might be a misguided move but still with good intentions. so in a way u've extracted what you desired from the tale and not looked at it holistically. in that sense entrapped your readers in a well in an intellectual framework you've crafted?

10:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is of no consequence how the frog got into the well in the first place, good intention or not. The problem now is how to get out of the well, the mindset that turns to materialism as the one and only means to solve all problems.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The FLOOD is coming! just bear it for a while as providence will be giveth!

8:12 PM  
Blogger David said...

With writers like you it will not be long now before you will all escape the confining well and taste freedom outside with us.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Wow. So creative to think out of the "well". Ahaha, not to poke fun at your inquisitive vocabulary and cultural influence of the Chinese proverb, I am perplexed by your focal point of your writing is not concentrated on the frog. But how far can you continue to look at the bigger picture, until there is no more? I could suggest the reason for the omniscience of the farmer caused by cruelty of dominant governmental powers like Hiter and Stalin, or I could suggest that the frog is not rather a frog, but a man who is confined to live in an isolated society like South Korea today.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Lighthouse said...

ok .. as everyone said, i agree that its good write. Only thing is u think too much. The story never mentioned the history cause it doesnt wanna blame anyone. It focuses on whats wrong in present. And is it really arrogance? I think its ignorance (bliss), or lack of intelligence.

So, how to get that frog out...
1. Directly take it out, but it wont be that lucky.
2. Fill the well with water, till top, frog will jump outside. But, where is so much water
3. Evolution .. Too much time needed for frog to become reptile n come out
4.Social Evolution -- This is what happened most of the time in society. Frog stayed in well. Got married in well. Had kids in well. n so on. For all this generation, one thing was common, they loved the moon. So they try to jump. Try to climb up. And they fail. But this effort creates a tower for them, tower of frogs. And one day, the leader suddenly leaps out of wall, breaking all the bounds, bending the social chains.

There were always high strata frogs, outside the well, otherwise this proverb would have died :)

11:23 AM  

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