kafka: thoughts on some short stories

My short-lived introduction to Kafka was through a class on Existentialism. We read a selection of few short stories such as On Parables, An Imperial Message, Before the Law, and A Country Doctor. Since it was after Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, I think the purpose of reading Kafka was to drive home the point of how most of our knowledge comes unquestioned from those we are under or interact within everyday life. Nietzsche’s Camel, Lion, and Baby phases of morality and Dostoevsky cautious tale about experiencing life through the lens of pop culture media in Notes from the Underground show the dangers of taking common wisdom as common wisdom, rather than experiencing and figuring out things, relatively, on your own. Anyway, I really liked the An Imperial Message since, by intentional design, it is very open to interpretation. Here’s the short story and my thoughts following it.

The Emperor — so they say — has sent a message, directly from his deathbed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who have come to witness his death — all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs — in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the center of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes.

An Imperial Message by Franz Kafka

Through On Parables, Kafka expressed dissatisfaction with the abundance of didactic wisdom in parables. We can undoubtedly see this in his writing. I could not find a strong underlying moral or wisdom’ that he was trying to impart, rather a general sense or feeling of in-communicability. In An Imperial Message, Kafka tells the story of a messenger who is given the duty to convey a message to an unknown recipient (you) by a king on his deathbed. The messenger, even with the power bestowed upon him by the king, is unable to reach their destination. When they succeed in crossing an obstacle or an area, they realize that there is even more space to cover. Again and again, the messenger is greeted with more territory to traverse, more obstacles to overcome. Thus, the message seemingly can never be delivered. I interpret this as a metaphor for Kafka’s struggle as an author and even generalize it to an existentialist conflict with authenticity. As the messenger could not deliver his message, similarly Kafka does not feel that he has been able to appropriately share his ideas and sentiments with the reader. Every time he ventures to explain a part of himself, he gets closer but is unable to fully do so. Thus Kafka is the king, the words are the messenger, and the reader is the recipient. It’s almost as if Kafka is asking whether it is possible to truly communicate your self to others?

At the end of An Imperial Message, Kafka says the following:

Nobody could fight his way through here, least of all one with a message from a dead man.

I love to interpret this as meaning that during the time it takes Kafka to form the words and structure his thoughts, “the self’‘ described in that instantaneous moment in time has already faded away. On the other hand, it might also mean that Kafka is directly talking to the people who will read his work after his death. Existential thought seduces you into a hazy and uncertain attitude towards life rather than a concrete set of beliefs. Kafka, much like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky’s writing, seems to remain in the realm of ambiguous rather than the objective moral teachings of the parables he despises.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.

The last line of An Imperial Message

The first time Kafka used the word you was to describe the recipient of the message. However, when he uses you for the second time in the quotation above, he seems to be more directly talking to the reader outside of the context of the story, suggesting some sort of connection. As a reader, I felt like Kafka was asking me whether someday, while trying to understand his work, I would be able to convince myself that I truly and emphatically grasp what he was trying to convey through his message. Does it even matter?

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