October 26, 2002
Parmeno's Pig

The ancient legend of Parmeno's Pig may be loosely paraphrased as follows:

Parmeno was a comic actor famous for his mimicry. His best 'turn' was known as 'Parmeno's Pig': he would pretend to be holding a piglet under his cloak and then make squeals and grunts realistic enough to keep a theater audience laughing for half an hour or more.

One day a country boy came to town to challenge Parmeno's supremacy. He came on stage with his cloak bunched up as if there were a piglet inside and went through his own repertoire of porcine grunts and squeals. The audience's reaction: "Very good, but not as good as Parmeno." The country boy opened his cloak and showed that he was holding a real piglet, but the audience still preferred Parmeno.

The story is found in Plutarch's Convivial Questions or Table-Talk (5.1, not on-line), and Aesop's Fables (592, on-line here).

Henry James' short story "The Real Thing" (text here) is built on exactly the same paradox. As I recall the plot (it's been a few years), a painter who specializes in formal portraits of generic military couples finds that a real military couple is all wrong for the parts, and he must dress up common laborers and servants to achieve the proper military effect.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at October 26, 2002 09:41 PM

In a somewhat similar vein, I once read in a LIFE magazine that Ernest Hemingway entered an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, and lost.

Posted by: Christopher Scott on October 27, 2002 12:17 AM

I've been told by management types that "Perception is reality" and have always replied, "No, reality is reality" only to be met with stern glares.
There are consequences to living in a fantasy world and they are akin to navigating a boat with faulty maps. You figure out where the reefs are when you hear the crunch of the hull on them.

Posted by: Mike S on October 27, 2002 12:22 AM

The short story of James' was one I have not read; I am most grateful for that link!

It seems to me that management fantasy (a very real error!) is not quite the same as the issues in the literary exerpts. To pilot a boat, or a company, the bed of the river, and the state of the economy are rather concrete things. I do not think we want an artistic rendition of the riverbed, we want to know where the rocks are.

James' marvelous tale is depicting the professional artist/actor dilemma. The best actor or artist must step away from himself - the most believable depiction of the subject will come when the actor is not himself at all. The empty shell is filled with concise elements which portray the desired role.

One marvelous irony in the tale is that the "Major Monarch"s are also actors playing themselves. But they have completely filled their shells, and can no longer play anything else. Does that make them real? Or just inadequate actors?

Posted by: pinax on October 27, 2002 03:23 PM