Monday, July 6, 2015

Some reflections on Butler's Parable of the Sower (part 5)

Octavia Butler

Butler described Parable of the Sower as one of her more “serious works,” and she intended it to be a “cautionary tale.” It serves as social commentary of “what we’re coming to if we’re not careful.” What could happen, for example, should the world continue to ignore the dangers of climate change. Butler, however, did not consider her works as prophecy, preferring instead to consider them as “cautionary tales” (Francis 2010: 168, 172). In a biblical sense, however, they could be viewed as prophetic, since biblical prophets proclaim a present critique of contemporary society and announce consequences that will occur in the relatively near future if society does not change its patterns of behavior. Prophets thus demand a present response that could prevent or ameliorate those often-imminent dire consequences. Likewise, Butler also wanted to address additional problems currently happening in the United States (and elsewhere) by warning about the direction in which humanity was headed, a society in which institutions might exist (e.g., police or fire departments) but were no longer functioning. Butler extrapolates from what she saw as current trends in society, the increasing divide between rich and poor, the changes in the earth’s climate, the fear of crime, and all of the centrifugal forces that were “tearing . . . society apart” and examines the resulting issues of social power and its effects. Butler noted (in 1994) that she was greatly concerned about the fact that there were “so many terrible things that are going on that no one is paying attention to because they aren’t quite that bad yet.” The major problem is the world-wide issue of climate change—so much so that Butler notes that “ecology, especially global warming, is almost a character” (Francis 2010: 91; Butler later states that global warming is indeed a character, 184), but it also includes specifically the modern examples of slavery where people were being held against their will, something that she “pulled out of the newspapers” about what was occurring in places like Southern California or some rural places in the South. Another related example was people being forced to work at what she called “throw-away labor,” where U.S. companies were moving jobs out of the United States and into places where labor was extremely cheap, environmental and safety rules were extremely lax, and living conditions of workers were “horrible,” such as in the Maquiladora Plants in Mexico (Francis 2010: 44, 54-55, 60, 69).

For those of you familiar with parable scholarship, some of what Butler says about her Parable of the Sower approaches the perspective of William Herzog and others on what parables are and do:

The focus of the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class . . . .  [T]hey explored how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence and cycle of poverty created by exploitation and oppression.  The parable was a form of social analysis every bit as much as it was a form of theological reflection” William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech).

Ultimately, the Parable of the Sower, like most of Octavia Butler’s stories, is about the human condition, the struggle of human beings to be or do something. Lauren’s story, for example, is a coming of age story—she undergoes a significant test that she must overcome—but it also involves a quest: Lauren’s quest and the quest of the community gathering around her is to be the seed that is sown upon the good soil and brings forth fruit. Lauren’s ultimate dream begins to take shape as she makes her journey to the north; she wants to bring people together into a community to form Earthseed, a community with purpose and meaning. Like all of her novels, Parable of the Sower’s ending is a hopeful one, and it follows, more-or-less, the biblical parable for which it is named. Lauren, Zahra, Harry, Bankole, and the others who join them have lost almost everything, but they find a way to be the seeds who are planted in fruitful soil.

In 2000, Butler reflected on her use of the biblical parable in her novel. Butler was raised Baptist but left the faith and came to despise religion. Later in her life, however, even though she never became religious, she began to appreciate religion. Being raised Baptist, for example, instilled a conscience in her very early in her life, and she regretted the fact that people without such consciences had so much power in society. So she decided that it would actually be better for there to be more religion, not less, in the sense that people should have consciences engaged by participation in "good" (e.g., non-fundamentalist) religion and to struggle every day, like Butler’s mother, to live according to the religion they believe in.

Butler believes that religion can be needed, and she states that the religion Lauren/Olamina “discovered” would change over time to become more “comforting” (e.g., life after death). As Butler notes, religion needs to be comforting for those who are oppressed or suffering:

It’s those people who have so little, and who suffer so much, who need at least for religion to comfort them. Nothing else is. Once you grow past Mommy and Daddy coming running when you hurt, you’re really on your own. You’re alone, and there’s no one to help you (Francis 2010: 187).

Butler then concludes:

Religion really is a part of human nature. We never grow out of that need to call “Mama!” and have somebody come running to make it OK. And once we’re old, “God help me!” serves the same function. The sower in the biblical parable of the sower is despairing. The sower goes out to sow his seed, and the birds eat some of it, some falls on rocks and doesn’t germinate, some falls in very shallow soil and dies soon after germination. But a little bit of it falls on good ground, and it reproduces a hundredfold. That’s why I used it as the title—I did see some significance to it!

Whereas Butler’s Parable of the Sower functions as a cautionary tale of where society might be heading if current trends continue, the next novel in the series, Parable of the Talents, offers some ideas about how to solve those problems. But Butler argued that she wasn’t proposing solutions; instead she looked “at some of the solutions that human beings come up with when they’re feeling uncertain and frightened, as they are right now” (Francis 2010: 132).

I will begin a summary and analysis of Butler's Parable of the Talents in the next post. 

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