For a few days here on Big Other, now while we’re still in soul-shot of Passover and Easter, I’ve been posting about a short-short by Franz Kafka that he titled “On Parables.” The original along
I left off with the notion that, while we fallen creatures do the best we can,or some of us at least, striving for the good, Kafka’s stern divider remains. He lays a strict, harsh line between what’s parable, what’s merely human. That is, even as each of us hammers out compromises, even as we pay our dues — the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, too! — we can’t deny that the effort falls short. The outcasts of Mogadishu continue to starve and simmer with murderous resentments. My contribution to Brady proved useless when, in Sanford, Florida, a decent brown-skinned guy grew concerned about a decent darker-skinned guy wearing a hoodie on the wrong block, at the wrong hour.
Then too, what good were small gestures while, in the warehouses of Auschwitz, the piles of children’s shoes kept growing? In short, no honest reading of the world keeps us from the same tragic conclusion as when we read “On Parables” in Lit Class. The human animal appears forever a failure, verloren.
Yet, for better news, perhaps we ought to return to Lit class. We ought to look at the form Kafka chose. He wasn’t composing a sermon, after all, but rather riding a midnight flight of imagination.
The human animal, in its design, includes an escape hatch, a way out of this “only life we have.” I mean the unconscious. In actuality we can’t, we can’t — but in fantasy, oh yes we can. We can be the peacekeeper or the sage, or both. Every day, every minute, men and women leap the borders of
the possible by means of image and dream, making things up. Of course, danger lies outside the exit as well. The imagination can brew up far worse trouble than the situation that contains it. Its parables may turn out perverse, the stuff of De Sade.
Still, that’s our way out, through the interior wilderness. That’s where we got the story about the lion who lies down with the lamb — as well as the story of the lion who’s part goat and part snake, the rampaging Chimera. Also, note the age of my two examples. Humanity recognized the danger of the imagination long before it developed psychobabble. The Sermon on the Mount includes its rueful admonition against lusting in one’s heart precisely because Christ realized that everybody does it. His point was to highlight the distance between the low dirt of homo sapiens and the divine love of the heavenly spirit. Likewise in Kafka’s brief conundrum, the first speaker renders swift and unforgiving judgment when the joker across the table toys with parable clumsily, all too humanly.
Look, Kafka’s two characters aren’t necessarily the Messiah and the Unbeliever. Let’s imagine them, instead, as two smartmouthed slackers in an espresso bar. Such types were by no means unknown in Prague, c. 1922. Then as now, too, one of these big talkers clearly thinks of himself as some kind of artist. One’s a wannabe, yes? This would be the second speaker, and his lame joke, his claim to profundity about our fallen condition, is an attempt to play a game that’s out of his league. It’s hubris, no less, and where does the overreaching come from if not the artist’s vital resource: the unconscious?
So Kafka’s brief, brainy downer arrives at the implication I find most courageous. The made thing slaps back at its maker. The closing parable or half-parable may chill us with our distance from the Creator, but that same chill reaches its own creator, lower-case. The character who attempts to use irony, imagination, a play on words — it’s he who winds up with his nose in the drain.
This Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Bet, I should add, can be taken too far. It can be taken to the point of reading Kafka’s grim little joke as if it called the martyrdom of own sister and lover into question. Wasn’t their sacrifice a form of artistic hubris? But anyone who wrings such extremes out of “On Parables” has his nose in book, too far “yonder.” He needs to extricate himself and renew his acquaintance with the world of daily cares. He needs to see if he can do anywhere new as much good as Ottla, who for a few crucial hours kept a few children a little less frightened.
Still, the arts too are in play, in Kafka’s austere two-hander. “The incomprehensible,” complains our wisenheimer, “remains incomprehensible” — and what would the arts be without it? Any honest exercise of the imagination burrows into an enigma. “We work in the dark,” asserts Henry James, and though he’s Kafka’s opposite in many ways, James then goes on to defend “the madness of art.” In that madness and darkness, art sustains whatever portion of transcendence it offers. In burrowing into mystery and there, every once in a while, finding forms by which the Unknowable reveals its humanity, art demonstrates how, alongside such monstrous imponderables as race hatred and the impulse to crush, there exists the impulse to sustaining insight, and to beauty in all its sensory contradistiction.
Let me provide, by way of conclusion, an example that came to me recently. An example entirely of this world.
The Judeo-Christian Bible, I realized recently, is framed by two meals. For all its commandments,
kings, psalms, and crucifixions — its beheadings, slaughters, stonings, wars, blood enough for a hundred Holocausts — for all that, the whole baggy business comes down to two dinnertimes. There’s the first Passover in Egypt, and then the later one in Jerusalem. In each, primary miracles of the faith take place in a meditative quiet, image-generating, even as horrors lurk close: the Plagues in Egypt, and later Golgotha. Once the diners gather, the active elements in the wheat and grape are matched by those of our ebullient subconscious, which provide the natural accompaniment to mealtime, namely, telling stories.
Is that a significant connection, when on the one hand we’ve got EuroAmerica’s hefty grab-bag of parables, written by a hundred hands and the most popular text in the world, and on the other we’ve got a neglected writer’s stiletto-jab at the form, dashed off over the course of another lonesome night? Could it indicate, really now, a better and more welcoming version of humanity?
Concerning this, a man might say — a man like Franz Kafka, brought back into this only world we have by the mystic power of our shared dreaming — a man might say: I bet that is also a parable.
And I would say: What are you doing for brunch?