I once came across a great quote about analogies (which I unfortunately failed to note down), but the substance of it was this: “Everyone knows that analogy is a weak tool to use for making a point, but no better tool has ever been found.” And of course a parable is just an analogy in narrative form.
Parables take matters that are unfamiliar and recast them in familiar terms. (As Sigmund Freud put it, “It’s true that analogies settle nothing, but they make one feel at home.”)
The point made in my most famous parable, the jellyfish parable in Ishmael, could have been made by argument, by Ishmael making a speech, for example, but it wouldn’t have had the shattering impact that the parable does.
Parables automatically (and unnoticeably) clothe ideas in values that that would seem out of place in straight exposition.
In the jellyfish parable, for example, a dignified and learned human interviews “a squishy blob” in the sea about creation. The squishy blob concludes its tale of creation by announcing that finally JELLYFISH appeared!
The fact that squishy blobs imagine that creation reached its climax when jellyfish appeared underscores how absurd and arrogant it is for us to imagine that creation reached its climax when humans appeared. Jesus favored parables for the same reason: they clothe naked ideas in values that are immediately apparent to the audience.
New and difficult ideas are hard to get across by simple exposition. Only very, very dedicated readers can come to an understanding of Emmanuel Kant’s ideas by reading his Critique of Pure Reason. If that book were done as a Socratic dialogue, it would probably be 10,000 pages long, because every statement Kant makes would evoke from the student a statement like “I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about” or “I didn’t understand a single word of that.”
The student in a Socratic dialogue (or in my Ishmael books) is there to articulate the reader’s doubts, difficulties, and confusions, giving the teacher opportunities to clarify with examples, analogies, parables, and so on . Many readers have noticed that Julie (the student in My Ishmael) is a lot smarter than Alan (the student in Ishmael).
She had to be, or that book would have been 500 pages long. But because Julie didn’t articulate as many of the reader’s doubts, difficulties, and confusions as Alan did, My Ishmael is a more difficult book for readers than Ishmael is.
Dialogue is used for the same purpose in others of my books, of course. In After Dachau, through carefully structured dialogue with students in the classroom scene, Jason brings Gloria (and the reader) to a new and shattering understanding of her place in history. In The Holy, all of David Kennesey’s tragic miscalculations, crippling missteps, and false assumptions are made manifest in his final dialogue with John Dee.
updated: 15 Feb 2004