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 too that he cannot designate more precisely, 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 everyday; 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.
Considering the “fabulous yonder” we’re in, the world we call Big Other, my fellow travelers will readily recognize the voice and vision above. It’s Franz Kafka, sure, a short story or meditation or something finished in 1922, two years before his death. Tuberculosis took him at the young age of 41, when he was still a mid-level insurance exec in Prague, the hometown he termed “the little mother with claws.” Like most of his work, especially the work without narrative, this piece saw print well after his death, thanks in particular to Max Brod, a writer far more widely published and celebrated during Kafka’s lifetime. Brod, a Jew like his friend, had to flee Prague in 1939, yet he took time to gather up Kafka’s remaining unpublished manuscripts; “On Parables” (translated to English later still, by Willa and Edwin Muir) would’ve been among the papers in
Brod’s bags, as he and his wife crossed the Czech border, just minutes before the Nazis closed it.
Since then of course Kafka has entered the canon — in more ways than one. As an artist his imaginings have become essential to our era: the traveling salesman turned bug, and the original “hunger game,” in which starvation became spectacle. On top of that, theologians and philosophers often have recourse to his work, as they try to wring meaning from the universe.
Well, why not Big Other, too? Why not consider “On Parables” in light of how parables are usually intended? ‘Tis the season, isn’t it, Passover, Easter? Myself, I’ve taught this piece as literature, but also twice had a run at it in a church setting. Twice I’ve used it as the basis for a lay sermon — the only sermons I’ve ever delivered — first in the mid-‘90s in Portland, Oregon, then 15 years later in Des Moines, Iowa. Each time, like now, my thinking went through revision.
So, Kafka’s parable. Analysis can seem addle-pated, because the piece seems so simple. The opening divides the world with a thick black line: on one side there’s parable, and on the other there’s not. On one side there’s the “fabulous yonder” of “the sage,” and on the other there’s our all-too-familiar earthly arena, “the cares we have to struggle with every day.” Once that clear division has been drawn, however, the piece changes direction.
Kafka was himself a singular hybrid, a German-speaking Czech Jew. Insofar as his insurance career and spotty health allowed him a writing schedule, it was nightwork. Not surprisingly, then, his little piece grafts half-joking overexplanation to grim inklings of dangers in the dark. Here the closing exchange is hinged on a dry joke, a pun. One character says “I bet” (in German, Ich wette) and the other “You have won” — won your bet. But this airy little wager has the impact of the irrevocable. For his last word, Kafka chooses “lost.” In the German, verloren, it has even stronger connotations, suggesting an outcast or pariah.
What the first speaker argues here is the ancient call of messiahs everywhere. Follow the parables, he says, and you become a parable. As Christ put it: Take up your cross and follow me. But whatever the creed, Kafka reminds us, the true believer dwells beyond the dividing line between worlds. A true believer lets go of “daily cares,” and lives for a higher purpose.
The second speaker gets the idea — the idea, but not the spirit. His reply is sardonic, quick. Take your parables, he’s saying, and take a hike. Yet this very quickness, embodied in the abrupt word bet, forever locks him outside the realm of believers. A bet, you see, matters only over on the daily-cares side of the divider. A bet concerns earthbound winning and losing. It’s of a piece with filing
for workman’s comp, say. Or with checking the train schedule, as a racist regime clamps down — or checking your wardrobe, if you happen to be a black American in a white neighborhood after sunset.
“On Parables” creates two opposed universes and then thrusts us into the harsher. The chilling final line embraces anyone seduced by the man-of-the-world opening, or by the second speaker’s quip. As men of the world, men and women, we’re of this world: the lost, verloren, pariah.
So much for analysis, the stuff of a class in Existential or Jewish Lit. But I want to go further. Next post.