Friday, June 8, 2012

Aladdin: Laziness Pays Off?


(You can actually buy this lamp here.)

The problem with Aladdin is that he’s lazy. It kills his father—literally. Then his poor mother has to work herself raw, while he hangs out with friends. And what punishment does the lad get for his indolence?

A magician tries to use him for his own ends. He decides that, however unlikely, the boy will do exactly as he asks and retrieve a miraculous lamp that (the story never says why) the magician can’t get for himself. So he dupes the family and then takes the lad to a cavern where Aladdin does exactly as he’s asked and gets the lamp. Only something goes wrong and the magician leaves him to die in the deep cavern. With the lamp.

How does Aladdin escape? Through hard work? Nope. He accidentally rubs a ring the magician had given him, gets the assistance of an unforeseen genii and gets out, with tons of jewels and a dingy lamp. A couple of days later his mother—not him—cleans the lamp, thereby discovering the more powerful Genii of the Lamp. (Thanks, Mom. I’ll take it from here.)

I won’t go through every twist of this fascinating adventure. Suffice it to say that Aladdin gets everything he wants through the magical work of the Genii: a palace, a princess, a fine if sentimental father-in-law. (Thanks, Genii. I’ll take it from here.) Poor mom gets hardly mentioned again. I suppose she eats at the royal table …

I’m sure you know the story: the magician finds out about the lad’s exceptional good luck and contrives to get the lamp back. Aladdin comes close to death before he can reacquire the lamp, this time through a small output of effort. Mostly he mopes around until, by accident, he rubs that ring he’s been wearing all this time and the lesser genii appears, transporting him to the desert place to which his castle—and princess—have been relocated. Notice he doesn’t even have to journey much here. It’s not a long epic journey through wilderness on little food.

Nor does he have to fight the magician. The only thing he does, in fact, is go to the next town, get some poison, and give it to the princess. She does the hard part: flirts with the magician, mingles the poison with wine, gives him the deadly drink. (Thanks, dear, I’ll take it from here.)

Now Aladdin can emerge literally from the closet where he’s been hiding, steal back the lamp and regain his fortunes.

There’s another episode, but it doesn’t touch on my theme. At the end of the day, that’s about all the effort Aladdin ever exerts: a little courage (sometimes a lot), some military command (not made much of in the story), and some clever stratagems. Oh, and he’s generous with that free money the genii provides. Everybody else does all the heavy lifting.

In modern fiction, we’re taught to expect that main characters will change in some way by the end of the story. Fairy tales don’t always comply with that expectation. Aladdin, the lazy youth, grows into a good-hearted man, we’re told. But I don’t think he much changes. All his wealth and happiness he owes to luck, not industry. He’s not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sort of hero. He wouldn’t have much inspired my immigrant ancestors to raise their station through hard work. He’s lazy, lucky, good-hearted, and a little bit clever. Mostly lucky.

Which raises the question, whether my “hard-working immigrant” ethic is realistic or even true. Maybe what you really need is good looks and some luck. Or maybe the story’s telling me: listen, without a genii on your side, you’ll never get there. I don’t like to believe that. But I’m not na├»ve either: there really are limits to how far hard work will take you. And there really are times when you have to say: It wasn't because I worked harder than anybody else.

So maybe the story’s telling me: find your genii. He’s hiding on your person somewhere—a neglected ring on your finger, a dingy lamp in your pocket. You’ve got him right there, the thing that will lift your fortunes. Feel around for him already, and stop working so hard.


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