Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Emperor and the Nightingale - just a fairy tale?

"You can understand and relate to most people better if you look at them -- no matter how old or impressive they may be -- as if they are children. For most of us never really grow up or mature all that much -- we simply grow taller. O, to be sure, we laugh less and play less and wear uncomfortable disguises like adults, but beneath the costume is the child we always are, whose needs are simple, whose daily life is still best described by fairy tales."
Leo Rosten

The Emperor and the Nightingale
I was reading a fairytale to my youngest daughter the other night, and Unzoo theme's started popping out at me. The overall mantra of Unzoo is "go back to move forward", and the evolutionary context is the primary vehicle for this. However the principle is also manifested in other ways, such as with MovNat's call to watch how children move; they move naturally without the corrupted zoo influence we see in adults. Looking at children's natural movement is a way of looking back to how it should be done, so we can learn from it and move forward into natural movement for ourselves. The same theme popped out at me reading the fairytale; in this case "go back to move forward" means read the old stories and you will find the truth hidden in them for you to see and learn from. And here is what the story of "The Emperor and the Nightingale" has to say...
(bits sourced from Wikipedia...italics are me)
"The Nightingale"is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about an emperor who prefers the tinkling of a bejeweled mechanical bird to the song of a real nightingale. When the Emperor is near death, the nightingale's song restores his health.

The Emperor of China learns that one of the most beautiful things in his empire is the song of the nightingale. When he orders the nightingale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its whereabouts) leads the court to a nearby forest where the bird is found. The nightingale agrees to appear at court. The Emperor is so delighted with the bird's song that he keeps the nightingale in captivity.(the process of “taming nature”)  When the Emperor is given a bejeweled mechanical bird he loses interest in the real nightingale, who returns to the forest (nature is forgotten, technology takes over). The mechanical bird eventually breaks down due to overuse. The Emperor is taken deathly ill a few years later. (technology fails, human health fails) The real nightingale learns of the Emperor's condition and returns to the palace. Death is so moved by the nightingale's song that he departs and the emperor recovers. The nightingale agrees to sing to the emperor of all the happenings in the empire, that he will be known as the wisest emperor ever to live. ( nature returns to humans, heals and enlightens. This is the Unzoo process, although unlike the story I don't rule out the possiblity of a duet between real and mechanical birds).
Then my searching took me into the rabbit hole and I found a host of related material relating to "real" vs. "mechanical/artificial" that roped in stories about Frankenstein and other horrors. Too scary for bed time stories...

The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993)

I could have chosen innumerable other examples, for tales of the automata are legion. Those I have chosen, however, are classic examples (Asimov's are currently becoming so) and illustrate different aspects of the human encounter with the mechanical "other." Andersen's tale hinges on clockwork mechanisms; Shelley's Frankenstein-perhaps the dominant Western metaphor for the fourth discontinuity, straddling both biological and mechanical fears-holds an importance which is self-evident and thus deserves extended treatment; Baum's Oz stories, which obsessively reflect a childlike curiosity about "life," are hardly as innocent as they appear; Capek's R.U.R. gives birth to the term "robot," and voices the fear of robots taking over-a fear echoed today in countless films about menacing androids; and Asimov's varied cast of robots allows us to explore many of the intellectual dimensions of the predicted coming of a robotic age.

In Andersen's telling, the tale has a poignancy and meaning that cannot be conveyed in a prĂ©cis. Examined closely, the short story also takes on unexpected ambiguities. The compelling note is the constant comparison between human-made and "natural" things: at the beginning, the croaking of frogs is mistaken for church bells by the courtiers, the nightingale's song for glass bells. The artificial bird and the real nightingale cannot sing well together, "for the real Nightingale sang in its own way, and the artificial bird sang waltzes." At first, the palm seems to go to the mechanical contrivance for "three-and-thirty times over did it sing the same piece, and yet was not tired." Praising it, the artificer explains how "with a real nightingale one can never calculate what is coming, but in this artificial bird everything is settled."
In fact, the artificial bird is neither untiring nor settled. It breaks down, and cannot be repaired. In contrast, the nightingale goes on living, as if for eternity. Thus, the qualities normally assigned to animate (living) objects and inanimate (non living) objects are reversed: it is the animate that endures.
Whew! So what do we get from all this? For now just this; the balance between nature and technology has always been a source of tension for us humans; we create the technology but it threatens to consume us. This is the Zoo Human Syndrome. The theme is rich in history, and never more significant than in our present and future. The Unzoo position of "go back to move forward" accepts the evolutionary context as the key vehicle for integrating nature with our tools/technology, as opposed to technology being used by humans to dominate nature. Remove the tension, then move forward.

And fairytales, and other stories, are not just for kids, just as natural movement is not just for kids either!

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Albert Einstein
Attributed, but unsourced.