I've kind of had parables on the brain the last few days. Of course, the Gospel readings that the Church's lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, and Mark Shea's recent feature article on InsideCatholic.com, "The Parable of the Dishonest Steward," is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple moral tales. As Shea points out, what's obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not "eyes to see nor ears to hear"; these only faith can provide.
|U.S. postage stamp honoring Katherine Anne Porter|
The story is a deceptively complex tale, told by a narrative voice which literary types would classify as "third person, limited omniscient," which simply means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, but, standing outside the story, nonetheless allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know -- in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. So the reader finds, fairly early on, that it's a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny's sick room, as the objective events come to us largely filtered through the old woman's groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness. That is part of the complexity but, as I said, that complexity is deceptive, and not only because Granny's idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate. Porter's authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny's mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny's spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.
|Jan Adam Kruseman,|
The Wise and Foolish Virgins
|Still from Eric Rohmer's|
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
This is one of the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture that should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to "sophisticated" and highly-educated readers, simply because they rely on allusions to a cultural thesaurus that has been banished to the cultural outhouse.The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied. In the case of the Porter story, failing to recognize Biblical allusions and their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion regarding the meaning of the story. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that has been borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America's great short story writers.