Critic Carter Wheelock notes Borges’ belief that “thought is the perfect synonym of the universe” (68). The Argentine writer would have not blundered either in thinking of the parable as a good, if not perfect (in Platonic sense, to which Borges subscribes to, words are further removed from the Ideal than ideas are) manifestation of the cosmos. Indeed, the parable is a universe of universes—a world of words or better yet, imperfect words for worlds. The parable is the fiction of universalities encompassing, not so much meanings and realities as it does non-meanings and non-realities.
It “call(s) contradictions into being” hence bringing about “truth” (Wheelock, 65-66). The parable is an attempt to encapsulate, but never freeze, thought. In fact, the parable is not a parable unless it contains and induces free-thinking. The democratic nature of Borges’ parable coincides with what John Bonsignores sees as its primary function of provoking “indirect communication”. Bonsignores argues that “indirect communication” in and through a parable “creates participants and actions,” thus paving the way for compulsory and voluntary introspection.
The reader in contact with the parable loses his or her sense of stability (i. e. dogmatism) and opens up to alternative values and truths. “Those who prefer ‘to learn about the world’ in a direct and controlled way, lose control of their responses when they encounter a parable,” he adds. The parable facilitates the reader’s epiphany through liberty. The parable as a liberating and liberated agent of consciousness manifests particularly in Borges’ Parable of the Palace. Here what Wheelock calls “the tension and interplay between longed-for universality and necessary perspectivization” (64) is evident particularly in the characters (or non-characters) of the poet and the Yellow Emperor.
At first, both allow their selves to be lost in the labyrinthine palace—an emblem of all-meaning and absolute consciousness. Borges writes: “Cheerfully they lost themselves in it—at first as though condescending to a game, but then not without uneasiness… (para. 1). Later, their uneasiness mounts, forcing them to seek an image of oneness and permanence, a dogma: “observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a tortoise allowed them to escape the bond of that region which seemed enchanted” (para. 1).
This need for “perspectivization,” of a unified and orderly consciousness (and cosmos) resurfaces at the end of the parable: the poet’s “descendants still seek… the word for the universe” (para. 5). The descendants’ efforts, as well as that of the poet himself and the Yellow Emperor, end up in vain. As Borges emphasizes, grasping the “word for the universe” is impossible: “… shall never find (it)…’ (para. 5). The poet and the Yellow Emperor find themselves back in the labyrinth they are trying to escape from.
They fail to “free themselves from the sense of being lost that accompanied them to the end” (para. 1). To seek the “word for the universe” is but to name/ categorize and petrify the logos—no different from creating an authoritarian and immortal “god” or dogma. Wheelock writes: “To Borges, dogma is anathema…. But this is not true of the provisional, expedient… momentary god” (65). The “momentary god” is the imperfect logos. As the name implies, it is transient, “the mind’s only substitute for comprehension in the true sense of the word…” (65-66). Absolute comprehension is beyond the domain of mortals.
In Parable of the Palace the “momentary god” takes the form of the poet’s composition. It is “(linked) indissolubly to his name today, the words which, as the most elegant historians never cease repeating, garnered the poet immortality and death (para. 2). The poem’s duplicitous role translates to the potency and impotency of the poetic god. The immortality it grants the poet shows in the center it temporarily provides him. The poem defines the poet, the artwork the artist, the creation gives birth to the creator (hence, the bond between the composition and the poet’s identity).
At the same time, the god/ temporary center, a mere substitute of the original, “fell into oblivion because it merited oblivion” (para. 3). The death of the poet and his poem is natural and inevitable. In dissolving into oblivion, both are reintegrated into the cosmos’ repository of all-consciousness. This is why the conflicting “truths” arising from the poet’s demise – “Others tell the story differently” (para. 4)—are far from lamentable. They are but manifestations of other gods, which in the end, are bound to undergo the exactly same fate as that of the poet’s.
They too will return to the “primordial ground of myth,” the site of “forming and re-forming one’s ideas of the world” (Wheelock, 68). The absence of dogma and tyrannical gods in Borges’ parable prove that other values are flexible and democratic as well. In Parable of the Palace, he writes of towers the color of which “was identical, but the first of them was yellow and the last of them was scarlet; that was how delicate the gradations were and how long the series” ((para. 1). The panoramic view of the towers’ colors corresponds to Borges’ idea of the fluid consciousness.
The gradation of colors equates to a gradation of values, reminiscent of what Bonsignores calls “the moral knot which the reader must untie by inward reflection and choice. ” The single, “tyrannical” hue on the surface is emblematic of “direct communication” (Bonsignores) the learner/ thinker has long been accustomed to. The spectrum will only be made visible to the beholder if and only if he or she allows herself to perceive it. Parable of the Palace, as with any other parable, is a blank slate on which meanings and identities can be created.
The space for self-assertion and self-creation it provides is an opportunity for introspection. The myriad meanings, or gods, it contains unearths values unrecognized and concealed underneath the dogmatic version of the self. (Notice how the poet’s composition is a parable in its own right: “… within (it) lay the entire enormous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every venerable porcelain it contained and every scene on every porcelain” (para. 5). In the face of a pluralistic consciousness, where and what is the real self?
Borges’ essay The Nothingness of Personality provides the answer. As the title suggests, the essay debunks dogmatic and traditional notion of the unified self (in the same vein that Borges abolishes the idea of an airtight consciousness). He writes: “There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken…. memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way” (4).
The unreliability of memory as the foundation of identity surfaces also in Parable of the Palace. The lack of, if not absence of a concrete mental repository of experience in the tale translates to a fluid self, which is a reservoir of all-meanings in its own right. The dogma of personality, if Borges would allow one, is nothing and everything. “… (T)he real merged and mingled with the dream—or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took” (para. 1). In a way, the parable is a translation of dogma into dreams, or as Wheelock puts it, “metaphor” (66).
It is the form by which experience can be made not only accessible but inexhaustible as well. Through this thought becomes eternal, hence ensuring the perpetuation of mental creation. In the want of a single, one true entity to discover, discovery of and by the self knows no end. The education and experience provided by the reading of a parable can be likened to swimming for the floor of a bottomless sea. The journey down is eternal; the sights and images boundless.
Bonsignores, John. “In parables: teaching through parables. ” Legal Studies Forum. Vol. 12. No. 1. (1988). 13 November 2007. <http://tarlton. law. utexas. edu/lpop/etext/lsf/bonsignore12. htm>. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Parable of the palace. ” 13 November 2007. <http://web. mit. edu/harold/www_old/old/Public/parable. html>. —–. “The nothingness of personality. ” Selected non-fictions. Trans. Esther Allen et al. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. 3-9. Wheelock, Carter. The mythmaker: a study of motif and symbol in the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1969.