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disse ca era capu mulinaru
[When the flea found itself in the flour / it said it was the master miller]
(Salento proverb known all over Puglia in slightly differing versions) by Alberto Sobrero
Bruno Maggio. China
A scene in two verses: immediate. The flea finds itself in a heap of flour, looks around in surprise and joy and at once decides to proclaim itself master miller.
The Apulian farmer – or errand boy or housewife – who repeated this proverb at home – perhaps when talking to their children, or at the tavern or at work, knew that their listeners would translate the images of this scene into a narrative straightaway. More or less like this: even the smallest and most insignificant of creatures, if they find themselves for some reason in the midst of wealth, will often get swollen-headed, puffed-up with false pride and give themselves merit where none is deserved, thus exposing themselves to ridicule. From a little scene to a narrative, and from the narrative to a rule of life: you must never become big-headed, even when things are going well. Everyone must contain themselves within the limits that Nature or God has allotted them.
That is how the “moral” proverbs worked: they represented, by means of an entertaining or attractive metaphor, usually taken from the animal kingdom, the vices and virtues of men. In the world of proverbs, this representation immediately sparked off a moral lesson, which would then be passed down from mother or father to their children and then down to the grandchildren, and so on. It’s an age-old technique, and has always been employed not only in proverbs but also in children’s fables (the fox and the grapes, the wolf and the lamb, the ox and the frog…) with the same aim every time: to maintain and reproduce, down through the generations, the system of rules that governs society and is believed to be the best possible system.
In this way the proverbs make use of a limited cast of characters because they can count on the fact that our behaviour is repetitive. We think that people change with the generations, and we laugh at our parents and our grandparents because we think we are different, more modern, or better. However, our behaviour patterns don’t change, and never have: the braggart, the miser, the dunce, the corrupt and the corrupter, the quick-tempered, the laid-back… they are recurrent human types in the theatre, and have been, as far as we know, ever since Ancient Greece, if not earlier. Even the human character who works behind the scenes in our proverb is an eternal type.
There are always human fleas that get into the flour and appoint themselves commander-in-chief, giving themselves airs and graces while not noticing that others continue to see them for what they are, tiny, insignificant fleas covered in flour. In fact, there are more of them than there used to be, because wealth has become the main aim in life, and there are many who think it ennobles and raises them automatically in the eyes of others. This is not the case, however, and the world has become filled up in the meantime with flea-men and -women who are covered in a coating of flour but remain extremely tiny.
Perhaps proverbs have gone out of vogue, but the reality they describe is the same as ever. It presents itself in different attire, but it’s the same underneath. And we have no reason to think it will change within the next few thousand years.