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."

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