You heard the one about the scorpion and the frog?

150px-Biological classification L Pengo

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

The scorpion replies: “It is my nature…”

* * *

We can learn several things from this fable.

One: animals can talk to each other. Since scorpions have no vocal cords, this might indicate telepathy. If human scientists devoted more time to unlocking the mysteries of inter-animal communication and spent less time building weapons to be abused by those in power, then many conflicts could be avoided. I, for one, would like to talk to elephants.

Two: It is possible to feel the absence of feeling (“the frog feels the onset of paralysis”). In the amphibian world, drowning operates as a metaphor for the negative sublime. It is something the genus experiences second-hand, at an uncanny step of remove.

Herodotus alluded to certain unorthodox interpretations of this fable which cast the frog’s mortal feeling of no-feeling as a register of empathy for inert objects such as chocolate bars or computers. (Greek empatheia, literally: passion). Herodotus’ status as a liar and a plagiarist do not lessen the acuity of this scholarship. Unlike our telepathic insect, he was sponsored by the Greek goddess of victory.

Three: It is the scorpion that pulls humanity down. If you yourself are not a scorpion, or if you can’t swim, then you are unable to play every move of every game in the cooperation zone, because sooner or later you will meet a scorpion. A real scorpion. Many live in arid or semi-arid areas where unpolluted water is scarce. Yeats’ judgment that “things fall apart, the center cannot hold”, because “the worst are full of passionate intensity” is a recognition of the fact that scorpions are real.

* * *

reader response # 1 : I’ve always been fond of that Yeats quote. “The worst are full of passionate intensity” is an obvious but essential piece of knowledge. The first time I came across the story of the scorpion and the frog, it struck me as somewhat insulting and reactionary – a person’s nature is definite and static, and there is no hope for them to change, even as their lives depend on it. It’s a engagingly doomed-romantic notion, sure, and it’s been pretty much the basis for all of favourite films, book and plays, but the optimist in me doesn’t want to BELIEVE it.

Dear reader: Martin Heidegger’s ‘The Heraclitus Seminar’ references (somewhat inconclusively) a variant of the tale much more in line with your optimism: instead of stinging the frog, the scorpion performs a mad celebratory dance — the bug has realized that its essence can be changing, dynamic, just like Heraclitus’ famous river, into which one both can and cannot step twice. ‘Biology is not fate’, it thinks in its chitinous little head.

The scorpion expresses this epiphany to the frog via a mixture of pheromones and vibrational communication, putting it at odds with Herodotus’ postulations of animal-to-animal telepathy and leading to the historic suppression of this tale by a strangely powerful Flemish legal council, of whom Yeats was a sympathizer, esp. during his theosophist latter years, a time of intense public ridicule, when the poet’s wife George wrote volumes ‘automatically’, channeling the spirit of Leo Africanus, who does not read blogs because he is dead.

In the so-called Upbeat Heraclitian variation, the animal pair cross the river to safety. Upon reaching the shore, the altruistic frog returns into the stream for a swim. Moments later the scorpion gets eaten by a bat. Waves of positivity emanate from the human observer, gently touching all within radius, like the surface of a pond into which one has just thrown a bag of cats. The dark legend of poetry is that it is true.

6 thoughts on “FABLED”

  1. great post! but dont forget — early Sufi scholarship saw in the scorpion’s declaration a proto-Islamic heterodoxy, gently skirting issues of divine fatedness (motivating the censorship via omission carried out in George/Leo’s automatic essays on the topic) by positing that individual souls must assume the onus of their own actions “as if isolated by man and God alike”, as a method of purification, views later reinforced by early 20th ct. Koranic exegesis on the nature and necessity of freedom in a Newtonian/Planckian world ostensibly ‘veiled’ (i.e. overdetermined) by the physical laws of nature, down to the quantum.

  2. Interesting. I don’t think this is true though:

    “It is possible to feel the absence of feeling (”the frog feels the onset of paralysis”)”

    Surely paralysis is not the absence of feeling, but simply being unable to move (which one might be able to feel intensely).

    Or am I too literal minded?

  3. Still kinda puts me in mind of that William Blatty film, ‘The Ninth Configuration’ in which a mental patient attempts to convince his psychiatrist that there is no such thing as altruism.

    Its an odd fable in that if you buy into it, you can’t LEARN from it – one can’t make the conscious choice to not be a scorpion any more than the scorpion can choose not sink his ride.
    We don’t swim against fate, we’re the water.

  4. like whales – elephants communicate using sub bass frequencies that travel miles.

Leave a Reply