Sculptor and Clay

Having finished Parable of the Sower, I still have no idea how to receive the character and the teachings of Lauren Olamina. Looking back at the foreword by N.K. Jemisin after finishing the book, I was a little heartened to read this:

Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me as an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like.)

This doesn’t precisely capture my feelings about Lauren, though it comes close to capturing what bugs me about the epigraphs, which is that they feel kind of half-baked or faux-prophetic, so that I don’t know whether to receive them as if they’re a sort of scripture to revere or whether to receive them as if they’re a kid’s attempt to write a scripture to be revered. That is, I’m not clear on whether the crummy writing is Lauren’s or Butler’s. I’ve had similar thoughts about other books before — “is this a case of an unreliable narrator or does the author just not know how to write consistently from the speaker’s point of view?”

Jemisin writes in the foreword about reading Butler’s parable books at different times in her life and getting different things from them at each time. She certainly values Butler’s work, and her foreword makes me want to revisit the books a decade or two in my future. Meanwhile, I think I’ll content myself with putting aside further attempts to puzzle out intent vs. effect of the epigraphs.

I’ll go one step further and identify something positive I gained from the epigraphs. There is a quote from the epigraph at the top of chapter 22 that stood out to me in this week’s reading:

Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Sculptor and clay.

Reading this was sort of a record-scratch moment for me, as it brought to mind two lines of poetry I’ve tumbled around together in my mind in association with one another for twenty-some years. The first is the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children“:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The other is a line from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

This notion of art and artist inseparable, articulated beautifully in these rhythmic questions, has always stuck with me, and I must’ve repeated these lines to myself a few hundred times over the years if only for the comfort of pronouncing the syllables.

I have no great revelation to share about these quotes. Butler’s phrase just stood out to me and made satisfying connections to some other things I had read.

As for the book as a whole? I liked it. It’s grim, but I like grim. And there’s hope, but I don’t think it’s wide-eyed, unbridled hope. There’s also a lot left on the table. What more might we learn about sharers in Parable of the Talents? Will Acorn turn into an oasis and counterpoint to Olivar or will it be scavenged and burned again? Will more be made of Olivar? Will Earthseed take hold? Will Lauren wind up among the stars? I haven’t read Parable of the Talents and am eager to begin.

5 thoughts on “Sculptor and Clay

  1. Paul Debraski April 9, 2021 / 4:50 pm

    This is a strange realization that I’ve had while reading your post here. It is that I just don’t care about Earthseed. At all. I like the story and I am totally committed to it, but more of the day to day reality and none of the mystical stuff. Does this mean I’m totally missing the point? if I were more theologically oriented, would I be more invested in the religion in the book? I feel like Dan (in Talents, which we haven’t gotten to technically, so no spoilers), who looks at what she “preaches” and says “What’s the point?”

    Is this because the epigrams are lame and uninspiring? I think so. And also because Lauren seems to be developing it as we’re going along, and it all seems half-baked, despite how confident she is.

    I think I also have a hard time saying that change is god or god is change. Why does it have to be theological at all? The tenets that she espouses are pretty good–especially when she talks about the community looking after each other (which might be in Talents, too). Is it easier to package if its thought of as a religion? Is it because Lauren grew up daughter of a preacher?

    I’m curious what Butler intended. And (again no spoilers here), I wonder if Talents is a reaction to this book (as I posit in my post for Talents week 1).

    • Jeff Anderson April 10, 2021 / 6:15 pm

      I’m with you, Paul (as I think we kind of established on my last post too, heh)—Earthseed is the least interesting part of these books to me, and it’s specifically because it’s a religion Lauren’s trying to found. That just seems to pointless to me.

      Daryl, the epigraph you like, and the poetry you connect it to, helped me figure out why. I don’t know whether I mentioned this during our Bubblegum read, but the pandemic introduced me to medically significant anxiety. The actually bad part seems to have been mostly an acute situation, thank goodness. But funny as it may sound, I’m grateful to have been through it, because it led to me mindfulness meditation. And I’m not here to proselytize for it, everybody’s on their own journey, whatever (I myself, for instance, wasn’t ready to engage with it over the past however many years since my husband got into it), but for me it’s been enormously valuable. I had been pretty interested in philosophical (nonreligious) Buddhism before that, and there’s a lot of connection between the two in terms of present-moment awareness, nonattachment, impermanence, that kind of stuff.

      So, the point: Lauren’s doctrine of the interpenetration of existence, of the way all things that touch each other are reciprocally changed—that’s not her insight. I mean, obviously: you can see it in the Khayyam, which is 900 or so years old, and Siddhartha Gautama was a quarter of a millennium ago. Outside of taking some ethical and philosophical precepts that work perfectly well without a theology and wrapping them up with the name “God,” I guess I just don’t see the point of what Lauren’s doing. And it seems hard to trust anybody who sets out to found a religion…

      • Daryl L. L. Houston April 11, 2021 / 6:52 pm

        Yeah, it’s really baffling, and as I dip now into Talents, I wonder if Butler will interrogate this a bit more.

        I guess I’m sorry/not-sorry you developed the acute and significant anxiety. I find mindfulness interesting in the abstract but find that I’m too patient for any focused practice of it. I’m glad it’s brought you some succor.

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