Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Message from the Emperor

The Emperor is dying and calls a messenger to his deathbed. The message is sent “to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun….” So begins Kafka’s A Message from the Emperor, which appears in a new translation by Mark Harman in The New York Review of Books (9/29/11). Harman writes in a brief introduction that the composer Martin Bresnick had asked him to produce a new translation “that could…evoke the at-first unimpeded progress of the emperor’s messenger and then the obstacles that begin to clog his path.” A Message from the Emperor is the kind of parable that presents a series of paradigms. In its most basic form, the message is Sisyphean, since the messenger never gets to where he is going, meaning that the wisdom contained in the message never arrives. Like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, ideal forms always elude the perception of human consciousness. In psychological terms, the unrevealed message is the unconscious: that which, by definition, we are not conscious of. In religious terms, the emperor is the ultimate authority figure, the divine Father. The parable sets the stage for the Judeo-Christian concept of faith, since it closes out the possibility of actual connection, replacing it with the notion of the leap. The divine Word will never be successfully passed from God to man. Such is the predicament of both God and man.

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