Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Penguin no. 1928: The Fig Tree
by Aubrey Menen

He felt that it was only by some irony of fate that his schoolteachers and professors were living in this Christian - or post-Christian - world. They would have been so much more at home among the Greeks. Some of them, as he knew, felt this so strongly that they spent their whole lives in classical studies, barely troubling about the rest of the world or the remainder of history. Their calm assurance that the Greeks invented all that was worthwhile was thus fortunately undisturbed by the successive discoveries that the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Sumerians, the Indians of the Five Rivers, and the Chaldeans had, in fact, invented nearly all of the things centuries before.

Harry Wesley had always wanted to save people and so he decided to become a scientist. He had been taught as a child that humanity was doomed: it was certain to die out either through war or starvation, the latter an inevitable consequence of the world's population growing at a faster rate than the food supply. With no hope of preventing war, he dreamt instead of preventing the alternative catastrophe by discovering an effective contraceptive. The real focus of this dream, though, was the acclaim which he felt would certainly be his when he succeeded. He hoped for statues erected in his honour.

In time he decided to attack the problem from the other direction, by studying biology and seeking to increase the food supply. He was to find, however, that success brought no statues; he received instead a Nobel prize at the age of 32 and all that brought was the resentment of his colleagues.

Harry Wesley had discovered a compound which, when injected into plants and trees, stimulated the fruit to grow to a substantial size while still retaining its flavour. He took his compound to Italy where it suited the government to make a show of doing something for the peasants, but while those in charge were keen for quick results, they were less enthusiastic about providing any funding, and so Harry opted to trial his compound on a lone fig tree, doubling the usual dose. His experimental fruit grew to an enormous size, and the trial seemed a success, but the real test would be in the eating, and this revealed that he had created something beyond his expectations.

Harry Wesley was an innocent; in his dedication to science he had led a sexless life. His American next door neighbour Joe was similarly inexperienced, having sated any longing for sensual pleasure through gluttony. These two men were completely unprepared for what was to befall them through sampling Harry's giant figs, for he had unknowingly created a potent aphrodisiac. Their nights were henceforth to be disrupted by licentious dreams, their days by libidinous thoughts. They lost all interest in their former pursuits and found themselves unable to resist temptation as these two, who had never had any success with women, could now seduce them with ease. But while this brought some pleasure, it also brought torment, for they now experienced jealousy and competitiveness, and guilt induced by the constant awareness of deception and sin. They perceived their problem as a moral one, and set off together in search of a solution.

The Fig Tree is acerbic in tone and pessimistic in outlook. It is written in the plainest prose, so that it reads almost like a story written for a child. It seemed to be a satire on Western Civilisation, at least in an Italian context, in that it concerns the two historical pillars of the Catholic Church and Science, while being critical of the reverence for Greek thought. He has many targets, but there is a particular focus on the self regard and vanity of those who would cast themselves as saviours of their fellow men, whether in this life or the next. He notes their enthusiasm for building monuments to themselves, their rivalry, their willingness to take the credit for other's work, and their tendency to be absolutely certain while completely wrong. And he repeatedly alludes to the corruption, inefficiency and superstition inherent in Italian life.

I found it interesting, but unsatisfactory. It is amusing in parts, but the story seemed rather weak, and an inadequate scaffold for the ideas being discussed.




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