Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Monkeys in prose and proverb

Two things on my mind this morning... The other day, I was wondering where the saying "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" - with the associated monkey image - came from. And then last night, the story of "The Monkey's Paw" popped into my head and I wanted to revisit that. Together, the two make a suitable theme for today's post, illustrated with a print by American artist Scott Gustafson.

First, the visual maxim known as the three wise monkeys. A similar saying attributed to Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 B.C.E.-479 B.C.E.) - "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety" - probably reached Japan in the 8th c. and was popularized after a depiction was carved over the door of a Shinto shrine. The association with monkeys was due to a play on words in the Japanese language, and the group sometimes includes a 4th: "Do no evil." The basic meaning of being of good mind, speech, and action is reinterpreted in the West to refer to those who look the other way instead of acknowledging impropriety.

You may remember the story of "The Monkey's Paw," published English author W.W. Jacobs (1863-1943) in 1902 and spawning many adaptations on stage and screen. A quote contains the moral and may jog your memory:
"To look at...it's just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.... It had a spell put on it by an old fakir...a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."
If not, rather than offering a spoiler, I invite you to read the original here, the 1st story in the volume The Lady of the Barge, or watch the 1965 television retelling by English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

Be careful what you wish for, as they have said - often on TV - ever since.

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