Saucers of Mud

March 31, 2008

Long Spoons

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 8:26 am

Quixote at Shakesville makes an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of before — really it should be the candidate who isn’t black addressing racism, and the candidate who isn’t a woman addressing sexism. That would be much more effective than the other way around. At least they should both do both.

But I’m going to pick on his/her opening anecdote:

Barbara Kingsolver in Pigs in Heaven tells a Mayan story about hell and heaven that summarizes what bothers me about the talk of racism and sexism running through this political season.

A group of people sits around a large bowl of soup, but they can’t eat it. The only spoons they can use are magical ones with immensely long handles that can’t be touched anywhere except at the very end. The people try every possible contortion to empty the soup into their mouths, but the handles are just too long. All they accomplish is to spill soup everywhere and slowly starve to death, tantalized by the aroma.

There is also another group of people with the same bowl and the same spoons. But these people are well fed and happy. They’re not even trying to feed themselves. They use the long-handled spoons to feed each other.

OK, I like Kingsolver, but no way is this a Mayan story. Everyone and their uncle uses it. (Here’s one for a rabbi, one from an ancient Zen scroll, one from a mosque though they don’t claim it as of Islamic origin, one involving a “holy man” and ending with Jesus, the exact same story without the concluding line about Jesus, and lots of Christian ones.)

I always thought this was from C. S. Lewis. (More specifically, one of my friends in high school told me the story and said it was from C. S. Lewis, as I remember.) But a bit of googling for “C S Lewis” + spoons yields nothing. It does seem pretty Christian or possibly Muslim to me, though, what with the emphasis on heaven and hell; on the other hand, the essential message seems pretty modern so maybe it came from some other tradition.

Anyway: Where does this story come from?



  1. Some versions have chopsticks. Googling “chopsticks” and “feed” gives you another set of references. One, in the Expository Times, a Christian magazine, is from 1975. So maybe a Japanese source. (Some of the sites are Buddhist.)

    Comment by Matt's mom — March 31, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  2. I looked at the candidates’ websites. Obama’s “Blueprint for America” talks about women’s issues, and Clinton’s talks about civil rights issues (under “Strengthening Our Democracy.” Neither in the stirring “national conversation” way, though Obama’s is closer–that is, more anecdotal–he speaks of his single mother. And now it occurs to me: what I called “anecdotal” is in a way what Isocrates considered the argument from the character of the advocate. In other words you could talk about the issue of Obama’s or Clinton’s strongest argument being “I Am the Change” on your other blog.

    Comment by Matt's mom — March 31, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  3. Somehow I find the Expository Times reference to free adaptation from a Korean legend reasonably convincing as the original source. But I’m no philologist of this stuff. (It also shows up in a book called Zen Seeds by Shundo Aoyama — it’d be interesting to see if that also came from a Korean legend, or maybe she picked it up from the Expository Times.)

    Comment by matt w — April 1, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

  4. This fable was made up by a newspaper columnist in the Midwest and then falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut.

    Comment by Ben — April 1, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  5. The spoons question is a good one. Google book search finds many retellings of the story (none with a proper citation, of course), the earliest I can find being Faith and Freedom by Russell James Clinchy, published 1947, which attributes the story to “Jewish tradition”. Note that Clinchy’s version of the story has diners with long arms, rather than the long spoons, forks, or chopsticks of more recent retellings.

    Comment by Gdr — May 13, 2008 @ 9:22 am

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