DEATH SPEAKS – are you jostled?
Here’s a little story from an ancient tale, retold by W. Somerset Maugham – it has haunted my philosophy since I first read it many years ago:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Cruel fate? Perhaps not. I use this story to introduce my new column, “Your Character Is Your Fate”. I think it’s here that literature most clearly informs psychology, where philosophy defines what it is to be human, and words describe one particular human being, a person “like” yet also different from any other.
Consider this little story: “a servant”, nameless, ageless, obedient, in the simple act of doing what is his role in life to do encounters Death.
Inevitable? Not at all…
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and the servant, remarking the shadows on the ground, decided there was time to go by way of the river to cool his weary feet and catch a nice fish for his lunch. And later the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me….
Or consider this….
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and the servant, remembering that his poor mother was ill, thought first to bring her some cool water from the brook he passed on his way….
Yes, we could re-write this story, embellish the character of the servant – the merchant too – but we do not need to. Already we know all we need to know about them both. The merchant is generous, trusting, and kind; without question, without reserve, he lends his servant his horse. He is also self-confident and unafraid to face death, even to challenge her when he too sees her in the market-place: Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?
His character is his fate – he loses his servant and his horse – and undoubtedly has his confidence shaken.
And the servant, obedient, yes, and confident as well. Even as he was “white and trembling”, he had a plan and the focus and the courage to carry it out: now, (he says to his master) lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.
His goose is cooked, the die is cast, cruel fate indeed. Though not a man to fold, to submit, to give up without a struggle, he will meet his death on schedule. So much for self-determination, so much for courage, defiance, imagination. His character is his fate.
But wait, one more bit of character is revealed in this short tale: the servant is mistaken. Jostled by a woman in the crowd, he turns and sees it is Death that jostles him. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, he reports, and without a moment of reflection (hmmnn, I wonder what she means by that?), he assumes he is the one. The threat of death, which was no threat at all but merely surprise, is meant for him; he must take matters into his own hands and with the unhesitating help of his master, flee to Samarra.
Would psychology, so informed, not call this narcissism, paranoia perhaps? Could we not call it hubris? (exaggerated pride or self-confidence; to allow ego or pride to cloud one’s judgement.)
Literature, I think, would choose hubris – it makes a better story, it touches the heart, it makes us weep – with fear, with relief, with sometimes unbearable self-knowledge.
Watch for the Oedipus Complexities – coming soon!
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2008
Posted in Your character is your fate