05 December 2007

i know that guy from somewhere.

Noah benShea’s Jacob the Baker is a fascinating exercise. What am I doing calling it an exercise—it’s a book, isn’t it. Well, yes. It’s the barest of narrative frameworks—a baker who arrives at the bakery early each morning, the sky not yet fully light, and, as he readies the day’s dough, scrawls thoughts and observations on little scraps of paper. One of these makes it into the bread of a customer, and it delights her: she places a big order and asks that Jacob put a slip of one-line wisdom into each pastry. And, so, word spreads among the townspeople, and the book progresses with short accounts of townspeopledelineated in the broadest of ways: young/old; rich/poor; kind/greedycoming to him for advice, followed by his reply. These are compact parables suitable, it’d seem, for the purposes of a prophet on the mount, or a grad student posturing in the quad; or the book of Proverbs. Eg,

A great sadness rolled its shadow across Jacob. The words came sadly.

“We must remember,” said Jacob, “the only difference between a house and a coffin is a door.”


The man was astonished. “How does giving to the poor bring about my freedom?”

“You see,” said Jacob, “either the key to a man’s wallet is in his heart, or the key to a man’s heart is
in his wallet. So, until you express your charity, you are locked inside your greed.”

One- and two-line paragraphs are a staple of Jacob the Baker—in my paperback version, the font and feel recall a print-out of the sports page, a format that stretches the column borders to those of a normal page:

With a little over a minute to go, the Philadelphia Eagles had life.

But they also had A.J. Feeley, who threw one last interception to linebacker Lofa Tatupu that made the blunder moot.

But that isn't the story today.

The story is coach Mike Holmgren's reaction to his own mistake.

He didn't run from it. He didn't stare down his inquisitors as if he had special powers to make questions go away.

He answered the question and admitted his mistake. (Steve Kelley, Seattle Times)

Pascal’s Pensees, meantime, offers a rock-like density of parables and incisive lab-coat quips, all in a fashion that’s more organic in nature and less in style than Jacob. It’s a list of scientific observations or theological inclinations, from which some wisdom is made plain; with not a whiff of prologue or segue. Not a bare thread of story like that offered by Jacob the Baker, the source here is a notebook, discovered and published after Pascal’s death, filled with numbered entries, varying in length from a single sentence to a couple of paragraphs, eg,

4. Mathematics, intuition.- True eloquence makes light of eloquence, true morality makes light of morality; that is to say, the morality of the judgement, which has no rules, makes light of the morality of the intellect. For it is to judgement that perception belongs, as science belongs to intellect. Intuition is the part of judgement, mathematics of intellect.

To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.


7. The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.


8. There are many people who listen to a sermon in the same way as they listen to vespers.

I’ve never spent time thinking about the formula for the construction a parable, and it’s fascinating to me. Just as taglines have a logic, a progression—in my work, I commonly use verb product. verb your life, or similar—so doth the invention of parables. From these two books, we can identify not more than a handful of variations on the formula, none of which even moderately resembles how a person actually speaks. (Which is, in part, what makes Jacob the Baker a fascinating conceit. Pensees has an associative progression wherein a succession of entries will have a core topic until he's finished thinking about it, and then, new topic; meanwhile, Jacob's structurea solitary man who refuses to see what the fuss is about—lends a cloudiness to the matters of time and place. An almost necessary element, if you’re going to star a dude who, in conversation, says things like “…knowing less than ONE would leave the world with nothing, and more would leave the world in pieces.”)

Maybe I'm biased, but parable makes me think first of Jesus, part of whose storytelling genius was not giving away the game: his stories were metaphors, and if you explain a metaphor at the end, that wrecks everything. On the other hand, if your story is just a framework for you to insert a tagline-sized bit of rhetorical wisdom, said story is likely to end up portraying roughly the depth of a crepe, which is both flat and French. In Jacob, this format does not vary; Pensees, while devoid of lead-in, tends to wrap up entries with similar flourishone that resides, linguistically, between a parable and a quip. As such, I'd like to propose a bastard term we'll both think is fun for about two minutes: parabaquip.

Now. In putting together a parabaquip, the primary operation seems to be combining reflection, as in, the end mirrors back the beginning, with reflective—the backward reflection of the language yields unexpected meaning, a pause-giving element. The simplest example is Noah benShea’s:

Yes it is about time, and yes it is about time.

That’s maybe my favorite from either author. Here’s another reflector/reflective, this from Pascal’s Pensees:

19. The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.

Aren’t we suckers for the short ones. It’s idiosyncratic and nothing more, probably, but now, having realized the common structure in these parabaquippes [French spelling], the visual I keep coming back to is that of Narcissus at his pond. The other day I heard a deepish, alternative take on Narcissus that dug into his history and posited how he saw the burden of the whole world in his face; I aa-ahed it, then later thought it contrived. With the Greek myths, there are additional layers of meaning to be read into, but never, insomuch as I know, layers that counteract the original meaning. Like, Narcissus was vain as hell, and surely it’s possible to extract finer, more subtle meaning from the tale of his demise; but it’s not going to be in opposition to the original: if you homilize the pond story and end up with Narcissus was a selfless man, you’re doing it wrong—and you’re not doing it any better than the 4th-grade Mark Huntsman, who heard about playing devil’s advocate, thought it was awesome, and started saying the opposite every time anyone expressed an opinion. Here’s a more advanced PQ (also Pascal):

923. It is not absolution only which remits sins by the sacrament of penance, but contrition, which is not real if it does not seek the sacrament.

So. We get absolution and contrition compared via the reflecting pond of the sacrament, which then springs to life and gazes downward at contrition. The first leads to the second, is compared to the third, which then questions the second.

Does absolution get frozen out in that operation? Nearly. The larger insight of that PQ involves absolution only proximally. In a structural sense, the real recommendation is not a true mirrorthe oppositebut a vector. It's perpendicular to the starting assumption.

Who you are is the price you paid to get what you used to want. (benShea)

Here, the setup is simply reversed: Who you are is... has you looking for a verb that seeks a noun; what you get is a shift in tenses that redirects clear back to the question of the opening phrase. Who are you, besides the ADD malcontent that spent a year's allowance on a paintball gun he used twice. Have you changed at all. Recently I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece, Dangerous Minds about criminal psychologists—profilers. The piece builds to a close juxtaposition of the language in their reports and the language of magicians and psychics.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic "The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading," itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the "statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite." ("I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.") The Jacques Statement, named for the character in "As You Like It" who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, "If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger." There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that "leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific." ("I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?") And that's only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess—all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

They had been at it for almost six hours. The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a "now" person. He won't be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won't be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you're keeping score, that's a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren't really predictions because they could never be verified—and nothing even close to
[what the killer was actually like].

I may form a parabaquipping club. We can play with the formula, which, who knows, could reveal itself as strong enough that a dude can occasionally generate a parable that supersedes his understanding. Email if interested.

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