Tables That Eat Grass and Crows That Fly Upside Down
Updated: May 27, 2022
In the book To Kill a Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism by Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane, I came across this sentence about the political defeat of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977:
More than a few observers reassuringly noted how Indian citizens had set a global example: they had demonstrated that demagogy could be defeated using democratic means, and that the arrogant could be humbled, taught that they couldn't make a table eat grass.
I'm not sure which term to apply to "make a table eat grass," but I'll call it an idiom for now. What on earth did it mean? The arrogant had been taught that they couldn't make a table eat grass; that much was clear, but what did a table eating grass signify? I thought maybe it was an idiom I wasn't familiar with, but Googling did not help. What did we have here? A table with a mind of its own that ate grass so that it would not grow under its legs?
Stymied, I let the problem rest for a few days. Could it be a typo? Perhaps the intended phrase was "make a tiger eat grass"? Was the idiom of Bengali origin (Bengali being Debashish's mother tongue), perhaps from the folklore of the Sunderbans swamps, the home of a tribe of tigers that catch and eat fish and are as comfortable in the water as the crocodile? I decided to try and contact the authors themselves. I first tried Debashish Roy Chowdhury as he, like me, was raised in Calcutta. He is a prominent journalist, but doesn't seem to have a public email address. I then turned to John Keane. He is a well-known political scientist, and to my delight, I found his email address on his website.
His reply to my query arrived within a few hours. He said he had adapted the image from the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, which was the vital clue I needed. With the keyword "Spinoza" included in the search, Googling did the trick. I found the key to the puzzle in Spinoza's Authority Volume II edited by A. Kiarina Kordela and Dimitris Vardoulakis:
Spinoza follows this with an analogy to help explain: while I might “say that I can rightfully do what I will with this table, I do not certainly mean, that I have the right to make it eat grass.” Equally so, authority does not have “the right to make men wish for this or that, or (what is just as impossible) regard with honour things which excite ridicule or disgust” (TP 4.4). If authority, as the agent of power, demands from the multitude, its object, more than it can do, authority breaks its natural right and thereby destroys itself.
This short excerpt does not fully clarify the table-eating-grass image; I had to read the entire page to understand it. But this much is clear: the image of a table eating grass symbolizes an impossible task, a task that violates natural law. It was now clear that the phrase in the excerpt from To Kill a Democracy helps convey this idea: an arrogant government had been taught the lesson that it could make impossible demands of its citizens only at its peril.
I do not understand the source of Spinoza's inspiration for this image; a table eating grass strikes me as an artificial and labored image. But I was reminded of a phrase in Malayalam that conveys the idea of impossibility with a vivid image, that of a crow flying upside down. Adapting it to Spinoza is a bit of a stretch, but here is an admittedly convoluted attempt: I can rightfully expect my neighborhood crows to appear every afternoon when I put out the remnants of my lunch for them on a plate in my yard. But even if I were somehow able to magically communicate with the crows, I certainly could not ask them to fly upside down and expect them to comply.
A crow flying upside down, like a table eating grass, would be a violation of natural law, and natural law is the limit that Spinoza set on political authority.
Good for you, Henry! I suppose a bird flying upside down is only as much a violation of natural law as a human walking backward. I found this on Wikipedia:
Whiffling is a term used in ornithology to describe the behavior whereby a bird rapidly descends with a zig-zagging, side-slipping motion. Sometimes to whiffle, a bird flies briefly with its body turned upside down but with its neck and head twisted 180 degrees around in a normal position.
Whiffling. That's a new word learned.
I've also learned that impossibilities are hard to find in the natural world. Crows that fly upside down, tigers that catch and eat fish, owls that live in underground burrows all sound impossible — but they are not. I think I now see why Spinoza resorted to the unnatural image of a table eating grass. It will stand the test of time—until someone comes up with a table that can double up as a lawn mower.
Thank you for the lessons learned, Henry: my owl Friday, my research assistant, my buddy.