Jennie Lynn Stanley
Classical Lit. Term Paper
Ending Where We Began — With Laughter
When a story is told, ears perk up. This happens because the story is familiar — the story is relevant. Hearing the story of a six-year-old girl falling and scraping her knee evokes emotion in all listeners because it is a story that everyone knows; every child, at some point, falls and scrapes his or her knee, cries, and dutifully reports to momma that her or she “got a ouchie”. The same story happens over and over, and every listener laughs when they hear it because of how dearly familiar it is. How can any person not help but enjoy hearing the story of his or her own childhood? All stories have been told before, and all stories are riddled with tales familiar to the reader. The Introduction to The Ramayana opens, saying, “This is the story of Rama, a prince of India, who lived his life according to the best advice,” and continues, elaborating, “He lived more than two thousand five hundred years ago but everybody will recognize his experiences,” (Menen 3). Introduced in this manner, it is clear that The Ramayana is a story familiar to all men. The Ramayana, though an ancient, Hindi religious text, shares the plights, struggles, and successes common to all men.
Throughout time, men and women have been facing the same conflicts in life. Though cultures adapt and take new forms, the basic plights, struggles, and successes of mankind remain the same. Rama himself faces these “principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s),” (Steiner 231). Rama’s personal encounters with each of these five conflicts contain the stories of every man’s encounter with these same conflicts. All men and women doubtless encounter the opposite sex, fight with an elder, break the law, think about death, and even question the omniscience of some sort of god or higher power.
The most basic and yet most distinguished conflict in life is that of the confrontation between man and women. According to Steiner, “That which has in it the seed of all drama is the meeting of a man and of a woman. No experience of which we have direct knowledge is more charged with the potential of collision,” (Steiner 234). In The Ramayana, Mantara and the Junior Queen, nurse and mother respectively of the King’s son Barat, plot against King Dasa-ratha when they find out that Prince Rama is to be pronounced heir to the throne. Blackmailing him with the prospects of revealing his long-concealed impotence to the court, the women slyly conspire to exile Rama so that Barat can replace him (Menen 60). Mantara and the Junior Queen confront the King with their female cunning to manipulate him towards their desires. This is the same story that’s been told countless times; it is the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband to commit murder; it is even Nabokov’s Lolita when Lolita implements her coy coquettishness to drag Humbert along at her every whim. Every story is the same. Although Rama’s adventures took place more than two thousand five hundred years ago, his experiences still share the same basic conflicts with every story of today.
Though it may be pleasant to surmise that every human being possesses originality and has experiences that are unique to him alone, the truth is that every man repeats the stories of the past. There is nothing “new” in this world, only that which has been forgotten. According to Plato’s theory of anamnesis, a person already knows everything there is to possibly know, but has somehow forgotten. That which seems original emerges from within the self; however, it is just a recollection or recalling up of that which we already know but have forgotten. Ideas and experiences only seem original and profound because we have allowed them to slip away from our memories.
Having remembered and experienced anew all that which man has temporarily forgotten by encountering the principal constants of conflict, man comes full circle and returns home. At the end of a lifetime, man must inevitably end where he once began. At the end of The Ramayana Rama bids Valmiki farewell and reflects on his many experiences, his many encounters with the principal constants of conflict. Recognizing his struggles as those of all human beings, Rama questions his own reality and says to Valmiki, “I lay awake last night remembering the time we have spent together. I made up my mind to ask you a question. You have shown me how many things are illusion. But in your way of looking at the world, is there anything that you believe is real?” Valmiki replies, “Certainly, Rama. There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third,” (Menen 275-6). Of the three things in life that Valmiki hold to be real, laughter is the only one comprehensible. The only thing man can do to confirm his reality is to laugh. Laughter allows man liberation; laughter symbolizes letting go; laughter is the natural end to comedy and the inevitable end to tragedy. In this way, all stories end in laughter. Despite the pain along the way, the meeting of conflicts, man always returns to laughter as a reconciliation and resolution. Just like the story of the young girl falling and scraping her knee, The Ramayana returns to laughter.
Menen, Aubrey. The Ramayana. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954.
Don't ever forget to laugh. Here's a kitty who's got a pretty cute laugh (that is, if it's not really a yawn).