On Parables

by Franz Kafka

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 over 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 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 yourself 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.


By Yana Zlochistaya

One of the most striking moments in Kafka’s text comes when the narrative voice laments the futility of the wise man’s attempts to effectively communicate his wisdom: “When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we would do anyhow if the labor was worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us in the very least”. The frustration of the imprecise “us”—those who are not sages, but rather the potential receivers of wisdom—mirrors the frustration of the reader encountering one of Kafka’s texts. The maddening brilliance of his writing lies in its resistance to “precise designation”: Following any particular thread of thought results not a simple unfurling, but in a knot of assumptions and contradictions. This characteristic nebulousness is both exemplified and self-consciously examined in this short text, which simultaneously deconstructs the parable form as a vehicle for communicating moral law and itself takes the form which it ostensibly discredits. At its center, the parable examines the domains of reality and allegory as fundamentally disparate and irreconcilable spheres. Therefore, it argues for the futility of dictating law within the realm of the parable with the expectation of applying it to reality. Yet this conclusion is complicated by the form of the text itself, leaving the reader to question either the purported lesson, the form in which it is delivered, or both. I want to suggest that rather than trying to untangle this perhaps unsolvable dilemma, it is the acceptance of the conundrum that is central to understanding the work. Looking beyond the value of the parable as a vehicle for communicating law and examining it as a work of fiction allows for greater acceptance of nuance and contradiction. When law fails, all that is left is ambiguity—and in the realm of fiction, perhaps that is enough.

The entirety of the parable rests upon the whimsical claim made in the first sentence that daily life “is the only life we have”. This statement, which in one broad stroke eliminates any possibility of religious or spiritual transcendence, places humankind—for the universalizing second person seems to embody all people—strictly within the realm of the quotidian. Contrasted with that is the world of parable, made up of nothing more than the abstract and ultimately meaningless words of the “wise”. The question of whether the gap between the two realms always existed, or whether something in the quality of reality changed in such a way as to prohibit the possibility of communication between the two remains unclear, but in either case, from the perspective of the narrative voice, parables are useless relics that reveal something we know already: “that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible”. The natural consequence of this conclusion is that every attempt at asserting an imperative found within the text is immediately undermined or scrutinized. In the commentary that makes up the first part of the parable, the sage who preaches “going over” serves as the first figure of potential authority, yet the narrator questions not only his ability to communicate his message, but the veracity of the message itself. In pointing out that even the sage cannot fully articulate what he means by his statement, he loses his position as a superior figure of wisdom and becomes once again just one of “us”—that is to say, those for whom the reality of daily life is the only kind that can be conceptualized. In the second part of the text, the source of authority becomes the man who encourages us to “follow the parables so that we ourselves would become parables”. Yet his views, too, are immediately brought into question by his interlocutor, who points out that such an aim remains possible only within the sphere of the allegorical. The resolution—such as it is—of the conversation lies in the first individual’s proclamation that understanding that parables cannot be applicable to reality is a “win” in the realm of reality, but a “loss” in the realm of parable. This final statement, which in the context of a traditional biblical allegory would serve as the “key” for understanding the problem raised at the start, leaves the reader with two seemingly inevitable questions: the meaning of “victory” and “loss” as proposed by the unnamed character, and the very possibility of accepting the authority of somebody who, as the narrator suggests, can have none.

Further complicating this already equivocal denouement is the form of the text, which embodies all that it criticizes. If the reader accepts the narrator’s assertion that parables are useless and sages merely bombastic false prophets, then the first object of scrutiny becomes the narrator himself. His tenuous position as both the purported voice of those firmly grounded in reality and the figure of authority (awarded to him by the very fact of his narrating the text) makes everything he says potentially unreliable. It also remains unclear whether someone who exists to the reader only within a fictional text has any say in questions of reality that exist outside of the text. In turn, such doubts inevitably raise the broader question of the possibility of designating a space referred to as “reality” in a self-contained work of fiction. If the “fabulous yonder” portrayed in the text is an unattainable abstract, then the world of the “real” becomes just as fabulous, as they both extend beyond the scope of the words written upon the page.

In light of all these contradictions, everything about this text seems fundamentally ungraspable. At best, it is possible to say that Kafka has proved some kind of negative; in denouncing the parable in the form of a parable, he once again illustrates the genre’s ineffectuality (including, inevitably, its uselessness in proving its own uselessness). While it is possible to conclude an analysis of the text there, this would preclude the possibility of an implied counterpoint, signaled primarily by the fact that this text was, in fact, written, in spite of all of the ways in which that seems a fruitless endeavor. In exploring this idea, I believe it is necessary to accept at least to some degree the parable’s claim that it cannot effectively communicate law, if only on the basis that the text itself does not communicate any identifiable moral commandment. With that motive removed, then, the question becomes whether there is any value to the allegorical outside of its application to the practical. Using this framework, perhaps the confusing nature of the text provides something approaching an answer. This text breaks down hierarchical notions of wisdom as something that can be passed down, eliminating the comfort of uncritical acceptance and instead, raising questions rather than resolving them. Thus, by removing the voice of authority, fiction forces the reader to grapple with critical concepts in a way that law does not. That is not to imply that it is impossible to question moral law, but rather to say that by virtue of its lateral nature, fiction removes the barrier between the ruler and the ruled and thus makes questioning easier. Even if the questions posed within the text prove impossible to satisfactorily resolve, the very act of encountering those cognitive quandaries already accomplishes something.

In suggesting this reading—or rather, this approach to reading—of Kafka’s text, I want to be careful about clarifying any implication that Kafka’s fiction serves to force the reader to think critically. On the contrary, Kafka’s fiction serves only itself. “On Parables” can begin to make sense only when the reader relinquishes the idea that there is a hidden law within it; that it was written by an author wishing to be a teacher or guide or “sage”. Negotiating this parable on equal terms seems to be the first and final step in approaching some level of understanding. And if that doesn’t work, then perhaps that’s part of the point, too.