Is it even possible to gain a better life through knowledge and wisdom? Should we listen to the words of the wise? Franz Kafka tries to answer these questions in his short essay ``On Parables,'' with a resounding ``No!'' In this Kafkan world, one filled with the daily struggles and cares of life, the only thing we can know is the incomprehensibility of it all. He states that all wisdom is expressed in parables then destroys any hope we may have by trouncing the authenticity of parables. But then he does something strange, vividly illustrating his point by using the very method he hoped to discredit.
The first paragraph of ``On Parables'' provides Kafka's main point: ``the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life.'' How does he arrive to this conclusion? He first first asserts that the words of the wise are always parables then explains why all parables are useless. Finally, he concludes that the words of the wise, since they are all parables, are all useless for daily life.
Kafka first assumes that ``the words of the wise are always merely parables,'' and expects the reader to follow this assumption rigidly throughout the work. Notice that there is no wiggle room for the wise; their words are always parables. So don't complain, don't object. It is so, at least within the scope of his essay.
Kafka does however state why the sages use parables. Since sages themselves are incapable of communicating wisdom, they speak in imperfect parables in a futile attempt to communicate that wisdom. Kafka further hints that this may be because even the sage doesn't understand such wisdom. The words of the sage, ``Go over,'' indicate that the sage is not currently where he wants the people to go, but may himself yet be stuck in this world of daily cares, struggles, and hardships. If he were where he wants us to be, he would have used the words ``come over'' instead.
``Over where?'' you may ask. Kafka answers this question by posing what I will refer to as three lands of life related to parables. The first, the most real one, refers to the state of a person's life before encountering a parable. The second, a potential land, is the parable itself and the resulting actions and consequences a person derives from the parable. The third is neither real nor potential, for it is the true object of the parable, a land one cannot find, a land to which one cannot describe the way.
Th first land debuts when Kafka mentions one might ``cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it.'' We must reside somewhere to begin with if we are to cross to somewhere else, thus we are currently in a land. This land is the Land of Daily Life, our ``daily life, which is the only life we have.'' This place lays desolate, ravaged by our daily struggles and cares. It is not fun. Even the sage might yet be in this land, this barren place.
This crossing also indicates a second land of life. Kafka states that ``when the sage says: 'Go over,' he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place.'' But there is an actual place to which the sage would not have us go. This actual place is what the sage actually describes when he speaks in parable. Kafka cements the existence of this second land by allowing the opportunity to go there: ``which we could do anyhow, if the effort were worth it.'' This land, the literal parable, can be called Parable Land. While it is the one place we can cross to, it is not worth the effort. It is merely the most precise inaccurate description of what the sage really wants to tell us.
If the sage tells us about Parable Land by mistake, then there must be something he truly wants to tell us. Kafka notes that the sage ``means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either.'' So this third land, a Fabulous Yonderland, is the supposed true object of the parable. It represents the mystical, elusive Point of the parable. The sage wants to describe it, but he can't, and thus ends up describing Parable Land. In fact, his inability to designate any better causes us to question if he even knows about it. It is a place ``unknown to us,'' and presumably, the sage. Furthermore, we cannot know if this Yonderland is Fabulous or even Yonder. Not knowing even what it is, we have no chance of getting there or finding out. Even if we did reach it, we couldn't communicate or comprehend what we did find.
When the sage speaks in a parable, which he without exception always does, he tries to induce the listener to cross over to the Fabulous Yonderland. However, in attempting, he cannot designate the Fabulous Yonderland any better than the broken-down Parable Land. He literally tells the listener to discard his life in Daily Life for one in Parable Land, though that is not what he means. Ultimately, ``all these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.'' By imperfectly describing the incomprehensible, the parable maker accentuates the incomprehensibility of it all. In this manner Kafka reduces the sages and their words to useless incomprehensibility.
But that is not all we find out about sages. Kafka also gives us a glimpse into the mind of the sage, for he shows the intent of the parable with the phrase ``really set out to say.'' The intent of the parable is to show the obvious, in effect, to hide the obvious from the listener, because it uses many words to say something we already know: the incomprehensible is incomprehensible. The sage then is either a deceiver trying to confuse the people, or he is another of the deceived.
The second part of ``On Parables'' does however refer to real life, albeit incorrectly. In this second part, Kafka ends his commentary with a parable of his own. This parable clearly illustrates his point and ironically forms the only truly honest type of parable capable of existing within his criteria:
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.
The first man's comment, according to the first half of ``On Parables,' is perfectly valid. It is indeed possible in this Universe of Parables to become a parable in a sense by ``crossing over'' to Parable Land. In Parable Land, the world works like parables, and those who inhabit it may in fact become parables themselves. In doing so, they discard their daily struggles for a new set of parable struggles.
The second man is therefore correct in claiming the first man's comment to be a parable, since it is a word of wisdom and must be a parable. This shows that he has gotten the real point of the first man's parable, and thus has reached this parable's Fabulous Yonderland. He must be right, for the object of the parable is the first section of the essay, indicated by Kafka's phrase ``Concerning this.''
The first man's reply demonstrates that he is not really trying to get the second man to follow parables after all, a conclusion also supported by the first paragraph. Kafka previously had stated that sages don't want us to follow their parables. Since this man's parable is suggesting that we follow parables, he cannot be really telling us to follow them. He is instead trying to communicate the truth that ``the words of the wise are always parables and of no use in daily life.'' The second man has succeeded in getting the point of the parable, and the sage says in surprise, ``You have won.''
However, the second man only understands that ``the words of the wise are always parables and of no use in daily life,'' and does yet not understand the rest of Kafka's statements about parables. So he says, ``But unfortunately only in parable,'' for he believes that he won the parable by reaching the literal parable, Parable Land.
The sage then tries to instruct him with the truth by saying ``No, in reality: in parable you have lost.'' Unfortunately, like all sages, he does not understand the full reality of the situation. He tries to tell the second man that he has done the impossible: crossed to the Fabulous Yonderland. But the sage is not correct, for he does not realize that his reality is also a parable. Thus neither of the men are right about their position, and both of them have lost both in parable and reality.
This parable-within-a-parable used by Kafka in the second half of his essay provides a daring example of his depth of thought. Only a madman or a genius would attempt it, and it is Kafka's genius that fits this parable to fit perfectly within the essay. For if all parables are a representation of the incomprehensible, then the only honest parables are those that purposefully point to the incomprehensible. This parable qualifies, since its object is incomprehensibility itself. At the same time, it has a knowable object, even though it is incomprehensible. Neither is it useless, for it effectively illustrates the first half of Kafka's essay. This end parable also provides an excellent example of Kafka's ability to poke fun at his own statements while supporting them strongly at the same time.
``On Parables'' also shows Kafka's genius of writing things that are both easy and hard to understand at the same time. The essay effectively communicates the same message to the first time reader as it does to the careful re-reader. Perhaps one can better understand the nuance and detail of his comments as one reads and thinks further, but we all come to the same conclusion of incomprehensibility no matter how closely or casually we look at it. We become in the end a living example that the labor itself may not really be worth it.
However, I believe that ``On Parables'' is truly worth studying. Only half of it (the second part) is claimed to be useless, so even Kafka allows that the first half might be useful. The second half in its uselessness illustrates the first half well, so the second half paradoxically also has a use. So what should we learn from it? What use can we get from reading this mental conundrum?
If we believe Kafka, then all the words of the wise are indeed useless. The sages of this world are telling us about things that, while they might be real in some cases, do not really help us. We do not even know if the sages understand what they talk about. And even if they do understand, they cannot communicate it, and we cannot comprehend them. If we believe Kafka, we probably ought to give it all up.
Of course, Kafka may not have been talking about other people. Some have posed that ``On Parables'' is a meta-parable key to Kafka's own writings. According to this view, Kafka's own words are ``always merely parables and of no use in daily life.'' This may be the case, for Kafka rarely designates clearly what he means; he writes ambiguously using stories, pictures, and parables. It is indeed true that ``many complain'' this about his writings in their frustration. Others try to insert their own meaning into his words. It is possible that Kafka wrote ``On Parables'' as a reply to those who would too greatly hate or love his writings, letting them in on a secret: it's all useless, incomprehensible, or not worth the labor.
``On Parables'' is one of Kafka's best short works. It demonstrates his depth of thought, whimsy, and despair. It also covers many of the main themes that recur through his work, themes about the nature of truth, the knowablility of truth, the way of salvation, the relevance of wisdom to life, and the despair of recognizing the incomprehensible. It may even be the key to understanding the ambiguous nature of his other works. It certainly provides an exhortation to think twice next time before merely accepting something, even Kafka's own writings, just because a story is compelling.
It is not useless.