Echoes From Cthulhu’s Crypt #12, by Robert M. Price

Dr. Robert M. Price

Dr. Robert M. Price

The Parables of Joshi

As a New Testament scholar, I have had occasion to study and teach the parables of Jesus. The interpretation of these brief stories is conditioned by many factors including the question of their origin, whether they stem from the historical Jesus himself, from the oral tradition of the early church, or the evangelists in whose books they appear. Perhaps even more of a watershed is the question of whether the interpreter should recognize allegorical elements in the parables or segregate allegory and parable as mutually exclusive genres, reading the various items in a parable simply as window dressing to make the single, basic point. Again, the issue of polyvalence versus multivalence asserts itself: must we arrive at the intended message of the tale’s teller (and can we?) before we can say we have understood the parable? Or is the author more like a midwife, with the parable coming to birth with its own meaning (as an “aesthetic object”)? Or does it have no inherent meaning at all and therefore leave itself promiscuously open to whatever meaning arises in the mind of the reader? Some of these questions do not attach themselves to the brief collection of fifteen parables1 created by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, but some do. And it will be worth keeping them in mind as we survey Joshi’s parables.

Parable One: The Virgin Patch of Ground

To a quite virgin patch of ground one man came with a wide shovel and began overturning the dirt very shallowly (it always, though, fell neatly2 back into place) but over a wide range. Another man, laughing at the other, took hold of a very long and thin rod and bored it straight through the virgin ground. Needless to say, this did not overturn much ground but at least it probed deeply. The rod, however, stood firm and could no longer be budged. Both men, after their long labour, were curiously dissatisfied with their efforts; each wishing he had chosen the other’s method.

The virgin patch of ground was History.

It is at once remarkable that the parable cannot finally leave itself to the reader to interpret. Some of Joshi’s parables are straightforward analogies; others, like this one, are more in the nature of riddles. Their author does seem to want us to get a particular lesson, but equally he wants to make us work for it. Almost as an afterthought, Joshi allows us one clue as a head start: “The virgin patch of ground was History.” We are still not all the way home, but at least we know where to begin looking.

We seem to have to do with human endeavor in general, symbolized by the first actions taken in the historical time-line. It is an old trope: the essential represented as the original. History is virgin soil. No mark has yet been made upon it.

What sort of history does the parable intend? Does it picture the history of the human race altogether? Or the life history of the typical human being? Both. The point is the cost of making a lasting impact upon history, leaving a legacy in one’s wake. Each of us faces a choice. We can either scatter our efforts, spending our scant 80 to 90 years on frivolous but enjoyable pursuits, none of which will matter in the long run. Or we can concentrate our efforts on some great task which, when completed, may improve the human lot. Or, if not improve, at least it will affect the human condition for a long time to come. That is where the element of regret enters in. The long pole is not removable. It stands like a monument to things accomplished to the exclusion of others. The man who sank the deep pole either thinks better of the change he wrought in the condition of his fellows, or, while satisfied with it in its own right, he regrets that he did not spend his time on pursuits more immediately satisfying (marriage perhaps) that he will never have the chance to engage again. In any case, it is done and cannot be done over. The one who contributed to history regrets his loss of opportunities for personal enjoyment, and in this sense wishes he had adopted the dilettante’s agenda. We are not necessarily to understand that he really would choose the opposite course if given the chance. It is just that he envies the gratifications of the shallow man, living for the moment. My guess is that he would do what he has done all over again if given the choice. Likewise, the dilettante probably would not change what he has done. When the parable says he wished he had adopted the other man’s approach, it merely means that he knows he cannot do everything and, like everyone, he cannot help regretting some greater good he might have done. But he has opted to make the choice of amusement and enjoyment, since he will be here only once.

Parable Two: The Blind Man

There is a blind man who walks in circles. Every now and then he stumbles upon some brightly coloured balls (though, of course, he realizes not their brightness), and toys with them for a time. He then flings them over his shoulder, being unable to distinguish between them, for all that they are quite different from one another. When the balls fall to the ground they break, though out of them new balls—different but not much better—eventually emerge. They wait to be stumbled upon, though some never are.

The blind man is Time.

Here we are close to Lord Dunsany, with his chess game between Chance and Necessity. One thinks also of “The Whelming of Oom,” one of Lin Carter’s Dunsanian Simrana tales, in which the dread deity Oom is taken down by the insidious efforts of a little gremlin called Time. The unmasking of the blind man as personified Time is another clue, as if the author lacked confidence, not in the efficacy of his parable, but rather in the acuity of his readers.

The parable is plainly inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s famous remark upon the utter insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things. The cosmos “doesn’t give a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy” (letter to James Ferdinand Morton, October 30, 1929). The ineluctable passing of unknowing aeons must crush all life-forms and all human achievement beneath its nailed soles, more oblivious of the artistry of human science and culture than some fur-clad barbarian despoiling the marble halls of Rome.

The image of the brightly colored balls reminds us of Christmas tree ornaments, some of them precious heirlooms, yet for that reason all the more susceptible to careless breakage. It bespeaks both the triviality of human artistry and the preciousness of it. All human works are precious to us, and rightly so. But the universe is blind to them and will not take any care to preserve them. The parable is much in the spirit of Psalm 90, with its wistful confession of the ephemeral nature of all human work. Even more, in invokes the dialectic of Nagarjuna, the Mahdyamika Buddhist philosopher. Nagarjuna found a way to mediate between ordinary appreciation of art and of natural beauty on the one hand and the false promise of Samara on the other. Theravada Buddhism has always scorned the beauties of this fleeting world as mere will-o’-the-wisps, tempting mortals to seek fulfillment where it could never be found. If all is impermanent, then permanent satisfaction can scarcely be found there. Thus Theravadins sought to shun the beauties of the Samsaric world, taking refuge in monasteries and in sense-deprivation disciplines. Nagarjuna struck his historic balance by simply noting that one need not blame Samsara for not being Nirvana once one knows the difference. Then one is free to appreciate beauty in the split second in which it manifests itself, without making Faust’s mistake: “Hold a moment! You are so beautiful!” Thus the practice of Buddhist sand paintings, no sooner finished than scattered to the wind. This is Joshi’s irony: the baubles are beautiful, perhaps even more so for their regrettable and inevitable ephmerality.

What shall we make of the mention, which has the ring of an afterthought, of crushed baubles somehow giving rise to new, similar ones? This element does not naturally fit the story, as we can think of no parallel in real life (outside of far-flung moons of Saturn or Jupiter blasting apart, their debris then being packed back together like a snowball by the clenching hand of gravity). Why has it been inserted? My guess is that Joshi wishes either to tip his hat to evolution, implied in the original Lovecraft quote with its cataloguing of vanished and doomed species, the pterosaur as well as humanity; or he means merely to double back and detract from the implied positive estimate of human artistry: it is all pretty much the same, hence already obsolescent despite its momentary novelty. In this case, there is less to mourn when Time tramples it.

That Old Man Time walks forever in circles underlines the aimlessness of the whole thing. Joshi implies no doctrine of the Eternal Return, a la Nietzsche and the Stoics, much less Hinduism or Theosophy with their cosmic cycles of Manvantaras and Pralayas.

Why are some of the baubles “never stumbled upon”? This denotes nothing of their survival of Time’s ravages, as if the text read “never trod upon.” Instead, it denotes “never noticed.” Some of what we should deem beauties in life perish in total obscurity, never even having their fifteen minutes’ worth of fame.

Parable Three: The Bursting Ball

A ball flying through the air suddenly burst into little pieces. It was incensed that on the other side of the world two men who were discussing differential calculus did not manage to notice the ball’s bursting.

Soon we will have the burst ball rewritten as the exploded earth, and the indifference of the mathematicians mirrored in the bafflement of the Alpha Centaurians in Parable Eleven. Also, one catches the catchword link between this parable and the preceding, since both trade on the image of bursting, fragile balls. The greatest story-tellers will reuse images. One idea will remind them of another, and they will use both. Why not?

The story, like the second parable, mixes narrative and symbolic levels: the ball should not be an intelligent entity like the mathematicians, much less after it has exploded! But this is to linger too long upon details. The central point is clear. The explosion of the ball is insignificant, as measured by the lack of mention of any cause of its demise. (Randomness is a metaphor for insignificance.) But it is significant to the ball itself. But only to itself. No one can expect the mathematicians to have paused in their weighty deliberations to take notice. The point is much the same as in Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, as when Cavemen are fondly looking through an anachronistic photo album showing “the fire” from every succeeding year, each virtually identical to the last—just like our pictures of Christmas scenes from each year, all alike, significant to none but ourselves (the eternal curse of home movies!). Or think of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where we witness the suicide of an Autumn leaf, followed by those of his loved ones who can’t go on without him.

It is interesting to note, in view of Joshi’s professed Lovecraft-imitative disdain for Plato, that when he shows theoreticians considering calculus, he has them contemplating eternal generalities, for the sake of which they remain oblivious of specific historical events, symbolized by the bursting ball.

So we should not expect to be noticed, our passing lamented, if we have amounted to nothing. And in the long run, all life amounts to nothing. The mathematicians are, again, like Dunsanian gods or Lovecraftian Great Old Ones, their fictive and symbolic “enmity” to the human race mirror-reflected here by the unheeded outrage of the ball.

Parable Four: The Gewgaw Holders

A whole lot of people were drifting through space, eyes quite shut and each holding very tenaciously a bright little gewgaw. A very few others were drifting quite nonchalantly, holding nothing but looking with interest at their vast surroundings. One of these meandered to the blind gewgaw holders and said:

“Why do you not abandon your gewgaw and look out into space?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” said the other. “I would be nothing without my gewgaw.”

The nonchalant man said, “Nonsense,” and took the gewgaw away from the other rather forcibly.

After giving a frenzied shriek, the erstwhile gewgaw holder suddenly shrunk away, the life escaping from him as hot air escapes from a balloon.

The other clicked his tongue, saw that the gewgaw was Convention, and flung it over his shoulder.

It accidentally hit another gewgaw holder and hurt him.

 Does the parable mean us to envision a troop of space-travelers? Perhaps so, but I rather think “traveling through space” is just a broad way of describing our life on earth! It reduces our oh-so-meaningful travels from ant-hill to ant-hill to the broadest general terms: all we are doing, in the long run, is changing location, moving in space. Moving through life. And as we do so, we discover two types of people. One group, the majority, are what Lovecraft called “self-blinded earth-gazers.” Joshi uses the same image here by having the gewgaw clutchers never spare a glance for the wonders of space, i.e., of the world around them. And what is this gewgaw that keeps them preoccupied to no real purpose? The word “gewgaw” implies some cheap trinket unworthy of the attention showered upon it by anyone misguided enough to treasure it. The use of the word “artifact” or even the neutral “object” would make a very different point. So it is something worthless that imposes the blinders on the gewgaw holders, preventing them from beholding the surrounding wonders. The narrator cannot help spilling the beans again: the gewgaws are Convention, social, intellectual, moral conventions. As the ancient Cynics argued, all social practices, standards, and institutions are artificial and detrimental. Human beings have created them, ostensibly, for the enrichment of their lives. But they only complicate life and frustrate the natural freedom of man. Once man-made conventions take hold of us, we inherit someone else’s definition of reality, and for the sake of it, there are many things, quite wonderful things, we simply never see.

And yet let the elite minority, who are unencumbered by convention and thus have wide-open eyes, be careful in trying to liberate the gewgaw holders. Their impairment is serious enough that it is probably not reparable. We do them no favor in seeking to disabuse them of their illusions. We cannot open their eyes for them. They are too attached to convention and will rebel at the option of freedom, seeing in it mere chaos. The one who deprives the gewgaw holder of his trinket destroys him. Presumably he will not try it again. We cannot help thinking here of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in his Republic. One troglodyte manages to throw off the blinders and the chains that have hitherto imprisoned him in the dark cave with its endless shadow play. Liberated and enlightened outside the cave in the full light of the sun, he decides he must venture back inside, like Moses seeking to rally the Hebrew slaves, only to find his gesture rebuffed. The others are just too accustomed to their blindness. Light and freedom, so different and new, are a fatal threat to those who have internalized their slavery and blindness.

What about the casting aside of the one man’s custom, and it’s injuring the gewgaw holder whom it strikes? Here we must assume that the two gewgaw holders cherish different conventions, and for one to encounter the different convention of another is a painful offense. I think of the Sophists of Athens. They had cast off convention, having seen in their travels that all societies cherished their own man-made mores and laws, each sure its arrangement was the revealed gift of the gods. Therefore, all were equally self-deceived. When the Sophists shared this information with the citizens of Athens, when they tossed an alien gewgaw in the Athenian face, it was an offense, as it seemed they were undermining traditional and sacred values.

Parable Five: The Man on the Beach

There was a man on a beach who was picking up grains of sand one by one and throwing them over his shoulder, hoping eventually to find some diamonds. After six years of examining he found that there were still quite a few grains left unexamined on the beach; so the man began picking up whole handfuls of sand and throwing them rapidly over his shoulder.

The second handful contained a diamond.

 Did he miss it or spot it? The parable leaves it open as to whether the new plan was wise or foolish. Did it work, or not? By picking up a greater amount of sand, he would seem to increase his chances of scooping up a diamond. What would be the point of the parable in this case? Only a basic lesson in efficiency. And we cannot imagine such a lesson amid the general climate of these parables in which all human endeavor is mocked. So it seems more likely we are to understand that the greater volume of sand crystals would make it more difficult to recognize the feel of a diamond if he picked one up. In this case we must picture the diamond to have been flung over the man’s shoulder in complete ignorance. His efforts are doomed either way. If he devotes the necessary scrutiny to his task, he will never live to finish it. But if he tries a shortcut he will make success impossible by using too blunt an instrument! No important task can be accomplished, the parable seems to warn us: either we will give it the proper care and never stand a chance of reaching the goal, or we will short-circuit the necessarily long process. It is as if one wished the admiration and respect to which an advanced academic degree should entitle him but had not the skill or patience to earn it. So he resorted to some diploma mill. He got the diploma to frame on the wall, but no one was fooled. Henceforth everyone looked at him with bemused contempt.

Parable Six: The Mosquitoes

A man who kept being stung by mosquitoes was accosted by another man who said: “Why don’t you do something to rid yourself of those mosquitoes?” So the man jumped into a lake.

But he drowned.

Mustn’t Joshi be thinking of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who warned about the nuisance of the flies? “Flee, my friend, into your solitude: I see you stung all over by poisonous flies. Flee where the air is raw and strong. Flee into your solitude! You have lived too close to the small and the miserable. Flee their invisible revenge! … No longer raise up your arm against them. Numberless are they, and it is not your lot to shoo flies. Numberless are these small and miserable creatures… I see you wearied by poisonous flies, bloody in a hundred places; and your pride refuses even to be angry. Blood is what they want from you in all innocence. Their bloodless souls crave blood, and so they sting in all innocence. But you, you deep one, you suffer too deeply even from small wounds… You are too proud to kill these greedy creatures. But beware lest it become your downfall that you suffer all their poisonous injustice.”3

Unless our parable is meant as a comment on the Nietzsche text, it would appear merely an ironic remark on the danger of overkill. Killing the patient in order to save him. It certainly makes no sense to imply that all efforts to eliminate nuisances are counterproductive and ought to be discouraged. But if we read Joshi’s parable in light of Zarathustra’s oracle, we have something a bit more profound. Nietzsche seems to be warning the nascent Superman not to allow the Lilliputians with their slave morality to tie him down. Do not engage them closely enough to be vulnerable to the use they would make of you, whether by blame or by praise. You will suffer either way, as when Lovecraft used to lament that he had ruined his work by catering to the demands of the mob and the editors who served them. Zarathustra would send the Superman off into the safety of the wilderness, but Joshi warns that the solitude thus gained may be fatal isolation, a vacuum that will suffocate one just as quickly as the poisonous bites would kill.

Parable Seven: The Race

Two men began a race. One dashed off with incredible velocity and burned himself up halfway to the goal. The other walked very sedately with a cane for ninety years and fell down dead at the very spot at which the other had burned himself up. The result was thus the same save that the older man wished that he had reached this spot a little sooner.

There is surely something of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise lurking in the background here. Unlike Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, nobody wins Joshi’s race, not even the underdog. But in Zeno’s conundrum, even the fleet-footed Achilles finds himself stymied by the logic of the Hippodrome, another of the Eleatic paradoxes, whereby no horse can ever reach the finish line, since any forward motion would entail crossing over an infinite number of lines, every remaining midpoint requiring successful passage on the way to victory. On these terms, Achilles can never surpass the glacial-paced tortoise, since both alike are mired in infinite midpoints. Zeno’s paradox must be our starting point. In the Joshi parable neither man finishes the race, and both conk out at the same point. Why should this be so, i.e., why tell the story this way? Joshi might simply have said that neither man finished the race. Why have them collapse at the same point on the course? The common stopping point stands for the impassable midpoint in general. Neither man may pass it. But so what?

Zeno’s point was to prove the dictum of his master “Father Parmenides” that sense experience is everywhere confuted by logic and thus cannot be trusted as a guide to the true nature of things. That, however, is not Joshi’s point. He is more interested in the foibles of human nature. I believe we are to focus on the element of the grass being greener on the other side. If we could ask the dead speedster if he were happy with his performance, he would no doubt bemoan his having put on too much speed too soon. If we could ask the oldster, he would no doubt regret, not the slow pace, but the time wasted. He envies the speedster at least some measure of the quickness of his pace. The younger man at least got the charade over with quicker. Devoting the proper care to maintaining a safe speed merely extended the exercise and made it seem longer than it was, and he still did not win. If we left it here, we would have but a doublet of the Parable of the Man on the Beach, the point being that one’s efforts are doomed to futility, since patient care and careless haste will alike fail in accomplishing the task.

Another clue is the terminal age of the old man. He is around one hundred twenty years of age when he finishes as much of the race as he going to finish. This is a full life! And it means that the unfinished race is not a metaphor for death. The race is more like history, and here we must think of Aristotle’s notion of the Prime Mover, that beacon of perfection which acts (albeit unwittingly) as a magnet, drawing all creatures through their paces to approximate their own perfection as best they can. All things have potential to become their mature form, an acorn becoming an oak, a kitten becoming a cat, a Crayola scribbler becoming a fine artist. As the potential of each unfolds, it mimics the perfection of the Unmoved Mover in its own way. But that hardly means it will attain unto the perfection of that beacon. Indeed, that would be impossible, given the instability of matter, which must sooner or later succumb to entropy, unlike the Mover, which is the only form without matter. Thus all beings must sooner or later drop out of the race toward ultimate and complete perfection, thanks to decay and death. It is nothing to bemoan, for that must be the fate of matter and of material things. Some make it to the zenith of their attainable perfection earlier, others later. The speedster in this parable is the first. The leisurely old man is the second.

Parable Eight: The Single String

A man was sitting on the ground and plucking a single string. He decided to add more strings to gain some variety in pitch; then he added a board for backing, carved it very elegantly, added a bow to draw on, then made it electronic for still greater tonal variety. At this point, however, the contrivance blew up in his face, leaving him with a single string.

Is the point that technology only complicates things, yielding but illusory benefits, as seen in computerized automobile technology? The more complex it gets, the easier it becomes for something to go wrong, and the longer and more expensive it is to fix? All our clever artifice and trouble taken finally brings us right back to square one? Are we so tired of daily care for our contact lenses that we will forever abandon them and return to clunky glasses? The bigger the complexity, the harder things fall prey to entropy, since there is only more to get messed up?

Or are we to understand the man as a victim of hubris? Did he somehow get too big for his britches by thinking to enhance his music? This is the lesson of Lin Carter’s Simrana tale, “The Benevolence of Yib,” where a street beggar creates a miniature clay idol that seems to bring him much fortune, which he disastrously loses when he creates bigger idols and better temples to house them. Soon he is back to his little lemonade stand of a shrine for his clay totem. But where is the effrontery or the presumption that deserves punishment in Joshi’s parable? What gods did he offend?

Parable Nine: Beethoven’s Lost Symphonies

Beethoven had just finished his Twelfth Symphony. He shewed it to a friend. The friend said that the last three of Beethoven’s symphonies would make excellent shelf paper but little else.

Beethoven threw away his last three symphonies.

 This parable at the very least illustrates the truth that the author’s judgment on his own work can never be trusted. Joshi is mindful, no doubt, of Lovecraft’s lukewarm estimate of his wonderful novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. HPL never submitted it anywhere, just left it to gather dust in a desk drawer—hence reducing it to shelf paper almost literally!

The parable raises the larger issue of the criterion for creative excellence: does it reside in audience reception of the work? I recall a lively debate between S.T. Joshi and Will Murray on this very subject. Will maintained that books qualify as “great literature” insofar as they manage to garner large numbers of readers from generation to generation. Though Murray did not appeal to this bit of literary theory, one might understand his position as one akin to the Deconstructive axiom that the meaning and value of any text (including the musical) lies in the eye or ear of the beholder. It is not that the inherent value of the work is bypassed in such an approach. Rather, the point is that value is not intrinsic. It is simply valuation. It is inevitably subjective with the receiver. The author’s own estimate is to be discounted simply because it is not mine as a reader or hearer. The decision must be left to me. Nor must any single reviewer deprive me of the opportunity to make my own judgment. Joshi argued against Murray that the work has its own intrinsic value. But the Parable of Beethoven’s Lost Symphonies is compatible with either view. The work’s value cannot be adjudged for all by the creator or a single reviewer.

Parable Ten: The Burdens

A man carrying an awful lot of burdens upon his head came upon another man carrying nothing at all but a few trinkets which he balanced rather blithely upon his shoulder. The latter said to the former:

“Why, my man, do you carry all those burdens?”

“But I have always carried them,” said the other.

“That’s no answer. Why do you carry those burdens?”

“My ancestors carried them, so I have hardly reason to complain.”

“But are you not uncomfortable?”

“As I have always carried them, I know not any comfort but this.”

The man with the trinkets, tiring, went away laughing, stopping to pick up a jewel which he saw on the ground. The other began walking again (though he knew not where or why he was going), passing over many jewels because his burden usurped his attention.

Ultimately, the burden crushed the man’s head to a pulp.

This parable may be read as parallel to that of the gewgaw holders, the unspecified burdens standing for inherited and unquestioned conventions this time around. And just as the gewgaw holders miss sight of the wonders of space, the burdened man cannot see jewels strewed on the very ground beneath him.

Notice, however, the implicit equation of the discovered jewels with the “trinkets” already in the light-traveling man’s possession. They are rendered “trinkets” for the simple fact that he does not value them highly. Don’t you see? If he did, he, too, would be laboring under a heavy burden of items he has accumulated and valued too much to cast aside! (We do read that he grew tired at one point, but this seems to mean only that he tired of talking with the thick-headed burdened man.)

Now what of the ultimate pulping of the burden-bearer’s head? He is already pretty much mindless. He does not think to question the tradition he follows from mere inertia. He does not wonder if things might be different. He does not think to look beyond his blinders. So in a sense the burdens have already lobotomized him. Obviously a burden one carries balanced upon one’s head cannot gradually crush it. It would have to fall upon one’s head from a height. Sudden impact would be needed. But the implicit image here is that the initial imposition of the burden was itself the crushing impact, only as if seen in slow motion.

Parable Eleven: The Bug-Eyed Monsters

The little bug-eyed monsters on Alpha Centauri were having a bash one night when in the sky they saw a sudden tiny flash of light.

One of the more inquisitive of the bug-eyed monsters asked: “What was that?”

“God knows,” another replied, returning to the revels.

The little flash of light was the earth exploding.

Is the earth, are its history, population, and achievements, insignificant just because far-distant beings are unaware of us? One might infer that the joke is on them. They do not pause from frivolous activities for long enough to notice something important if they only knew. It is almost as if we pictured a Christmas party at NASA, where the booze is flowing so freely that no one is sober enough to notice the signal coming in from some extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Parable Twelve: The Meteor

A meteor crashed into the earth and smashed it into little pieces; at which all the inhabitants of Venus and Mars, pulling out their earplugs, began dancing jigs.

Clearly, Parable Eleven has suggested this one to their common author, only that one pictures aliens merely pausing a moment from their partying to note earth’s passing (though they don’t recognize it as such) and the other presents aliens partying to celebrate the destruction of earth. Note that the inhabitants of Mars and Venus are much closer to the earth than the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri, even though that is the closest star system. One might imagine the Alpha Centaurians being just dimly aware of earth, while the Martians and Venusians, our next-orbit neighbors, might be expected to have a more intimate knowledge of earth—whether they wanted it or not! Here they are not indifferent to the death of an earth of which they know virtually nothing. They are positively elated at earth’s destruction because they are tired of all the infernal noise! They are exactly like the gods in the ancient Atrahasis Epic who decide to unleash the flood to wipe out mankind because of the ruckus, which renders sleep in heaven impossible!

How ironic, though, that the welcome end of earthly racket prompts presumably noisy celebrations on these worlds that hitherto coveted silence! Will Mercury and Jupiter one day rejoice at the explosions of noisy Venus and Mars?

Parable Thirteen: The Guillotine

There was a man who was to be guillotined. But the day before he slit his throat so as to escape the penalty.

But of course the joke was on him. He had cut off his nose to spite his face. He actually hastened his death, worsening his predicament, by cheating the executioner. Or, on second thought, was he necessarily such a fool? Was he perhaps like the Jewish Zealots at Masada, killing themselves so as not to submit to Roman degradation on the morrow? “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). There is a note of dignity won there.

And yet one must also think of those who fear death and, to try to acclimate themselves to the prospect, indulge in morbid preoccupation about it. What they don’t seem to realize is that they are dying a little already, inviting the shadow of death to overtake them before the time, entering into a living death by anticipation, as one suffers in the present from the future by worrying about the dooms the future may (but may not!) bring.

Parable Fourteen: The Book and the Blind Man

A man did research on the manuscripts of Juvenal for sixteen years, hoping to produce a very pretty book for his arduous efforts. But just as he finished his work, he went blind.

The book, though, was very pretty.

Had he failed or succeeded? Had he hoped to produce the book strictly for his own aesthetic enjoyment? After all, he was already pleasantly aswim in the texts of the great Roman satirist. The finished book could hold no surprises for him. Surely he had compiled it for others, as Joshi himself did with the corrected texts of Lovecraft. So little did Joshi care for the outward shape of the books that he had filled his own copies with notes and corrections. To him the texts were alive, not the paper pages and stiff covers. He worked for years to get the pure texts into the hands of new readers and, hence, in attractive editions from various publishers. But this was for their benefit, not his. And one must suspect the same would hold true for the Joshi-like Juvenal scholar. He had wielded the sharp tool of his sight exactly as long as he had required it to complete his work! His plight, if he has one, is not like that of the deaf Beethoven, unable to hear the music he wrote for others, for this man can still have Juvenal read to him with pleasure. Nor is his predicament like that of the Burgess Meredith character on The Twilight Zone, with shattered glasses and unable to read the piles of books he has accumulated in a post-holocaust world. For the Juvenal scholar had already read the work. He was not cheated.

Parable Fifteen: The Labour of Breathing

A man was making a mark every second and a half or so. He did this for thirteen years when another man came up to him and said:

“What are you doing?”

The other replied: “I’m making a mark for every time that I breathe.”

“Why?” the man managed to say after an interval.

“Have you never,” said the other, “heard of autobiography?”

For this parable we might want to borrow the title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography: Chronicles of Wasted Time. The man marking time is writing down a genuine biography, albeit one unworthy of record, since all he accomplished was continuing to breathe.

We might go on to infer that he had accomplished nothing worthy of record precisely because he spent all his time recording the mere passage of time, clocked in breaths. He should, then, have spent his time more imaginatively and constructively, leaving it to someone else to record his achievements later. Or he might have looked back after retirement and written up his own exploits. But as it is, he is recoding his life instead of living it.

But then we might infer that, in the breathing man, we have the stripped down exemplar of all people who seem to imagine their petty efforts important, though in fact they are doomed to have no significance in the long run beyond exhaled carbon dioxide. His interlocutor asks him “Why?” only “after an interval.” What interval? That of stunned surprise? Or after taking a necessary breath? Does Joshi means all words may be reduced to hot air? No matter how we or others might have esteemed our activities, they finally boil down to having taken so many breaths before death cuts off the process.

Curmudgeon with a Bludgeon

At the outset of Joachim Jeremias’s masterpiece The Parables of Jesus, the author raises the question of authenticity. He wants to strip away from the gospel parable collections any material generated by the early church rather than by Jesus himself, because, as a Lutheran theologian, Jeremias desired to base the Christian proclamation squarely on the authentic voice of the Son of Man.4 At the start of the present modest effort to comment upon S.T. Joshi’s parables, I noted that we must raise some of the same questions that attend study of the gospel parables. It might seem that authenticity is not one of them. And in a sense it is not, since we can be quite sure S.T. Joshi did compose these parables, without borrowing from any other author. Nor has anyone slipped in any pastiches by other writers (though I confess to giving them their present titles). But nonetheless, the question of authenticity does arise. It is the question of the difference between the implied and the actual author, first distinguished by Wayne C. Booth.5

These parables of Joshi imply a viciously misanthropic author. In his jaundiced eye, there is nothing but absurdity to the human lot. Every plan backfires; every step forward propels us two steps backward. All efforts and achievements and accomplishments are to be derided because they are not eternal. The bitterness is like that of the Theravada Buddhist who despises the fleeting and ephemeral because he thinks or wishes there were something more constant available. He is like some bitter ex-Calvinist who has learned there is no God yet retains the scorn for humanity that he once imagined he shared with the deity. Here is a man who so fears the sharp edge of the future’s judgment on the human race that he hastens the inevitable by guillotining himself ahead of time.

Luckily, though, the implied author need not be the same as the real author. And the S.T. Joshi I know is actually a friendly and compassionate man, a lover of the arts and sciences and all things human. He does suffer fools, though, and leaves himself vulnerable to their mosquito bites. Good humored friendship is the authentic voice of this man. But here, just for the wicked fun of it, he has hidden behind the implied persona of his teller of tales.

The Notes

  1. S.T. Joshi, “Parables (After Schopenhauer and Bierce)” Lovecraftian Ramblings No. 14 (1 May 1980), p. 12. Rpt., Twilit Grotto 1, No. 1 (n.d.), pp. 2-3.
  2. Here is our sole question of textual criticism. The copy in my possession (a photocopy of the typed originals) reads “nearly,” but I cannot help suspecting an error for “neatly,” which seems to make more sense in the context. Either way, the efforts of the shallow digger are minimized.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 52-53.
  4. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus. Trans. S.H. Hooke. Second revised edition. NY: Scribners, 1972, p. 9.
  5. Wayne C. Booth, “Distance and Point of View.” Essays in Creiticism 11 (1961), pp. 60-79.

Dr. Robert M. Price

Dr. Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).

A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.

Browse Dr. Price’s books at Amazon.

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