literary theory, philosophy, Uncategorized

On Kafka’s “On Parables”

Kafka has a parable entitled “On Parables” that goes something like this:

A: You people who talk in parables say stuff that’s not useful in real life.  You’re always talking about a mountain, a river, a happy place, a danger but they’re never about REAL mountains, rivers, happy places, or dangers. Your parables are useless for those of us who live in the real world.

B:You’ve won.

A:Right, but only in parable.

B:No, in real life. In parable you have lost.

 

It is hard to summarize the point of this because part of the point of it is that we cannot simply summarize the point of things like parables.  That is when we ask to translate a parable into something easier to digest we are just evading the point of the parable.  But it is not impossible to summarize the point of it either, because another part of the point of it (which is odd I know as a point by definition is that which “hath no part”) is that by reading them we either win or lose, and that the attempt to evade the winning or losing by translating them into a “special” language, used in special circumstances by special people — refined people, or literary critics, or religious people — is also an evasion as terrible as the first one.

I would attempt to convey the point of the parable by offering up the following dialogue and noting some of the structural features it bears with Kafka’s:

A:When you say “I love you and I will give you everything” you don’t really mean you will give me everything.  You don’t have that much money and if I got cancer you could not give me health.  All you mean is that you will give me love.

B: Fine.   I will give you everything I can.

A: Great.  I finally got you to love me for real.

B:No.  You finally got me to pretend.

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literary theory, philosophy

What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

If you tell a story to convince people something is true then the point is to get people to believe whatever you are telling them.  If the story is not true and you know it, then you are lying.  If you don’t care about the truth of the story but are telling it anyway in order to get people to believe it you are engaging in what Harry Frankfort calls “bullsh***” — talk without caring about the truth value of what you are communicating.  If you think it’s true but it’s not you are spreading untruth.  Your moral culpability depends upon how hard you work in general to make sure that what you tell is true.  If you are equally likely to tell false stories that make your political or religious party look bad as ones that make it look good then you seem fine; if it turns out to slant in the direction of your political interests you have something to answer for.

Plato advocated the “pia fraus” or holy lie in order to keep his ideal republic going.  In his set-up, a few morally righteous people — The Guardians — know that their society’s castes are a human invention, but they tell a lie in order to get the lower classes to play along.  Lies that claimed to be pious ran rampant in the ancient world.  Every empire and indeed every city state had a fake tale about how it was founded by divine beings.  The pia fraus might be a good idea but impractical for several reasons.  One is that in our current pluralistic, wired globe people are more likely to be able to see through the noble lies.    This can have the opposite of the intended effect: once the sheep know the shepherd is willing to lie for their own good, they will be less likely to believe their shepherds.  Another problem is that in real life it places a huge temptation in the hands of the lying elite to misuse their power.  For an interesting discussion of a contemporary example of  the pia fraus see “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”.

This all applies to stories whose point is to convince people to believe things.   What about a story that is not intended to get people to believe things?  When we listen to a story (or watch a movie or play a video game) we engage some of the faculties of our soul that are engaged in real life, but our rational faculties know that they are engaged with something that is not true.  It is a bit like dreaming.  It is a rare person who eats the pillow while dreaming believing it is a marshmallow.  It is a rare person who actually falls in love with Sherlock Holmes and moves to London hoping to marry him.

When it’s working well this kind of dry run can help build up our capabilities.  We can see if we solve the puzzle before Sherlock Holmes does or if we recognize the self-deception of Emma before she does.  We can practice our wisdom or our cleverness or our courage without dealing with the consequences, or rather without feeling the full consequences.  We can actually feel shame if we sympathize with a character’s poor behavior or rationalization for example, but the shame doesn’t hurt as much as the shame we feel for misbehaving or rationalizing in real life.

At its best fiction can challenge our redoubtable capacity for self-deception.  The cunning writer can play to our hopes and fears, teach us how those hopes and fears lead us to selfish behavior, and trick us into identifying with a character who ultimately is flawed. This can teach us to watch ourselves more carefully, and to pay attention to life.  At its best fiction can also enlarge our perspective and teach us that everybody has his story, and that these stories fit together into an intricate web of cause and effect, self-justification and blame, narrowing and expanding of perspective that is beyond anybody’s ability to see in real life, unfolding as quickly as real life does.  At its worst of course it can encourage our wish to dwell in a world of egocentric fantasy, where the little guy always gets the girl, and the moral hero proves he has the right stuff by wasting those who dared disrespect him in a hail of bullets.

There is also a deeper sense in which collections of stories can be part of the founding of a certain mode of experience — call it a culture in the sense in which a code of laws may found a city..  In this sense certain archetypes, and patterns of significance may be set up within which human beings cultivate themselves.  This is rooted in a fundamental aspect of all talk which is that it makes a decision about what is worth paying attention to.  The storyteller in the deepest sense is making it that these sort of things are to be paid attention to and worth caring about.

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