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kalila and dimna

Ramsay Woods ‘Kalila and Dimna’- fables of conflict and intrigue has just arrived and I’m enjoying it very much. Wood’s earlier volume, which had an introduction by one of his fans, Doris Lessing, has become something of a collector’s item. This volume- with an introduction by historian and broadcaster Michael Wood- brings many more of the traditional stories of the Kalila and Dimna canon out in the inimitable style of Ramsay Wood.

This collection seeks to put into modern and highly accessible English many of the traditional tales found in the Indian Panchatantra which later became the Arabic collection Kalila and Dimna. Wood retells the tales in an agreeable and meaningful way, keeping to the intended sense of the original yet providing new names and characterisation to better engage the reader.

In this review I want to focus on the self-help angle that all traditional tales offer. Ramsay Wood has brought this out in his tale of the three wise idiots. In this story, four Brahmins are out travelling- three of them have high degrees and letters after their names but the fourth has only common sense. Two want to send the unlettered one home but he is tolerated because they have known him all their lives. When they find a dead lion they decide to use their amazing powers, garnered over years of hard study- to bring the lion back to life. The fourth Brahmin suggests that a revivified lion might be hungry and dangerous and that they would be the first food he would set his revived eyes upon. Told to shut up the wise ones continue with their magic. Meanwhile the ignorant fourth climbs a tree and watches. Sure enough the lion- once brought back to life- eats his ‘benefactors’, whilst the fourth man watches and waits and then makes his way safely home. There are lots of potential morals to this tale (Wood provides three). It’s easy to see its application to technological experimentation where ‘if we can make it we should’ is the current mantra. We can see that common sense in this context means seeing the obvious, something that having advanced skills precludes. Living as we do in the age of the expert it’s not easy to see the benefits of certain kinds of ignorance. Too detailed a knowledge of something without the balancing factor of practical use leads to a distortion in judgement. We can see this when we try to learn a skill. If you read all about a skill you don’t know what needs attention and what does not. By getting some experience of the activity first you learn what to pay attention to. Then, when you later read about the subject, you pick up the extra knowledge you require. The alternative is the method of the obsessive – he learns absolutely everything about a subject- but without knowing the relative importance of each element. His perspective is necessarily always superficial. It’s worth bearing this in mind when trying to ‘master’ any subject. For example, to learn about a country without travelling there leads to making all kinds of assumptions that could be easily avoided. I’ve found that even stopping at the airport in a foreign country makes it ‘realer’ and gives a context to what I subsequently read about the place.

I had a graphic demonstration of the above when I saw an expert Persian carpet dealer in the shop of an English enthusiast. The dealer didn’t know all the names of the rugs- which the Englishman did, with his minute study of all the available literature. On the surface it looked like the English guy was the real expert. But when it came to aging a rug the dealer pointed out that a 19th century rug on display was actually only forty years old. He could tell by pinching the carpet between his fingers. You can fake colour and aging easily but you can’t fake the loosening that occurs with real age. Because the enthusiast lacked this experiential knowledge- and could only read the colours and patterns he saw in books- he had bought a load of carpets for more than they were worth.

Not that all of Ramsay Wood’s tales require such self-help type interpretation. Mainly they are there to be enjoyed for whatever they offer, remembered, and perhaps retold to others. Kalila and Dimna stories are immortal- and if the only real critic is time, these tales have the highest critical acclaim possible!

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