By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘An Imperial Message’ is a short text by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), written in 1919. Too brief to be considered a ‘short story’ in the traditional sense, ‘An Imperial Message’ is usually classified as a parable. The text describes a dying emperor who dispatches a messenger with a message for us, the reader of the text, but the messenger never arrives.
‘An Imperial Message’: plot summary
Addressing the reader directly as ‘you’, the narrator of the story tells us that the Emperor has sent a message to us, according to a parable. The Emperor is on his deathbed and dictated the message to a messenger, by whispering it to him. He wanted to ensure the messenger had accurately heard the message, so he asked him to repeat it by whispering it into the Emperor’s ear. Satisfied that the messenger had the message, the Emperor nodded.
The Emperor is surrounded by all of his court, who are gathered around his deathbed. These spectators watch as the messenger immediately leaves the Emperor’s deathbed in order to deliver the message to us (the reader of the story). But although the messenger begins his journey with purposeful strides, easily making his way through the crowd of people in the palace, the vast number of people soon make it impossible for him to get very far.
Indeed, the number of people seems infinite, so that the messenger can never appear to get beyond the inner chambers of the imperial palace. Even if he found his way out of them, he would then have to fight his way past people on the stairs, and then he’d have to cross the courts, and then an outer palace, and then more stairs and more courts.
Then there’d be another palace he’d have to fight his way through. This process would go on for thousands of years, the narrator tells us, and even then, the messenger would have to make his way across the capital city which is teeming with people. But although the message will never be delivered to us, the narrator tells us that we sit at the window when evening falls, and dream the message to ourselves.
‘An Imperial Message’: analysis
Along with his other best-known parable, the short text ‘Before the Law’, ‘An Imperial Message’ stands at the head of the Vintage edition of Kafka’s Complete Short Stories: the two brief parables are like double doors which open before us and show us the way into Kafka’s world. But what does this parable mean?
Like much of Kafka’s fiction, which is symbolic without being narrowly allegorical, ‘An Imperial Message’ invites a number of possible interpretations. One clue as to how we are perhaps to interpret this short parable is found in the narrator’s use of the second-person pronoun: in addressing us, the reader, directly as ‘you’, a relationship between reader and text is being suggested. But what kind of relationship?
If we, the reader, are the ‘you’ of the story, then for ‘Emperor’ we might substitute ‘Author’. The author of the text has written us a message – the text that we are reading – but he will die and tell us the meaning of the message, or text, we read. However, we never receive that missive, and so we are left to ‘dream’, or imagine, what the text we are reading is supposed to mean.
Whenever we read a Kafka story, we might wonder what Kafka intended when he wrote it, but we cannot ask him, not only because he died in 1924 but because, even when he was alive, he did not leave detailed accounts of what his stories are supposed to ‘mean’. The story itself contains its meaning, though this meaning becomes lost – like that messenger deep within the imperial palace – and is forever delayed.
In this interpretation of Kafka’s text, the title ‘An Imperial Message’ both refers to the subject and is the substance of the story itself: the ‘imperial message’ is both in the story and is the story, Emperor Kafka’s ‘message’ to us, his readers.
Of course, such an equivalence is not perfect, since we literally do have the text of ‘An Imperial Message’ (even if English-speaking readers read a version which a translator of Kafka – a messenger of sorts – has written based on Kafka’s original German text), whereas the message described in the story never arrives. But if we interpret ‘message’ here in the other sense, to denote the meaning of a text (such as the moral message, for instance), then the comparison holds.
When analysed this way, ‘An Imperial Message’ anticipates the later writings of literary theorists associated with the philosophy of post-structuralism (such as Roland Barthes, whose ‘The Death of the Author’ we have discussed here) and deconstruction (notably Jacques Derrida, whose concept of différance emphasised the fact that meaning is always deferred).
But if Kafka’s parable prefigures Barthes and Derrida, it also prefigures – and was undoubtedly an influence on – the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who himself wrote a number of Kafkaesque parables. Indeed, Borges, in his essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, proposed the ancient philosopher Zeno as a notable precursor to Kafka, citing Zeno’s paradox against movement, which states that an object at point A cannot reach point B because it must first cover half the distance between the two points, then half of the half, then half of the half of the half, and so on.
Borges likens this to K’s situation in Kafka’s The Castle, where K’s attempts to reach the castle always end in failure, and he never manages to cover the short distance between himself and the castle outside the village.
But of course, this is also similar to the messenger’s ‘progress’ in ‘An Imperial Message’, which begins with such confidence only to become gradually much slower and more difficult.
But if we develop the analysis of the parable outlined above, it may be significant here that the more people the messenger passes, the harder it becomes for the message to be relayed. The more distant we become from Kafka and his time, the harder it becomes to recover what his intentions were when writing his work. There may even be a kind of satire on literary criticism at play here: the more opinions and interpretations of a text other people have offered, the harder it becomes for us to see the text clearly.