literary theory, philosophy, Uncategorized

On Kafka’s “On Parables”

Kafka has a parable entitled “On Parables” that goes something like this:

A: You people who talk in parables say stuff that’s not useful in real life.  You’re always talking about a mountain, a river, a happy place, a danger but they’re never about REAL mountains, rivers, happy places, or dangers. Your parables are useless for those of us who live in the real world.

B:You’ve won.

A:Right, but only in parable.

B:No, in real life. In parable you have lost.


It is hard to summarize the point of this because part of the point of it is that we cannot simply summarize the point of things like parables.  That is when we ask to translate a parable into something easier to digest we are just evading the point of the parable.  But it is not impossible to summarize the point of it either, because another part of the point of it (which is odd I know as a point by definition is that which “hath no part”) is that by reading them we either win or lose, and that the attempt to evade the winning or losing by translating them into a “special” language, used in special circumstances by special people — refined people, or literary critics, or religious people — is also an evasion as terrible as the first one.

I would attempt to convey the point of the parable by offering up the following dialogue and noting some of the structural features it bears with Kafka’s:

A:When you say “I love you and I will give you everything” you don’t really mean you will give me everything.  You don’t have that much money and if I got cancer you could not give me health.  All you mean is that you will give me love.

B: Fine.   I will give you everything I can.

A: Great.  I finally got you to love me for real.

B:No.  You finally got me to pretend.


18 thoughts on “On Kafka’s “On Parables”

  1. ..Kafka’s parables….(…) I am reading “Tropes, Parables, and Performatives”
    By J. Hillis Miller due your “On Kafka….” posted December 15th!!(…) The parables ask to be taken literally. The only way they become efficacious is for them to become literally true, so that one does literally “go over” (…)

      • What it remains immovably…that is to say real life that never change; life, death; a scientific fact, as the beginning of the life, for example; indeed Parable comes to the word PARABOLIC; from the beginning to the end following the parabolic form; returning all the topic to the same premise..maybe when Sheldon cried out “It is a wave!!! it is just one way to TBBT.

  2. Mikey says:

    What does it mean to take anything literally? The story of the Big Bang is meant to be cold and scientific and non-parabley, but you can’t hear it without interpreting it, and everyone might interpret it differently. That’s the same with cold hard scientific stories about mountains or rivers or happy places.

    • it is a puzzle. my theory is that with metaphor we catch the brain (or mind or whatever) in the process of changing how it thinks about the world. So any description of metaphor naturally tends to coalesce into talking about metaphor as if the process of change is already done, and thereby misses what’s going on. It’s not entirely satisfactory though (my theory I mean).

  3. Once there was a young artist possessed of extraordinary talent and genius who lived in the Kingdom of No. He was a frustrated genius because he didn’t have time to express himself artistically because Mean Queen Guillotine had assigned him the task of sorting her gemstones, of which she had scads and endless scads.

    The castle’s sorting room had a window overlooking the Wide Open Spaces and occasionally the young artist would gaze out over them pondering the fate of people who had ventured thence. Had they died? found happiness? been enslaved by yet another tyrant? He thought, “If I ruled this kingdom, talented people would be granted the time to express themselves and enhanced would be the lives of all the people, the kingdom would be called the kingdom of Yes, and no one would ever want to leave.” Around this thought was tied an ever-expanding knot of resentment focused on Mean Queen Guillotine.

    One day, just as he was indulging in this very same window gazing activity, he conceived of a sculpture he would create, out of the dust of the sorting room, which would make all of the people laugh, then cry, then laugh again! He was certain it would function thusly, as just the thought of it made him laugh, cry, then laugh again.

    Just then the Mean Queen burst in on him, enraged. “Do I pay you to ponder the Wide Open Spaces? Or to sort gemstones?” she screamed. “To sort gemstones, Highness.” he replied, and resumed sorting. But he resolved to sculpt that sculpture even if he had to do so during gem sorting time. And so he did.

    Came time to show the sculpture to the people and our artist, never at a loss for genius, devised a plan to smuggle the sculpture out of the sorting room unbeknownst to the Mean Queen and her guards. He placed the sculpture in a bubble which, when heated, would become a lighter-than-air vessel to transport it to the attention of the people. He placed the bubble in the window.

    He completed his duties and left for the day. Just then the evening sun focused its energy on the bubble, which rose from the window and floated over the square. Then the sun set and the bubble descended into the square and settled on top of a pillar where the bubble promptly popped leaving the sculpture intact – standing proudly upon the pillar.

    And the people came from all corners of the kingdom to view the sculpture. There was laughter and there were tears as each who viewed it laughed, then cried, then laughed again!

    A voice boomed from the castle, the Mean Queen. “This night my guillotine tasteth blood!” bellowed she. “Proceed to the colosseum to witness my wrath and its terrible consequences!” And so they did.

    The crowd beheld the condemned, but no one could identify him. Then one spoke: “It is Franz, the gem-sorter. He sorted the Queen’s gemstones!” Spoke another, to chortles and chuckling, “Let us stand by while the gem sorter’s head is separated from his torso.” “But what is his sin?” asked another.

    Just then a strong west wind began to blow. And as if prompted by the question from among the spectators, Mean Queen Guillotine bellowed, “For the sin of hoping to live his life on his own terms, my gem sorter is laid to waste this night!” And just as the blade fell and made its cut, the wind blew the sculpture, disintegrated, out over the Wide Open Spaces – where it mingled with the remains of the dreams of countless other entangled dreamers.

    Moral: While focused on an obstacle to your happiness you won’t be able to see the way around – and, as always, tempus fugit.


    “Mind” as machine: concepts exist serially not in parallel and exist one at a time. Switched from one to another, one stored and one retrieved from storage (memory). Some sets can be combined into one, others can’t.

    (Bananas are yellow) + (lemons are yellow) = (bananas and lemons are yellow).

    (The mechanism of a parable) + (the intent of a particular parable) = (a brain-knotted switching back and forth between the two) These are clearly processed in two discrete and dissimilar regions of the brain. This seems to support your theory, if not further complicating it.

    Conveyed beautifully is this point in “you yourselves would become parables” One cannot be a parable and at once be the constructor of a parable. In becoming a parable one releases oneself from the responsibility of constructing them. One surrenders, becomes subject to the constructor – this being the moral of the parable’s parable. My reaction:

    Zealously and brutally dissect everything everybody says (including yourself!) and analyze it for ulterior motives, manipulativity and outright fallacy, setting aside the form and the manner of its construction. Everything everybody says is compelled by an emotional engine and can be categorized according to the personality type from which it is emitted. The categories: “helpful” (cooperation) or “controlling” (dominance).

    Winning or losing is whether your position upon digesting the content is dominant or submissive; i.e. whether you’ve accepted it at face value or determined its true intent then decided to accept or reject the core principle based on your judgement alone.

    Obviously, for me there’s nothing terrible about evading a parable; but how’s this for a terrible parable: “The parable of the rich fool”.

    Franz my beloved brother: Gratitude for you! Muah muah muah

      • then what do you mean by dominating and submitting? if it’s not a perverted idea what is it? when I learn my first language it doesn’t dominate me and I don’t dominate it, nor do I submit to it. You could say when I learn my first language I become a parable, or at least have one foot in the world of parable. In fact the only people who understand parables are those who can become parables themselves (and that’s no parable! that’s just true.)


    As a soldier mindlessly submits to a superior officer, or a terrified victim of dogma submits to a nonexistent diety.


    Smut-think must be more thoroughly pervasive over there in Hwood than can even be imagined if an intellect as developed as yours (seems) can be engulfed in it. I would never have thought I would have to ask if you could, for example, translate the word “Islam” to English. I think you’re pulling my leg. Are you pulling my leg?

    • Thanks for the honest response. But why do you have a problem connecting sexuality and thought ? The Bible puns on sex and knowledge, as does myth, Western esotericism, psychoanalysis. What is the worry exactly?

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