Parabolic Tale, with Invocation

Kenneth Burke

And the old man, being an old man, and therefore a senex, and entitled to give counsel, asked the young man:

"Young man, what do you know?"

And the young man, who had felled trees, had girded mountains and swum rivers, done many things, and who never took counsel, immediately answered:

"I know everything, father."

And the old man rather smiled and said:

"I know nothing."

And the old man, being old, then gave the young man counsel, which the young man tossed aside with anger. And the young man continued to do many things, while the venerable senex meditated in silence and was mildly discomforted by the young man's stubbornness. And the old man's mind became quiet, and magnificent, and awesome, like a deserted Cathedral full of vanished echoes. And his soul became tall, and calm, and Gothic, like the Cathedral.  But he was still vexed at the sacred stubbornness of the young man, and still gave counsel.

Until finally the young man hearkened a little, and found that what the ancient senex said was wise. And the more he obeyed, the less often he swam a stream too swift.

And  the old man wrote his counsel, that other young men might read of it, and died.  And  the young man became old, and counseled the young.  And these young men hearkened to him, at first not at all, then more, and more, until they, too, were senexes, fit to give counsel.  And having spoken, they died.

And as time went on the young men were led more and more by the accumulated wisdom of the old men, and their mistakes became fewer and fewer.

They are trying to guide me; 0 God, be merciful, and spare me, who should beyoung yet, from the wisdom of death.

* "Parabolic Tale, with Invocation" originally appeared in The Sansculotte 1 (January 1917): 8. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).