Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Franz Kafka's On Parables

Searching for short literary texts to discuss along side images from comic books, I seem to have come across more than a few parables, so I thought Kafka's On Parables a good thing to look at here. This is the text in full:
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
Parables are a major part of Christianity -- Jesus expresses his message through parables -- but they are double edged: in Mark 4: 11-12 Jesus says
Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
Read and re-read that passage: you will continue to bump your head against Jesus clearly saying that there are people who should not be saved, whose sins should not be forgiven, that he speaks in parables specifically to keep these people in the dark. Parables are to explain, but also to obscure; they are supposed to express the inexpressible and to be of help in daily life, but the inexpressible is of no help in daily life. This is what Kafka is interested in here. To win in parable is to express the inexpressible; to win in life is to made the parable useful. These are clearly at odds but are intended to be, by those who write parables, connected. Kafka, in looking at the relation between life and literature, rebukes the connection and keeps them at odds: make use of literature and you lose its mystery; keep the mystery and you lose practical application. And of course, for Kafka there is no way to solve the problem: either way, you lose.


Anonymous said...
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Geoff Klock said...

I am sure everyone has already guessed this but let me say: the deleted comments, here and elsewhere, are not angry people saying I suck; they are spam.

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Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting to compare this story to Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the characters are influenced almost solely by art (the book Lord Henry lends Dorian), and where Dorian is, in fact, nothing more than a work of art. His real face exists only in the painting Basil gave him -- art and reality are inseparable here. The complete opposite of what Kafka says here.