A man came to Buddha with a problem that the Buddha admitted he couldn’t solve, so—thinking it was just that problem—the man presented another problem. The Buddha replied, “I can’t help with that one either,” but, being convinced by all he heard of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he presented another problem and another and another.
When the Buddha solved nothing, the man asked, “How can you help me if you can’t solve any of my problems?”
The Buddha replied, “Problems plague every life. If you have 83 problems, one will disappear and another will replace it. I can’t help you with that.”
Exasperated, the man asked, “Why do people call you enlightened then?”
He replied, “I can help you with the 84th problem.”
“What’s that?” the man asked.
“That you want to escape your 83 problems.”
Parables sometimes swing on a single hinge. Accept one transposition, they snap shut. Sometimes they’re perverse, promising more than they deliver, a trap that may have sprung… or only crept until it closed.
Every day, a pedestrian left his empty coffee cup on the ledge of bricks in front of a shop window. Before the worker who opened the shop entered for his shift, he retrieved the cup and threw it away. But one day, annoyed at having to clean up a stranger’s mess, he came early and lay in wait, sitting on a stool at the counter watching to see who left it. On that day, no cup appeared. So he tried again, and again no cup appeared. Whenever he arrived early, no cup appeared. Then he hid with the lights off, hoping he might lull the pedestrian into leaving the cup, but that didn’t work either.
It wasn’t long before he began to wonder what had happened to the pedestrian. The string of early mornings exhausted the worker, but he still arrived early and began standing outside before the shop opened, eying pedestrians carrying cups and studying them to determine if this or that person was the pedestrian he sought.
Some weeks later, he decided to give up—but not without regret. He’d failed in his mission after all, and the mystery remained unsolved in a most unsatisfactory way. Though he stayed in bed longer the next morning and tried to enjoy the extra time, he dozed restlessly and arrived at work crankier and later than he meant to.
As he approached work, his eyes focused on shop windows facing the sidewalk. That time of year they reflected the sun, offering a perfect face of golden light. Looking ahead, however, he noticed—the pattern was complete everywhere but where he worked. An empty coffee cup sat on the ledge of bricks in front of the window. He collected it before unlocking the door and stepping inside.
I’m often unsure where I’m going and hope the next step lands on solid ground. I do look ahead, not exactly at inspiration but desiring signs I’m on a real path. Any certainty is satisfactory. You wish for company. You desire ends.
Once I said I’d substitute for a colleague, and he wanted me to teach Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” I pretended to know the story well but hadn’t read it in years. Reviewing the night before class left me baffled and scared.
If you don’t know the story, an “explorer” arrives on a fact-finding mission about an elaborate torture/execution machine that etches a prisoner’s sentence onto his skin and then allows the prisoner to die from the wound. The process takes a day, and, the sufferer experiences revelation in the final hours of pain. The story lovingly describes the device with a cold eye toward its victims. Meanwhile, the officer maintaining the device begs the explorer to argue on the machine’s behalf to the commandant. The explorer will make no such assurance, so the officer puts himself into the device with the sentence, “Be just.” However, the machine is in poor repair and stabs him to death without the attendant epiphany.
The tale is as strange as it sounds, and, though I like to think brilliant authors always know their way, it occurred to me that Kafka might mean nothing other than drawing and quartering readers with contradictory horrors or by disrupting certainties about the story’s implications.
Yet, the next day, the class went at it, cutting the story up as mercilessly as the machine itself. They considered multiple possibilities for every twist and followed alternatives like bloodhounds, sweeping left and right to determine the proper course. By the end of the period, a consensus arrived—don’t ask me to remember it, it wasn’t mine—and they left far happier than expected.
As I collected my things and departed for my next class, it occurred to me, “Maybe that’s what Kafka meant, that we can read and discuss something so appalling with barely a nod to what it really describes.”
After I irritated the theater chair in high school, he cast me as the narrator in a children’s production that used “Gulch” somewhere in its title. My job was to wear a white wig, a white uni-brow, and a white moppy moustache and lean against a split rail fence stage left or right. With my thumbs hooked in my belt loops or suspenders, I said things like, “Well, as you can imagin’, ole’ Scrappy didn’t appreciate bein’ treated so, and the next day, he arose with a purpose…”
Though the role couldn’t have been duller, it was large. I was onstage nearly constantly, mostly shadowed but waiting there to explain the self-evident. I hoped my participation might return me to the director’s good graces, but it didn’t.
Now I think about sabotage. What if I’d left the script and substituted my own explanations? “Ole’ Scrappy started collectin’ boxes that day and fillin’ each with some moment he’d lost,” I’d say, and “Inside each was a tear, for Ole’ Scrappy saw himself as a sort of snail leavin’ silver trails through the world…”
Would the narrative still assert itself or could I cut its roots and train it with wires like a bonsai, demanding it do my bidding until, wires removed, it was a stunted and twisted homunculus?
You might wonder how I know my stories are wrong, how I can say what an actual story is without being able to write one.
I have the editor’s curse, the capacity to see and understand what I can’t do. I’m good at discovering what authors accomplish surreptitiously and, if someone would ever hire me for the job, I might be good at helping authors make the most of accidents—making accidents appear designed. Intention is my specialty.
Not every coach does or did the sport. Some few know what’s right when they see it and what’s wrong when something is absent. Their love guides them.
I’m glad nothing prevents trying.
Every day, he wrote a bit more of his story. Though the main character evolved in subtle ways, he mostly stayed the same, and others, like his family and oldest friends, remained part of the plot line. Chapters covered separate locations and the different circles of people surrounding him as he changed jobs or situations. He looked for emerging themes and found them in obsessions and doubts he nudged toward resolution. Yet, most days, unmanageable twists and reversals undid any progress. The story featured so many obstacles, such slow accumulation of revelation. Few events equaled their promised significance.
When he sat down to work, he felt how often he’d lived that moment, wrestling just as much with what had passed—what he’d written and couldn’t change—as he did with anything he hoped to write. He wanted to finish before he was finished.
To be a parablist is to see stark terms. A world redefined by its essentials—accurate or not—is flattened and reduced, limited in scope and dimension. And, because in parables everything is itself and something else, the parallels ache, each line attracted to the other but bending no closer even as they stretch into infinity. No story becomes real.
There’s sense, and there’s order. There’s narrative and a perspective, one voice. The horizon moves as the parablist advances—just as it does for anyone. The parablist can’t encompass all he sees or has seen, though he has his version ready and hopes it serves.