As in the fairy tale about Clever Elsie, we have been called upon to bemoan a tragedy that has not yet taken place.
Fairy tales have a way of surreptitiously explaining much of what is dark and frightening in our world. Our skeptical nature has lent them the connotation of falsehoods, wishful and illusory, but something deeper than incredulity won’t allow us to forget that the remedy to a curse may be a hundred years’ sleep and that something vicious and toothy may be lying expectantly in our granny’s bed. During the recent panic provoked by the announcement of the (all too real) world economic crisis, there stirred in the back of my mind the vague memory of a Grimm’s fairy tale called “Clever Elsie,” read far away and long ago. I looked it up to see why it was nudging its way to the foreground.
“Clever Elsie” tells the story of a girl promised to be married if she proves to be not only clever but also careful. During the meal to which her parents have invited Hans, her husband-to-be, Elsie goes down into the cellar to draw some beer. She notices a pickaxe stuck in the ceiling beam just above her head and thinks: “If I marry and have a child, and it grows up, and I send him into the cellar to draw beer, that pickaxe might fall on his head and kill him!” Panic-stricken, Elsie bursts into tears. In the meantime, her parents, worried that Elsie is taking so long to return to the table, send the maid down to see what has happened. Elsie tells the maid about her fears and the maid joins her mistress in the weeping and wailing. A servant boy is then sent down to inquire about the maid, the mother follows the boy, the father follows the mother, and they all lament most pitifully the fate of the son who might one day be born. Finally, Hans joins the family in the cellar and announces that Elsie is indeed “clever and careful,” and the marriage is arranged. The question of the beer is entirely forgotten.
We too have been called into the cellar to bear witness to something imminent and to bemoan a tragedy that has not yet taken place—instead of, for instance, removing the pickaxe that seems to threaten the life of a nonexistent child. There is a difference between grave concern about the state of things caused by a corrupt and greedy economic system, and the imposed sense of impending doom for which no one is held criminally responsible. Terrible things have indeed happened. Around the world, countless people have lost their jobs, their homes, their sustenance in this crisis. But these things have occurred not because of a pickaxe that might one day fall, but because of the deeds of a number of immoral men and women, and because of the panic created by irresponsible politicians and journalists.
The panic has proven, for some (including those guilty of causing the crisis), extremely useful. Thanks to the growing fear, companies with huge profits have been able to fire their employees, banks with gargantuan capital to foreclose mortgages, factories led by millionaires to shut down branches, and governments that normally allow minuscule budgets for education, health and housing, to pour vast sums into the corrupt financial system. Fear is an excellent instrument of power, as we are told in another fairy tale, “The Youth Who Couldn’t Shiver or Shake”: it allows our leaders to take measures that would never be allowed to pass in more serene times.
“Why did no economist foresee this disaster?” is the question most ordinary people ask. The truth laid out by political economists has always seemed to me (a believer in the truth of fiction) a fictional truth; that is to say, a forceful proclamation of wishful thinking meant to encourage stock-market gambling. The motto of political economists is I believe because it’s impossible; that of fiction readers, I believe because it’s true. I marvel at the faith of those who, like readers of tea leaves in a cup, scrutinize the strip of numbers running below the TV announcer and make out in it our future. I prefer to follow the avatars of Hansel and Gretel (a warning to indiscriminate consumers) and Clever Elsie, and to see in them our present. Not one but innumerable pickaxes loom on the beam above our head, and we have options other than panic.
But what will happen if, like Elsie, we persist in this so-called cleverness? What will happen to us, responsible citizens, if we give up on sane reflection and allow ourselves to be drawn into a mind-washing state of panic, no longer able to act as individuals? The fairy tale offers a cautionary ending. After marrying Elsie, Hans sends her into the field to work. But Clever Elsie decides first to eat and then to nap, so that when her husband goes to fetch her, he finds her fast asleep amidst the uncut corn. To punish her, he covers her with a bird-net decked with little bells, and leaves her to her slumbers. Elsie wakes, sees that it has grown dark, hears the bells tinkling and begins to wonder whether she is really herself. Bewildered, she returns to her house and knocks on the window. “Is Elsie home?” she calls out. “Yes,” answers her ruthless husband. “She is in.” Then a great panic comes over Elsie. “O dear, so I am not I,” she cries, and runs away, far beyond her village. And no one has seen her since.