Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Rebellion of the Beasts

Niall Carter chose this one for the book club this month, and having chose it at random from the bookshelves of the downtown library, he says that what really caught his eye was the subtitle:

"The Ass is Dead! Long Live the Ass!"

And the author is in dispute, nobody really knows who he is, with the book having been written early in the 18th century, after the American and French revolutions but with the English aristocracy still full in power of the purse strings and able to shut down publishing houses with just a blink of their downward sloping eyes. Apparently the supposed author and/or his brother were both masters of a satirical paper, often on the run, often having to hide out on the continent to escape levies, fines, and taxes from the aforementioned British government, along the way cranked out this little fable about a man who drinks a potion to give him the power to talk to animals and lo and behold just suddenly happens upon a plan the animals have hatched to overthrow humanity and take their rightful place as masters of the world.

Now, of course there are obvious connections to George Orwell's Animal Farm, written 150 years afterward, but truly the only the only connection (apart from animals talking) is that both are savagely satirical pieces railing against prevailing oppressive political powers of their day: the Aristocracy and Communism. In fact, an enterprising student may indeed want to compare/contrast both books against their respective historical/socio-political backdrops to earn themselves one sweet "A" some day, but that's beside the point.

The point is: the writing itself is tepid at best, and its obvious, no matter what year in which it was written, that the author was more toward slamming the powers that be than in writing a story, with any sort of plot, characterization, or narrative. As such, it can hardly be called literature.

On the other hand, I have to give them full credit for being spot-on in their satire, not only agaisnt the nature of the aristocracy, but also against the religious establishment, which uses a crushingly oppresive power in order to keep themselves in material wealth without having to sacrifice much at all, and also using God as a dodge in order to allow themselves all kinds of perversions. Basically, the Elephants set up a church, along with the Book of the Elephant, which they smother with their own excrement to prevent anybody else from reading it, and quoting from it freely to proclaim their authority in all matters of enterprise, commerce, and morality.

The most poignant part of the book, and I'm not even sure if the author him- or themselves were conscious of this, was when the Ass, who had come to power from the most conniving of methods, admits to the narrator that even he cannot control the Elephants, and that he has to go along with them in order to maintain his own control. Here's the King who holds absolute power over all his subjects but these.

That makes this book as good a description of pre-Industrial Europe as any I've ever read.

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