Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Message from Kafka

I reprint here without permission a new translation by Mark Harman of a short piece written around 1919 by Franz Kafka, called "A Message from the Emperor". This was published in the September 29, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Why do I reprint this? Because I find it the clearest statement I've found of how incapable we are, as humans, of communicating with one another. Of how intellect blocks insight; of how our society of mind, as Minsky calls it, barks up so much noise and confusion and layers of misdirection, that a single idea, a single thought, has little prospect of successfully forging to the front of consciousness. Especially when mandated into existence by intention.

Yet thoughts and ideas do surface for us, floating into view just as on occassion a leaf, waterlogged and wilted and fraught with crawling life, sometimes floats to the surface of a pond, there to display itself to the glory of sun and air.

Is Kafka wrong? Not when we consider the source of the message he describes. Not when we understand the futility and hubris of its mandate. The message of the emperor may fail where the message of the leaf, modest, serindipidous, seemingly accidental, prevails.


"The emperor--it is said--has sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you has he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger's words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death--all obstructing walls having been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways--before all these he dispatched the messenger.

"The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path through the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door.

"But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate--but it can never, never happen--before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead.

"You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All Things are Sacred

It's comforting and reassuring to find intelligent thinkers who share my perspective, and better, who have positive visions for humanity. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson.

From The Years of Rice and Salt:

“Tell me more about what the Buddha said,” Ibrahim would say in the evenings on the verandah. “I have the impression it is all very primitive and self-concerned. You know: things are the way they are, one adapts to that, focuses on oneself. All is well. But obviously things in this world are not well. Can Buddhism speak to that? Is there an 'ought to' in it, as well as an 'is'?”

“ 'If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion.' This the Tibetans' Dalai Lama said [answered Kang, his wife]. And the Buddha himself said to Sigala, who worshiped the six directions, teachers, spouse and children, friends, servants and employees, and religious people. All these should be worshiped, he said. Worshiped, do you understand? As holy things. The people in your life! Thus daily life becomes a form of worship, do you see? It's not a matter of praying on Friday and then the rest of the week terrorizing the world.”

“This is not what Allah calls for, I assure you.”

“No. But you have your jihads, yes? And now it seems the whole of Dar al-Islam is at war, conquering each other or strangers. Buddhists never conquer anything. In the Buddha's ten directives to the Good King, non-violence, compassion, and kindness are the matter of more than half of them. Asokawas laying waste to India when he was young, and then he became Buddhist, and never killed another man. He was the good king personified.”

“But not often imitated.”

“No. But we live in barbarous times. Buddhism spreads by people converting out of their own wish for peace and right action. But power condenses around those willing to use force. Islam will use force, the emperor will use force. They will rule the world. Or fight over it, until it is all destroyed.”

Another time she said, “What I find interesting is that of all these religious figures of ancient times, only the Buddha did not claim to be a god, or to be talking to God. The others all claim to be God, or God's son, or to be taking dictation from God. Whereas the Buddha simply said, there is no God. The universe itself is holy, human beings are sacred, all the sentient beings are sacred and can work to be enlightened, and one must only pay attention to daily life, the middle way, and give thanks and worship in daily action. It is the most unassuming of religions. Not even a religion, but more a way to live.”

“What about these statues of Buddha I see everywhere, and the worship in the Buddhist temples? You yourself spend a great deal of time at prayer.”

“Partly the Buddha is revered as the exemplary man. Simple minds might have it otherwise, no doubt. But these are mostly people who worship everything that moves, and a Buddha is just one god among many others. They miss the point. In India they made him an avatar of Vishnu, an avatar who is deliberately trying to mislead people away from the proper worship of Brahman, isn't that right? No, many people miss the point. But it is there for all to see, if they would.”

“And your prayers?”

“I pray to see things better.”