Foundling Theory Fund: Buridan's Ass

Francine DuBois

Issue 5 * Spring 2001

The theory often referred to as "Buridan's ass" states that, when given the option of two equally wonderful piles of hay, the ass will starve to death because it cannot choose. This concept was first discussed in writing by Aristotle, but has been in existence long before it was documented in writing. However, it has unfortunately seemed to slip from use. Part of that burden can be placed on Sigmund Freud's head for his work with the instinct of life, that is, living beings innately strive to live. Buridan's ass suggests that this instinct can be overridden by stupidity and/or passivity.

The passing of Buridan's ass theory is a tragic shame, primarily because this theory is the best possible way to understand most romance novels, especially those of Brenda Honnefleur. The heroine in each novel is torn between two equally suitable mates and often resigns herself to life alone instead of selecting one. Most of the novel is her interior monologues as she debates the merits of each suitor, sometimes in graphic sexual detail, and sometimes in merely mundane ponderings, as in this passage from The Hunters Have Lonely Hearts:

Mitch or Todd? Both were handsome, wealthy, and had a passion for her that burned with the fury of a sexually-transmitted disease. Oh, how could she possibly choose? The only difference between them was that Todd was allergic to cats, but Mitch was allergic to dogs. She didn't have a pet, but she might want one someday. Would she want a dog or a cat? Her head felt suddenly heavy, and she retreated to her bedroom with a slice of cheesecake, four aspirin, and the latest copy of Women's World (67).

In The Hunters Have Lonely Hearts, protagonist Rhiannon is unable to select a mate, but Mitch and Todd kill each other in a shooting outside a bar. She determines that the fight was over her and vows never to love again. She emotionally starves to death: she commits suicide ten days later.

Pulp novels often have an element of Buridan's ass in them as well. Former New York policeman Kenneth Foreman's detective, Joshua Rose, often loses "dames" because of his inaction. In his first novel, A Taste of Midnight, Foreman sets forth the formula from which he has never strayed:

Sure, Isabella had the sweetest pair of lips he'd ever met, but Danielle could dance. Boy, could she dance. When she shimmied, his lips got all moist and he suddenly became aware that his hand was in his pocket-- and not jingling some loose change. Isabella was a man's dame though, the kind of broad you could take to the movies and know she wouldn't leave your side the whole night. She was a yes-woman, but the way Danielle said no was just as irresistable (35).

In the end, he wins neither one. His pursuit of the Brooklyn Brassiere Biter consumes his time and, on his deathbed, he calls neither one--he just can't decide which lady he wants with him.

Buriden's ass theory can be applied to more than just relationships. Douglas Coupland's novel Paradise by the Refrigerator Light concerns Ellie McDaniel, a graphic design student and poet who cannot decide whether to major in art or English. Instead of pursuing a double major, she simply drops out of school, smokes tons of marijuana, and eats tremendous amounts of microwavable tater tots. Kenneth Koch's short story "Bartleby the Administrative Assistant" details how Melville's infamous scrivener, transplated into a miscellaneous dot-com company, prefers not to complete either important assignment when faced with two projects, thus accomplishing nothing and bringing about the death of his employment.

One particular movement that subscribed heavily to this theory is the Theatre of the Absurd. Eugene Ionesco's play A or B features a horse who cannot choose which stack of hay to eat from and thus dies. It is rarely performed due to the difficulties in stage make-up. When it is put on, primarily by the Southern California Assplayers (whose name derives from the theory) during Absurd Days, it is followed by Samuel Beckett's oft-neglected Pawns. Furthering his chess theme, Beckett here depicts the interior struggles of an unconfident chess player who refuses to move any piece in fear of losing. The infamous coin-flipping scene of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildernstern Are Dead is another fan favorite.

The phenomenon of Buridan's ass can also be found in the "great American literary canon," but it is quite rare. Part of the reason for this is that most classic literature does not concern those who are too dumb to eat when food is in front of them. Also, talented authors also rarely have two characters that can serve as exact duplicates. Yet, as Copeland and Koch have shown, some works sold outside grocery stores still can benefit from a close look at the phenomenon of Buriden's ass.

Here are some of the projects our Foundling Theory Fund Scholarship recipients are completing:

"Two Roads Diverged in a Wood, and I Just Sat There: Indecision and Stagnancy in the Poems of Robert Frost"
by Thomas Poddany

"Buridan's Ass at the Buffet: Musings from the Salad Bar"
by Scott Maltese

"Stronger than Death: The Power of Pondering from Aristotle to Descartes"
by Gerald Bradley

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Pawns. Thompson and Jeffries, 29-175.

Coupland, Douglas. Paradise by the Refrigerator Light. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Foreman, Kenneth. A Taste of Midnight. New York: Scribners, 1983.

Honnefleur, Brenda. Hunters Have Lonely Hearts. New York: Harlequin, 1993.

Ionesco, Eugene. A or B. Thompson and Jeffries, 195-226.

Koch, Kenneth. "Bartleby the Administrative Assistant." Hotel Lambosa and Other Stories. USA: Coffeehouse P, 1993. 64-78.

Thompson, Frank and Ivor Jeffries. What's Absurd is That These Aren't Published: The Best Plays You've Never Read by Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, and Other Absurdists. London: Oxford U P, 1970.