An Allegory

By Anonymous

I have been teaching a course on the Allegorical impulse in the arts of the 1970s and 1980s in the US. And oddly enough, and maybe fortuitously, I received the following story from a student. This is what she wrote:

The Cooper Union once had an old well with fresh and clean water.

It was so fresh and clean that some thought they should dig a second well nearby, double the amount of water out of the ground, and maybe even bottle and sell the water.

As predicted, digging the second well disturbed the ground, and caused a crack in the old well. Toxic sludge started to contaminate the old well’s water. It soon turned muddy and smelly.

The second well’s diggers were caught in the act but many were permitted to run away.

They were soon replaced by new well keepers.

Some of the new well keepers had once, long ago, drank the fresh water, and knew how it looked, smelled, and tasted. Others had never tasted it. They’d only read about it in books, and were certainly committed to the idea of fresh water.

The new well keepers spent a long time examining the muddy waters in the old well and then one day they announced:

“Listen people, 76% of this water is still fresh. Only 24% is toxic. And we promise we will clean it up but this will take 10 years. In the meantime, we urge everyone to keep drinking the water, because, as far as we know and as our experts have confirmed, no one has gotten sick yet from 24% sludge. And besides, the regular water that everyone else is drinking is only 70% clean which makes our 76% clean water a really good deal. And if you don’t believe us, just look at the people lining up to drink it. Yes, the lines used to be longer, but still, there are hundreds lined up, and they look like healthy people. This should be proof enough.”

At this point, someone yelled: How will you clean up the water?

They answered: We will dump a lot of detox tablets into the water, so much that the percentage of sludge will gradually be reduced.

Someone else yelled: Will you ever stop the toxic sludge leak?

They answered: No. But we will make sure our supply of detox tablets is very large.

Someone asked: Will the water be fresh again?

They answered: It will look, taste, and smell fresh. Isn’t that the same thing?

Of course, I tried to point out to my student the relative “simplicity” of this allegory, in how it simplifies the complexity of The Cooper Union’s situation. To which she answered:

All allegories are simple and flawed. I am just trying to give you a sense of the bitter taste in my mouth. And how it seems to be altering my taste buds.

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