From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (20)—Nonfat Yogurt

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
[a] Frozen  RF
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
This episode has its own "backstory," and it is a fascinating tale that includes a down-to-the-wire New York mayoral election in 1993. If you have ever seen the whole episode, though, you will have to agree that Newman and his needs drive the story. The alternating pettiness and sense of justice on the part of the rest of the Seinfeld crew is par for the course. Today's clip (this is all that is readily available on YouTube, without clicking on multiple links or waiting for advertisers) is brief, but Newman is in his element. Let's watch, and then consider a few of the social-behavioral details that makes Seinfeld, well Seinfeld.

From driving grandma to the back of the postal line and being a social-postal butterfly seemingly born with a plastic spoon in his mouth, Newman exudes a peculiar and heartening combination of glee and gratitude. He thought this day would never come. 

Nonfat yogurt. I fat.

It is a transformation that we see before us. The petty little man has grown wings that whisk him to confidence and garrulity. We see him as never before (or since). His change is a little different from George's, when he rises to the challenge of marine biology (sort of). In Newman's case, changing technology has given him the gift of culinary pleasure without guilt. It is utopian in its possibilities, and Newman has been born anew.

[b] Nonfat?  RF
Such wonders cannot last, can they? That is the broad question I wish to examine today. Throughout world literature, there are examples of people stumbling upon rare wonders, only to have them vanish from sight when "things change." We will explore a few of those matters in the readings section, below. 

For now, though, let us think of Newman's transformation and eventual downfall. Is it his own fallibility that destroys the dream? World literature has countless examples. No, in this case there is another narrative strain from tales the world over. Bitter people who cannot enjoy another person's happiness seek to bring him (or her) down. To make a very long story short—and one that is not easily available on YouTube—Jerry and company set out to prove that there is plenty o' fat in them thar dessert cups. Kramer is at the height of social suaveness as Elaine and Jerry get down to the science of testing.

Granted, it is not easy to think of Newman as a particularly sympathetic figure, but we must ask what drives the gang of three companions to have the yogurt tested and to prove that there is no (fat) free lunch...or dessert. Before he knows what will befall him, our temporary hero, Newman, orders another round of strawberry for his friends, but that will be the high point of his brush with confidence and affability. It will all come crashing down in the quiet of a New York laboratory.

The verdict: fat. The party's over. It's midnight and the pumpkin has calories.

This week's readings take a very different—and distinctly literary—turn from the vast majority of Seinfeld Ethnography posts. We will look at several tales from world literature, examining the general theme of "it's too good (or bad) to be true." Some heroes will fall of their own accord; others will be helped. It is for you to decide where Newman (and Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer) fit into the scheme of good and evil...or just confusedly bumbling through life. Remember, as always, that the readings on Seinfeld Ethnography are meant to juxtapose the scene you watched with very different themes. They are not meant to correspond directly to it, and you will notice that this week's readings fly very far afield. 

Think about stories in world literature in which things are good...only to deteriorate (and vice versa). I have so many in mind that the ones below just represent a fragment.

Put your favorites in the Comments section, and let's see if we can build a list.

Bullfinch's Mythology
Melampus was the first mortal endowed with prophetic powers. Before his house there stood an oak tree containing a serpent's nest. The old serpents were killed by the servants, but Melampus took care of the young ones and fed them carefully. One day when he was sleeping under the oak the serpents licked his ears with their tongues. On awaking he was astonished to find that he now understood the language of birds and creeping things. This knowledge enabled him to foretell future events and he became a renowned soothsayer. At one time his enemies took him captive and kept him strictly imprisoned. Melampus in the silence of the night heard the woodworms in the timbers talking together, and found out by what they said that the timbers were nearly eaten through and the roof would soon fall in. He told his captors and demanded to be let out, warning them also. They took his warning, and thus escaped destruction, and rewarded Melampus and held him in high honour.[1]

Irish Folktales
The Lawyer and the Devil
There was this man in it one time and he had three sons and he wanted make something of them but hadn't the money. So he sells himself to the Divil to rise money to school the three boys, and he did. He made one a priest, the other a doctor and the third one was a lawyer. The Divil give him the money to pay for their education. But anyway, at the end of seven years the Divil showed up to claim the old man and his soul and take him down to Hell. He had his three sons there, or one at a time in with him. So when the Divil come the priest began to pray and beg and appeal for sparings for his father, and in the heel of the hunt he got a few years more off the Divil for his father.

When that was up and the Divil come again the doctor was there and he appealed for sparings for his father and got them. And when the Divil come a third time to claim the old fellow the lawyer was there. The lawyer says to the Divil: "You've given the sparing to my father twice already and I know you can't be expected to do it again. But," says he, "as a last request, will you give him sparings while that butt of a candle is there?" The candle was burning on the table. 

The Divil said he would; it was only a butt of a candle and wouldn't be long in it. At that the lawyer picks up the butt of a candle and blows it out and puts it in his pocket. And that was that! The Divil had to keep his bargain and go without the old man, for the lawyer held on to the butt of a candle. Trust the lawyer to beat the Divil.[2]

Lao Tzu (Laozi)
Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing)
If you would have a thing shrink,
You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened,
You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside,
You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it.
This is called subtle discernment:
The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.
The fish must not be allowed to leave the deep;
The instruments of power in a state must not be revealed to anyone.[3]

[1] Thomas Bullfinch, Bullfinch's Mythology (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2004), 181.
[2] Henry Glassie, Irish Folktales (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 116.
[3] D.C. Lau, ed., Tao Te Ching (New York: Penguin Classics, 1963), 41.

Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch's Mythology. New York: Modern Library Classics, 2004.
Glassie, Henry. Irish Folktales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Lau, D.C., ed. Tao Te Ching. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963.

Wednesday, August 17th
Bad Boy
George becomes the "bad boy," and at least one person finds that absolutely irresistible.

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