Poverty As A Parable

For reasons that may as well remain obscure, Lunghu was recently reading a slapdash historical survey of seventeenth-century Europe.  Amid stories of court intrigues, dynastic struggles, religious wars and outsized egotism, an allegorial folk tale appeared:

One day long ago, two travelers appeared in front of Poverty’s miserable hovel in the countryside.  Custom of the age required that he provide his visitors with hospitality and refreshment, so from his threadbare larder Poverty scraped together a scanty meal of bread, cheese, fruit and a little wine.  The travelers accepted gratefully, and soon completed their repast.


When they had finished eating, the two guests apologized to their host, explaining that they had no money to pay for the meal, but would grant any favor he might ask.  Little suspecting that his lunch companions were actually Saints Peter and Paul in disguise, Poverty modestly asked that anyone climbing his pear tree should be obliged to remain there so long as he, the owner, pleased.  This wish was granted, and the travelers proceeded on their way.

Not long thereafter, Poverty was able to catch some of his dishonest neighbors trapped among the limbs of the pear tree, but he released each of them with a warning to sin no more.  (Although none admitted his attempted theft, word quickly got around the neighborhood.)

At last Death appeared in person, intent on carrying Poverty to the grave.  The quick-witted peasant promised to come quietly … if only he was permitted to taste one last sweet fruit from the highest bough of the pear tree.  Death obligingly climbed to the top of the tree to pick the desired morsel, only to find that he was unable to descend.  With time a-wasting and millions more souls yet to be carried to their Maker, Death was forced to strike a bargain:  if released from the tree, he would not come again for his captor until Judgement Day.

Thus it is that Poverty will be among us until the end.

In its original formulation, this parable no doubt assisted the higher orders in rationalizing their thoroughly systematic exploitation of the lowly peasant, thus permitting noble, clergy and bourgeois to salve their consciences with the consolation that inequality and suffering has always been divinely ordained.  Modern folk have more or less dispensed with the need for any celestial explanation for poverty: they prefer rationalization to have a pseudo-scientific basis –in which the poor are poor because of their own deficiencies, genetic or otherwise.  But Lunghu isn’t sharing this story merely to observe that “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”  Nope, he’s announcing that he’s hungry, and that a succulent, ripe pear sure sounds delicious right about now.  Fortunately, there are no pear trees in the neighborhood, and in any case it’s much too early in the season.  A grocery pear will have to suffice.

In ancient China, peaches were the fruits that promised immortality.   In France, apparently, it’s pears.  As far as Lunghu is concerned, dou ke yi –both are good.



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