Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable, “The Poor Thing,” begins:
There was a man in the islands who fished for his bare bellyful and took his life in his hands to go forth upon the sea between four planks. But though he had much ado, he was merry of heart; and the gulls heard him laugh when the spray met him. And though he had little lore, he was sound of spirit; and when the fish came to his hook in the mid-waters, he blessed God without weighing. But he was bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly of countenance, and he had no wife.
A spirit visits him and the man asks him his name and his business, to which the spirit replies: “My name, is not yet named, and my nature not yet sure...and I wait until you have a wife, and then shall I be in your son, and a brave part of him, rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf...where the ring closes and the blows are going.”
“This is a marvellous thing to hear,” said the man; “and if you are indeed to be my son, I fear it will go ill with you; for I am bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly in face, and I shall never get me a wife if I live to the age of eagles.”
But the spirit, who is also called The Poor Thing, promises to remedy this. He convinces the man to follow him to a deadcairn and incites the man to ask the ancestors to “give you the virtue they withheld.”
And so he does, but the spirits of the dead are not pleased: “But what virtue have we? what power? or what jewel here in the dust with us, that any living man should covet or receive it? for we are less than nothing. But we tell you one thing, speaking with many voices like bees, ...[go] forth into life and fear not, for so did we all in the ancient ages.”
“Now,” said the Poor Thing, “they have told you a lesson, but make them give you a gift. Stoop your hand among the bones without drawback, and you shall find their treasure.”
So the man stooped his hand, and the dead laid hold upon it many and faint like ants; but he shook them off, and behold, what he brought up in his hand was the shoe of a horse, and it was rusty.
“It is a thing of no price,” quoth the man, “for it is rusty.”
“We shall see that,” said the Poor Thing; ‘for in my thought it is a good thing to do what our fathers did, and to keep what they kept without question. And in my thought one thing is as good as another in this world; and a shoe of a horse will do.”
The man sets out to find a wife. The Poor Thing accompanies him to find the woman who will be his mother. This woman is the Earl’s daughter. She asks him why he carries a rusty horseshoe that he claims has no value. She reasons that if he carries it, it must have value and, therefore, she want to buy it. She finds it hard to believe he will not sell it.
“Come...sell me this for I am sure it is a thing of price.”
“Nay,” said the man, “the thing is not for sale.”
“What!” cried the Earl’s daughter “Then what make you here in the town’s market, with the thing in your reel and nought beside?”
“I sit here,” says the man, “to get me a wife.”
“There is no sense in any of these answers,” thought the Earl’s daughter; “and I could find it in my heart to weep.”
The Earl enters; the conversation goes back and forth. Father and daughter, perplexed that the man will not sell the rusty horseshoe, wonder at his insistence to marry the woman. The man persists, repeating, “one thing is as good as another in this world.” He convinces the Earl, but the woman, who has turned away many suitors, is not swayed because he is so bitter ugly.
“Bitter ugly am I,” said the man, “and you as fair as May. Bitter ugly I am, and what of that? It was so my fathers—“
“In the name of God,” said the Earl’s daughter, “let your father be!”
“If I had done that,” said the man, “you had never been chaffering with me here in the market not your father the Earl watching with the end of his eye.”
“But come,” quoth the Earl’s daughter, “and tell me why I should marry.”
“Listen and look,” said the man.
Now the wind blew through the Poor Thing like an infant crying, so that her heart was melted; and her eyes were unsealed, and she was aware of the thing as it were a babe unmothered, and she took it to her arms, and it melted in her arms like the air.
“Come,” said the man, “behold a vision of our children, the busy hearth, and the white heads. And let that suffice, for it is all God offers.”
“I have no delight in it,” said she; but with that she sighed.
“And what shall we do with the horseshoe?” quoth she.
“I will give it to your father,” said the man; ‘and he make a kirk and a mill of it for me.”
It came to pass in time that the Poor Thing was born; but memory of these matters slept within him, and he knew not that which he had done. But he was a part of the eldest son’ rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf, skilful to direct the helm, and a man of might where the ring closes and the blows are going.
So ends the fable. A friend gave me this story because she knows I admire Robert Louis Stevenson. “The Poor Thing” came as part of a larger treasure. It appears in Zen in English Literature by R.H. Blyth, a book she has owned since 1959. Inside the front cover is a small red and black sticker with a chop and the words, Imported by Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland VT. Its absolute value would be the same in a volume of Stevenson’s short stories, but I would read it differently.
Is the “poor thing” the object, the rusty horseshoe or the spirit residing in the ancestor who becomes the son? Is it both? Blyth addresses the object: “the absolute value of everything; all things have equal value, for all have infinite value. If you like this kind of mystical truth and can swallow it easily, well and good. If not, it does not matter, because it is only ordinary common sense. The value of a thing is in its use, as Robinson Crusoe found out with regard to the pieces-of-gold on his desert island. It’s no good playing the cello to a thirsty man...You may protest that things differ at least in their potential value; a drawing by Claude is not equal in value to a grain of sand. It may well be so. The financial, the artistic, the moral values may differ: the point is that the absolute value is the same. If you see infinity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower where is the necessity for anything else? Everything depends on the mind of man:
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. So when the man was asked what was the use of his rusty horse-shoe, he answered, “It is of no use.”
Okay, everything depends on the mind. But perhaps the mind of someone born poor (someone we might call a “poor thing” because of his or her spirit) is more elastic. That is, a poor person sees more readily that one thing is as good as another. Eating, staying warm, sleeping in a bed, that’s what life boils down to. Everything may depend on the mind but the body, especially the body of a poor child, gauges the absolute value of the object in terms of survival. That often translates to use.
Louis Armstrong was born poor. He told and retold the story of his early life in New Orleans in his writings, in interviews, on his tapes. He made the hardships palpable and entertaining. He thrived scrounging, training that equipped him to live on the road, deal with all sorts of people, and set his boundaries. Armstrong knew how to work the streets. He had a bit of the Artful Dodger in him.
Born poor does not open the gate to Zen. But born poor creates opportunity for individual of strong character, Armstrong’s forte. Humanity favors the bootstrap puller over the trustafarian. Born rich is blockade, the gate to Zen is not in sight. Perhaps divest thyself is the only path, as in Buddha.
Louis told the same story over and over in his writings. As he grew older, his words and intonation shifted, became more pointed. As did his view of the world. All of his writings are candid, but his last account (1969-1970) is both frank and sly. Reading the excerpt Thomas Brothers includes in Louis Armstrong in His Own Words on the Jewish Family in New Orleans after reading Satchmo My Life in New Orleans (first published 1954) makes the latter sound almost prosaic. Every version is worth reading over and over. It is a trip to the grandparents where you hear the tale of the winter of whatever and the last time the steam engine was turned around in the round house. You hear these stories not twice in five days but ten times, boring when you are young, affirming when you’re old.
The Karnofskys (The Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA) play a large role in Louis’s young life and later in his storytelling. The exact chronology is hard to figure. Brothers makes a solid case for Louis beginning to work for this family in 1907 rag picking and then returning later, 1915, when he works the coal cart with Morris (the father).
“Morris had the coal route in the Red Light District. We used the term—Stone Coal, but I think you will understand better when we say —Hard Coal, which the young white prostitutes used in their Cribs ′one room, to keep warm. They would keep the fire burning in their Grates, by throwing a couple of pieces of hard coal on and dim it down to a mellow burn, so they could stand at the doors of their cribs and work and work, in their Silk Teddies (underwear—Lingerie), calling in the Tricks, as they were called in those days. “Stone coal Lady′ a Nickel a Water Bucket” (coming Morris + I on the little wagon, Morris on One side of the wagon and me on the other). I only could get a quick peep at the girls while they were standing there at the door almost naked.”
Stone coal, like the rusted horseshoe, is a poor thing; its absolute value is equal to that of every other thing, “for all have infinite value.” In Armstrong’s story, stone coal has use value and he makes much of its heat. Heat here is a particular kind of warmth; it can be controlled, dimmed down and has a color that throws off a “mellow burn.” It changes the light in the crib and the allure of the prostitutes calling in tricks.
Stone coal converts energy. This is true as well of the rusty horseshoe. “The Poor Thing” ends with the man giving the poor thing to the Earl. He makes it into a kirk and a mill that the man uses. Blyth does not mention this. The meaning of poor thing is unsettled if left at the first step—one thing is as good as another in this world. The rusty horseshoe is an object until the end of the story. But it does not survive as an object, something that might have another life in a museum. For Stevenson, Scots that he was, the rusty horseshoe converts into energy providing buildings in his new life with a wife and a son. The spirit that comes through the son is another part of the poor thing, a coupling of object, use and energy. All with the same absolute value. What remains in revered objects, used but no longer tethered to use? The poor thing gains patina, becomes radiant, burnished through use.
Driving home from Florida last week I stopped to see my friend who lives in Richmond. I had not seen her for two years. This visit she gave me her own poor thing, her grandmother’s meal chest scoop, which she linked long ago to Stevenson’s story.
Here it stands in the snow, but only for a moment. I returned it to its new home on my shelf.