As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.
An old friend and I smoked together a few evenings ago in his beautiful downtown LA penthouse. As the weed kicked in, the friend mentioned Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: a book-length psychiatric study of an experiment of dubious ethicality involving a group of men suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. As the title indicates, Rokeach’s experiment brought together three patients with seemingly incompatible belief systems, each man convinced he was Christ, in the hope that these confrontations would cure them of their delusions. In the minutes and hours that followed in this friend’s penthouse, some sort of spiritual-metaphysical mythos or meaning-system crystallized for me around that detail. Next thing I knew, I had tumbled down a rabbit hole into a paranoid fantasy: a weird, apocalyptic tale woven around my soul, and thus discernible only by me, with plot points borrowed from The Stand and Miracle Mile — stories this friend and I encountered together and bonded over as teenagers. Milton’s Paradise Lost figured in there as well. Sarah was present through all of this, pleading my case with me, but I couldn’t shake the intuition that I was in the presence of some high-stakes decision tree. There I was like Adam, lacking the knowledge of good and evil needed to discern friend from foe, but convinced (because of what? the weed? my economic condition? my Catholic upbringing? my fear of dying?) that someone must be a foe, someone must be scheming to steal my happiness. Given this conviction, it seemed inevitable that I was damned either way, buckling under the strain of an impossible choice, an impossible demand. Perhaps, though, I’ve tried to tell myself afterwards, it is by this conviction and it alone that Satan is hypothesized and granted being. Or as Sartre once said, “Evil is making abstract that which is concrete.” Once we choose, of course, the paranoid condition evaporates. We become whole again, the psyche no mere compromise-formation Jerry-rigged by characters installed through socialization, the ones Freud called the Superego and the Id. The Real in which these characters are nested needn’t be defined as a tragic one. Behave lovingly and one is saved.