“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”
— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt
They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either. I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.
In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.
The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.
But when the critic died, he couldn’t get into heaven, because he’d accomplished nothing, not even made a brick. He had to stand outside the pearly gates, looking back over his life, until he could find in it a good deed — or Something. And heaven only granted him that favor (rather than turning him away) because his brother the lowly brickmaker asked.
In a way this story is comforting, because no matter who we are, there is someone out there more famous or accomplished or well-regarded than we are. We would like to believe — I would like to believe — that our Something still matters, in some way, as much as their Something: to God, to friends or family, to society, whatever.
But the story is also a bit unsettling. I’m no genius; whatever my Something is, it’s (hopefully) somewhere on the continuum from brickmaker to architect. Or am I the critic? Am I doing something, or am I just making a lot of noise? Because Andersen’s parable says that the world’s opinion doesn’t necessarily tell you…
In possibly related news, I got a note recently from composer Joshua Keeling, who has written a piece for solo alto saxophone and interactive electroacoustics called Ñamandu. Ñamandu was inspired by the Ayvu Rapta, the mythology of the Mbyá people of South America; in particular “the first section that [I] translated and featured in [my] blog post ‘The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird.‘” He wanted permission to add my translation to the programs notes for Ñamandu.
I didn’t ask whether Keeling already knew about this creation myth, in which the hummingbird plays a key role, and then found my translation; or whether he stumbled upon my translation first and then got inspired. Either way, he and Katherine Weintraub (who commissioned the piece and premiered it at the 2018 World Saxophone Conference) are the artists. León Cadogan did the scholarship and the fieldwork, and of course the Mbyá people created the mythology. But I helped make the connection, and from that connection something beautiful came into being. That counts as Something, doesn’t it? It makes me happy, at any rate.
Featured image: The Bricklayers, Childe Hassam (1905). Source: WikiArt
Bricklayers, Childe Hassam (c. 1900). Source: WikiArt