A priceless Molbo-story!

The word "molbo", while literally referring to an inhabitant of the Danish village Mols on the western coast of Jutlandia, denotes in the Scandinavian languages (at least in Danish and Norwegian) a very silly and ridiculous person. Hence a Molbo-story describes what happens when the molbos of Mols try to solve problems of greater or lesser difficulty. As one might guess, they invariably fail to solve them... Doubtless most countries and cultures have their molbos. Now, besides the story itself and some philosophical questions to accompany it, we also add an allegorical interpretation of the story which we hope you will find both thought-provoking and amusing.

The headless

Quoted from Molbohistorier—gamle og nye, by Oskar Braaten, Aschehougs utvalgte for barn nr. 11, Oslo 1941

The molbos have a long way to the forest so they must rise early to collect wood. One morning some of them drove to the forest to bring home a tree they had bought. But on the way the one who drove first happened to loose his axe, and when the others saw that, they thought he throwed it away on purpose, so they threw away their axes as well. Now, as they stood in the forest, they had nothing with which to chop, they didn't know what to do at all, and they certainly didn't want to come home empty-handed. Finally one of them had the brilliant idea to pull the tree down; but as they hadn't brought a rope, one of them had to climb the tree and lay his head in the cleavage between two branches—then the others were to pull his legs until the tree yielded. Very well, they pulled and they pulled, and eventually they all fell backwards, including the chap they had been pulling, only he had no head. This they couldn't fathom, they went searching and searching, but no, they didn't find the head, because it was stuck in the tree. Well, that couldn't be helped, now it was time to return home. And so they laid the headless man in the wagon and took him home to his wife and asked if she was sure that her husband had brought his head when he left home this morning.—"I can't remember that right now!", said the wife; but then she thought for a while: "Oh yes, he did bring his head!" she said. "He ate cabbage with it this morning before he left."

A few questions to the story

  1. What motivates my action?
    As the leader-molbo unfortunately looses his axe, the others assume that he is infact discarding it. And because one thinks so, all the others think so too. Is this a reasonable or not so reasonable way to act?
    1. Are there good reasons for always doing the same as what the others do?
    2. Are there good reasons for never doing the same as what the others do?
    3. What reasons are the better?
    4. If you don't want to act the same way as others, what's the alternative: to do what you want/ought to want, what you feel/ought to feel, what you know is right, what God wants?
    5. Is it at all possible to want, feel and know something completely independent of what we think and feel about other people?
  2. What's a good idea?
    We are often prohibited from doing things the way we plan to do them. Then we must resort to alternative solutions: let the molbo's use of the poor chap's head to bring down the tree. In an emergency it is crucial to have good ideas. But what are actually the characteristics of a good idea?
    1. that the original intention is executed at no risk
    2. that the original intention is not only executed at no risk, but also in a smarter and more efficient way than originally envisaged
    3. that it solves problems in a way nobody has thought of before
    4. that it solves problems nobody has thought of before
    5. that it solves problems
    6. that it makes people believe in the idea and engage in it
  3. Premises for inferences
    The molbos pull and haul to the effect that the head is actually detached from the body. They try to find the head, but fail because they take the premise for granted that it must have fallen to the ground as it was released from the body. It doesn't occur to them that the head might have remained in the tree.—Can you find the premise in the following examples? Could it be that some of these premises are wrong or insufficient—or that other possible premises that might have explained the event are omitted?
    1. "Now they're fighting again! Why somebody finds so much pleasure in fighting I fail to see."
    2. "She didn't eat her breakfast today either. No more sweets in the evening!"
    3. "No one works as diligently as she does. I bet she has very strict parents."
    4. "My bike has been broke since he borrowed it. This is the last time he can borrow my bike."
    5. "Have you hurt yourself again! How many times have I told you to be careful?"
    6. "He thinks he is tougher without a wooly hat."
  4. Absurd questions
    The molbos carry the dead body home to the wife and ask her if she can remember her husband bringing hos head in the morning. She pauses (!) before she answers: "Yes, he ate cabbage with it this morning." What would you answer if somebody stopped and asked the following questions:
    1. "Why haven't you got a name, [insert your name]?"
    2. "If I give you ten pounds, how much do I owe you then?"
    3. "How can you be sure that you are awake?"
    4. "Do you think you would be happy if you were happy?"
    5. "Shouldn't you give water to the flowers now, it's been raining for weeks!"
    6. "Do you like me, even though I like you?"
    What makes up the absurd element in these questions? May some of the questions be sensible, funny, provoking etc. all the same? How? May an answer that is sensible, provoking or funny be meaningful although the question that generated the answer is meaningless?

A possible allegorical interpretation of the story

ACTION—in the story
Everybody throw their axes away because one looses his axe. No further explanations.
ACTION—in life
Everybody act just like the boss/the idol/the leader—without bothering the least to reflect upon the reason why, without considering or trying to explain to oneself whether the action is in fact a good idea or not.

PROBLEM—in the story
How to cut down the tree (without axes)?
PROBLEM—in life
How am I going to be myself?
How shall I gain control in my life?

RESOLUTION—in the story
Get the tree down by pulling and hauling.
First I must try to find out what "me" actually is.
Must find out how I wish my life to be.

EXECUTION—in the story
Instead of the usual tool, which in this case is lost, one uses (the physical) head as a barb (instead of "using one's head" in the literal sense!).
In the absence of a free an independent inner life, one tries instead to form an independent outer life: one tries to be somebody!

CONSEQUENCE—in the story
The head falls off. And disappears. Dispair. What do we do now?
Our inner and outer life loose contact with each other. We plunge ourselves into dozens of activities and thereby "loosing" ourselves. Dispair. Now what?

Going home in dispair asking the wife if the husband had his head on when he left. She ought to know!
In desperation more or less severe we ask psychiatrists, astrologers, doctors, economists, maybe also philosophers in due course (they are the "experts", aren't they?), we ask them all: what ever happened with the continuity and the wholeness of our lives.

BOTTOM LINE—in the story
If you ask a silly question, you receive a silly answer: the wife doesn't remember (!) if he wore the head or not.
Ironi: Indeed, he wore it—he ate cabbage with it!
If you ask a silly question, you receive a silly answer: the experts interpret our lives: psychoanalysis, constellations of stars, body and chemistry, the thinking ape etc.
Ironi: we pay more and more to get to know the truth, but always end up feeling more empty!

MORAL—in the story
Go back and have another look. Then you'll surely find both the axes and the head!
MORAL—in life
Go back into yourself—listen to your inner voice—and use your head! The answers cannot come from outside, but can only stem from yourself!

Page created: 28.09.06. Page last modified: 28.09.06 21:45.