Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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June 26, 2009
"Once upon a time . . . and they lived happily ever after."

How many books or children's stories ever actually began and ended with the above pair of phrases? How widespread was this supposed storytelling tradition, really?

Where did the tradition begin? How far back does it go? To what first text?

After all, every cliché starts somewhere, right? And sometimes it starts for a good reason, or as a brilliantly innovative solution. This itself is a platitude.

Did the pair of phrases overthrow some earlier, now forgotten pair of then-hackneyed narrative gambits? Or is the pair in some sense as old as human language and cognition -- whatever that might even mean? [What a naive, unanswerable & stupid question.] As if recovery of the initiatory moment might somehow shed light on the problem that the formula was invented to solve
[e.g., a problem like: When asked to explain or tell the story of something, how on earth can we ever decide where to begin? and when to stop talking?]
        -- and perhaps continues to solve. . . .

As for the first phrase, "once upon a time," Herodotus reports (or if you like, "reports") use of it, in some translations:
I did hear, indeed, what I will now relate, from certain natives of Cyrene. Once upon a time, they said, they were on a visit to the oracular shrine of Ammon, when it chanced that . . .

The phrases pop up with regularity in 19th century English language texts. Walter Scott, for example, tosses the former into Waverly.

Meanwhile, an 1875 book review (see p. 308, herein) instantiates use of both phrases, as the author of the work under review purportedly "took them down verbatim," in compiling the oral tradition and folk tales of the Venetian comari.

Who knows when and how it all started?

Moreover: Who cares? Maybe no one. Other than TiR -- which sometimes blithely congratulates itself on its supposed courage and enlightenment in trying to take a pickaxe and shovel to the foundations underneath the clichés it lives by/atop, only to tap the edge of what seems to be a vast, subterranean complex, on which our feet are planted, of interlocked clichés about or supportive of the first, more superficial clichés.

When we uncover this horror, we usually chicken out and stop digging, but continue to sift shovelfuls of sand back and forth, for a while anyway.

Pointless activity, perhaps (someone will say, because the old biases and blindspots will be exchanged only for new & probably worse ones), but at least it keeps us off the streets.
[Those last eight words: what a cliché!]


The above nonsense = triggered by a passage in a two-year old essay, recently excavated from the bottom of TiR's no-bottom-having reading backlog, about "how growing old shapes aesthetic vision," by Nicholas Delbanco, here, as follows:
This impulse to embroider truth, to "tell a story" or lie for a living seems, year by year, more difficult to manage and childish to sustain. Even that enchanting preamble, "Once upon a time" grows dull, and the postscript, "They lived happily ever after" is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- absurd. . . .

So the failure of illusion is perhaps the most insidious of those enemies of promise we’re considering here: disbelief gets harder to suspend.