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.


How to Make Art Riskier: The Case of Kenneth Goldsmith

An interesting article in the New Yorker by Alec Wilkinson discusses the case of Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith is an avante-garde poet who wrote a sort of anti-poetry meant to challenge the idea that art in the age of the internet means coming up with personal things to say and special ways to say it.  Instead he would re-write an edition of the New York Times, or write down everything he said for a day.  He got into trouble with political ethnic poets for applying this approach to Michael Brown’s autopsy report.  The irony of Wilkinson’s piece was that by his own account Goldstein’s goal in his work was to provoke anger and outrage, but when he actually succeeded in provoking and angering some people he became unhappy.

It seems like Goldstein was interested in playing the art game of simulated outrage.  In our society (or certain elite precincts of it at any rate) the artist has license to offend.  People go to museums hoping to see canvasses and sculptures that provoke them. Others buy poetry magazines or novels that they hope will find outrageous.

I declare this to be ridiculous (October 4, 5:21 pm, Pacific Standard Time).  If your goal is to outrage and provoke you must not do it in a context that gives one permission to provoke. That’s just silly — like telling your friends to throw you a surprise party.  If you truly want to provoke you must do it without providing your audience a get-out-of-being-offended free card.

I offer the following suggestions:

Avant Garde poets should work as grief counselors, court reporters, and acountants.  They should offer speech acts that are deliberately ambiguous, ironic, or semantically oblique in contexts where their auditors will be outraged.  When a father calls a hospital to see if his son is okay the artist should answer “son son son okay okay not okay okapi o’casey oneiric out out brief candle” and hang up.

Avant Garde actors who seek to drain all emotional cadence out of their performances and achieve the montonous sing-song of ancient ritual should use this cadence when talking to their lovers.

Other artists should transcend our categories entirely.  They should sleep in trees and leap down to bite cats and in prison eat their meals with their feet.

Needless to say none of them should ever ever admit (much less declare) that they are artists — not to granting institutions, or to other people, or ideally, to themselves.

People should probably stop using the word art, or perhaps, should apply it in new ways.  The next day Mitt Romney acquires a company he should call what he is doing conceptual art.  Everybody should think either more or less but not the current amount they are thinking — unless they want to.

The ethnic poets who were offended by Kenneth Goldsmith’s art should hang out with Romney and the guy biting cats and figure out what their next move should be.  Kenneth Goldsmith should hide under the table taking notes, and then take everybody out to a steak dinner with Michael Brown and the man who shot him.  After dessert they should watch t.v.




I am a Cynge. My friends are Knechts. Together we seek to restore Honor the Land.

When I first picked up a sword I didn’t know how to say any of this. I didn’t know you could be born from a slut who slops the hogs and has a weird eye and be a Cynge nor did I know that guys who would follow you and fight so you could divvy up what you got were what were knechts. I thought we were just a gang of lads looking to eat, and I was just the biggest and the scariest, and a little bit, the smartest – if smartest means figuring out who needs to be stabbed now, a little quicker than they figure out that you need to be stabbed now too.

After the battle they brought David to me for the thumb-up and thumb-down decision along with the losers sheep and wives and such. He was a scrawny and ill-favored and small person with a harp.

“Hail Cyng!” he said.

“I have already got a Jestere” I said — this was veritas, a dwarfe named Brutus — and swung back the sword to cleave him.

David said to me “What do you think a Cynge is but the biggest, scariest, luckiest and maybe a little bit the smartest?”

“I don’t know. A Cynge is like who they tell Sagas about..”

“Yes, right – you are smart. But who writes the sagas?”

“Who writes the sky or the trees?”

“That question I couldn’t answer for you.” Said David “But I do know who writes the sagas. Or some. Me.”

“Prove it.”

And he stood and twanged his little harp and sang me the Saga of Cynge Harold the Bold. It told of his mighty deeds by which he became a Cynge. How he had been son of the Dragon and the Moon. How he had torn asunder many an ogre, and bedded many of the daughters of the rainbow.

“I know that saga. That saga scared me really seriously before hunger drove me and my seven friends to attack him at night and kill his guys and burn his stuff and kill his sheeps which we are now eating. How does that prove anything?

And then he sang me a new lay about the battle that I had just fought. Only in this one Cynge Harold was defeated by a new Cynge. The words made you see steeds, and Knechts, and bravery and courage and behind it all the Will of the AllFather At the last moment the new Cynge unleashes his blade and kills Cynge Harold and as his blood is dripping outa the wound Harold turns to him and says

“And so I now breath out my Laste
As winter doth melt to springe
Full glad I give my crown to thee
For thou art the better Cynge”

Or something a bit better, I don’t remember it. The point was Harold was super-noble and knowing that the land would have more honor with the new Cyng in charge than with him, willingly gave up the ghost, and let the new Cyng kill him, although not without putting up a good fight such as made the New Cyng seem very mighty for winning it. I cried. By my faith I cried hot tears upon my cheekes so beautiful did he twang it!

“What is the name of the hero of the lay, David.”

“Spare me, Your Highness and it Can be Your Own.”

“Hang on.” Suddenly I felt a sort of fear for the man scrawny as he was, like when you see a new born baby or the first flower in the snow in March. I wanted to say something smart. “Did you hear that from a magic animal?” It sounded weak even to me. “Or special Birde?”

“No. I wrote that just now. And I will do that for you, travelling with you and writing sagas about what you do. And that will make you a Cynge.”

My mind rode on his suggestion like a man on a new, excellent horse.

“The Saga of Cynge Mark” he said looking at me even. And the words reeled in my wishes, like his heart was the angler, my heart was the fishe, and the words were the hook. Until I stopped them. Without putting a stop to them wishes can trick you into thinking things are so which aren’t which has happened to me before and I have a big scar in my shoulder to show for it.

“No good “ I said. “In the final battle or strangle match in the mud between Cynge Harold and me not withstanding that I did win it, and I am here talking to you and he isn’t, I also shit myself, which Cyngs don’t do.”

“No problem.” Said David “We will leave that part out.”


Wow we were a good team.
We learned there was a way of Warring and a Way of Cynging, just as there is a way of horse-back riding or making a leathern boot from an animal’s skin.

We would send out the singers to the taverns singing the Saga of the Doings of Goode Cyng Marke. Sometimes the old Cyng was so lousy that his knechts would desert on the spot, giving fealty to me. Or if he was scary enough or they liked him enough even then they would become scared enough of me that when they met me on the field the battle was half won already as if they were mice fighting a man, or little baby children facing Daddy and his Belt. And we would win and get more fields and more knecths, and David would add to the Saga putting in THAT victory and making it even easier the next time.

David and me were like wine and bread, or man and woman, or sun and moon. More the wine and bread because those are two good things that go good together. The man and woman one doesn’t sound quite right somehow, and I don’t know if sun and moon really do help each other or if the words just come so that when you say one you feel like saying the other. If David were still here he would have picked the best. Probably wine and bread because those are two good things that go good together, but wine doesn’t do the job of bread or bread the job of wine.

Another battle that was half-won even before I took the field was the battle of the Blushing Woman’s Cheek, because they heard the sagas too, and expected the Cyng who was Mighty-Thewed, and Faced-like-the-Storm when Enraged, but Gentle as the Bunny Rabbit when Peaceful, and expecting that made them thrill more thrillingly. But my own cheek blushes to speak of such things.

I remember but one fighte we had on the morning of my battle against the Cynge of Cornwalle.
My forces were ranged on one side of a field and Ethelred’s on another. David entered my tent.

“It is sad and a waste that even though you will win the battle will take the lives of many of these men today.”

“It is sad but that is the Allfather’s way. Blood waters the roots of the tree of peace.”

“There is another way.” he said and took from his satchel a scrawny red root. “Allow me to sneak into Ethelred’s campe. I have been consorting with his cup-bearer and he will introduce this root into his Cynge’s wine. He will drop down dead and we will win the battle at the cost of one life instead of a thousand.”

“Speak not of this impiety!” I thundered.

“How saving hte lives of a thousand impiety? Does not hte Allfather love life?”

“To say that is also an impiety!” I thundered.

“But what if I put in a saga that you took his life out of mercy! I can do it. I have been going over many rhymes for poison!”

“Get out and let us not speak of this again!”.

He had under-reckoned the cost of life of the battle against Ethelred. There was a storm and in the mud my men killed each other as much as they killed his. But he never spoke of such womanly subterfuges again. The Cynges of the Lande of Wessex were truth be told small deere, and although if you know my saga you believe for example that Cynge Alfric was a man as tall as a tree with a score of score of knechts, he was, if truthe be tolde, a heade taller than average and commanded of knechts know more than a dozen. And so was the case with the numerous cynges that I defeated: Alfric and Ethelred, and Holmir the Vycing, and Reynaud from Fraunce and the whole lot of my vassal Cynges. And by this time as I was become a Cynge and Cynge of Cynges and how that happened I will relate.

There is upon my forehead a red deformity or blotche

which the wise woman of my village said had been caused by my mother coveting Straweberries during the time as she was Bigge with me. David had been brooding upon this red smudge and suckinge upon the end of his penne and twanging on his harpe for days and then said loudly “aha” and wrote quickly that at my birthe the Alfather smiled down and put his massive thumb on my forehead leaving a red smudge and this was known in all the most antiquest sagas to be the one indubitable and irrefutable mark of his favor indicating that whosoever possesses it shall be Imperator of Rome.

And David issued forth this saga and I decreed that it be sung various vanquished Cynges of Wessex bent the knee before me and pledged fealty, and we had a feast and I was officially yclept Roman Imperator.

The food was excellent but the merry-making was interrupted by a tall fellow proceded by two trumpeters who yclept him Romulus of Rome. He made a huge threate against me. Again I do not remember the words precisely but they were as cunningly wrought as David’s if not more so, and the gist of them were that I was a barbarian upstart and had slapped the face of Rome by calling myself Imperator, and that I should repair forthwith to their citie to be a vassal to the True and Mighty Imperator of True and Real Rome, or face most sure and certain destruction and rapine at their hands. And he removed a a tube of yron from the white sheete he wore and sprayed a fire upon my feasting table that water could not put out. We had to stampe upon it and in the fracas Romulus departed.

Loud were the cries from my knechts and fearsome the oaths to demolish Rome and pay back the affront from Romulus against my Cyngely, or lately Imperatorly dignity! It was a bellowing like that of bulls in the fielde and of as much matter. For I knew that each knecht would not admit to fear before his fellowes or before me, and they vied with one another in their boasting and bellowing adn promises to make the popinjay Romulus and his roman friends feast upon their own heartes and tungs et cetera et cetera et cetera. But I know my knechts and I knew they were lying at least to me and mayhaps to their own selves. But in truth they feared Rome.

I feared Rome as much as any of them and I lied that I did not as much as any of them and called down fiery vengeance upon that Romulus and his fire yron most fiercely of them all. But I was troubled in my heart. I loste the battle of the Rosy Cheekes with my newest wife an despondent wandered my halles at night seeking counsel of David.

I founde him in his roome reading, employing his artes of spelle and grammarie. “David.” I said “I have formulated a planne.”

“What is it, Mark?”

“Rome is too great for us. It has walls of stone. It has stood for thousands of years. Its messengers bare yron stickes that belch fire. Truely they are goddes not men who walk the lanes of Rome.”

“You spoke of a plan?”

“I did. I will take my first ten knechts and you and my two favorite wives and horses for each of us, and beer and cowes and we will take to the forest and give up this vain dreame of being imperator! And this cursed plan of being Cynge!”

“And how will you feed your knechts when you drinke the beer and eat the cowes?”

“We will steale.”

“And then will you not be hunted by this Romulus and by all the once vanquished but now orgulous cynges of Wessex?”

“Then will we not steale, but live like Adam from roots and herbes.”

“Then will your wives who tonight enjoyed swinesflesh and beer stay with you for cold lodgins and a feast of roots and herbes?”

I considered this and then:

“Curse you David! My dream of the forest and loyal knechts and wives gladdened my heart and you have gone and saddened it. I curse myself as well.”

“Or you could get upon thyself a grasp. I have been reading scrolls in the Latin language. The true city of Rome was across teh ocean in a land called Italy. What we call Rome is nothing but an outpost manned by barbarians such as we though they wrap themselves in sheets.”

“But how could they persuade men that they were Romans and gods?”

“How could the son of a hog-slopping slut persuade men he was a Cyng?”

I took his point. But there was still the yron that belched fire to contend with.

“It is a contrivance of men. I do not know how it was contrived but by my lief it is a contrivance of men.”

David’s strategy was for me to send out weekly messages to Romulus of Rome promising him that I would arrive and give myself up for the crime of claiming to be emperor, while he took a company of Knechts and scoured the countryside on business of his own. The messengers of Romulus began to peer through this cozzening and terrified me with promises of vile tortures. I became utterly useless for the Battle or Rosy Cheekes and at wrestling with my knechts and came to sitting alone, imbibing and imagining the worst.

Then came David with a very ancient man. “He is a master of contrivances, a slave from across the sea. Follow my leade.”

Said David to the old man “Cover your eyes lest they dazzle and approach as I do.”

They lay down chins to the ground and crept forward to me as like to worms. The olde man said “It’s true! It’s true! He is the Living Godde!”

“As prophecied in the prophecy that I showed you.” said David. “He is the Allfather taken a Man’s Bodie, as you or I put on a pair of pants come down to scour the worlde of shame and sinne and rule it as it ought to be ruled.”

“But my sinne is greate!”

“Allfather knows but Allfather will take you to dwell with him and many many lovely and willing Virgins in heaven if you give us the secrets of the contrivances of Romulus.”

“I will and better beside.” said the old manne to David while creeping away on his belly.

It is clear from my tale to those quick of mind. To the slow I will say this. David had penned in the Latin tongue a prophecy and dipped the scroll in vinegar to make it appear old. And in the prophecy it said that when the worlde has become evil the Allfather himself will put on a human bodie as like to a man putting on a pair of pants and all who serve him will be assured of a place in heaven with virgins and feasting, and all who defy him will be assured of a place in Helle. And indeed the irrefutable sign of who it was who was the Allfather — I am sure thou hast guessed it — was the red smudge upon the forhead.

The olde man made many contrivances called catapults and arbalests and siege towers, and we spread the prophecy amongst the hordes of wilde men who live in the marshes, and in three days it’s walls were down and I was master of Rome.

I hacked Romulus to bits myself and married his many wives that night and decreed a seven day feast. My knechts carried me upon their shoulders through all the streets of Rome. And I was given savory herbes to smoke and many libations.

I have told you that I am a man who has great wishes but also the wisdom to keep those wishes on a short leash. But whether it was the flush of victory or the herbes I smoked or the libations I drank but that night a dream came to me.

I saw that the sagas were true. I felt the Allfather’s hot sperm gushing down from his palace in the Sun into my mother’s womb. I remembered myself as an Embryo and as a Babe. I remembered the Fogge that had come down to blind me to my true Divine Nature and how the fogge had lifted now.

When I woke I ran to tell David.

“David! David! It is true!”


“I am the Allfather’s Seede and a Godde myselfe! That is why I conquered Rome.”

“How can you tell me it’s true?” asked David. “I lied those lies myself.”

“No. The lie is when you think you lie but in truth you truth!”

“What foolishness is this?”

“No foolishness friend. The sagas you think you write…”

“The sagas I do write, and expend much sweat in writing…”

“Are not in truth written by you. You are like as to a flute the Allfather is blowing to let the world know of his son’s identity and my own goddely rank an status.”

“Mark. Take that back.”

He looked at me very wroth.

“Are you wroth at me for saying I am Godde? I did not know you to be a pious man.”

“No. I am wroth at you for saying anyone wrote my sagas but I you pompous son of a slut.”

And he threw a handful of spice in my eyes and was out the window and was gone.

I drank and smoked and sent forth parties of Knechts to seek and slay David and worked upon plans for scouring the worlde of its evil and making my Goddefather and my eternal reigne on Earth a good one. I decreed that any riche man who made a slut like my mother bigge with childe would have to marry her, and that knechts could only wield swordes in warre or official tourneys, and that everyone shoulde weare a golde or wooden pendant of myself around their necke for luck and fortune, and that these must be bought from me and the gold resulting spent on useful works such as Bridges and Hospitals.

I felt pretty good. Ladies named their babes after me. Crowds hailed me and asked for my blessings. Strange beastes were brought to me from foreign landes — the okapi and a family of ape men known as Australopithecus who entertained me and my wise-men with their anticks and amusing speech. Madmen grew sane from my spittle. If you are feeling sad or low in spirits nothing does the heart good than the grateful thanks of a madman now sane from your spittle.

I was sleepy having just engaged int eh Battle of Rosy Cheeks with my eighteenth wife (who by a happy happenstance was herself 18) when a knock came at my door. It was my oldest Knecht, Knecht Oswald.

“Oh Oswald” I said growing lachrymose. “I remember when it was you and I slopping the hogs and dreaming of laying maids and stealing geese. And we laid the wife of the gooseman and stole his goose and ran down the road!”

“I remember as well. And know you are Cyng, Imperator and Godde.”

“It is indeed wonderful. And you are Cyng, Imperator and Godde’s friende!”

“Not so.” and he smote me with his sworde.

“Fear you not Helle?” I asked running.

“That is Bullshitte, Mark – you know it and I know it.” said he pursuing.

“But what of friendship?” said I running.

“For friendship’s sake I will slay you fast without torture.” said he.

At this point I donned the dress of one of my wives and made a dishonorable flight from teh city.

Though fatter and less smart to know when the stab will fall, due to much ass-kissing, I was still tall and strong and bold and I was able to take myself to the forest and raise a force of wilde men, a couple of my original knechts, and a few of the cynges of Wessex. But we were quickly surrounded by the Roman troops under the command of Oswald. Oswald bid me to parley.

The issue of parley was a sore one. If he attacked me he would win but ten thousand men would die. If he refrained from attack and starved my force of wilde men through winter, then three thousand of us would die, and as many more as woudl be able to kill in secret through sorties.

Why did he bid me to parley? I believed his courage had been unnerved by a song sung by the children in his camps. It was as following:

When Red and White Cyng Meete
There will be Nought to Eate
The Devil will Eate the Sunne
Until the war is done.

That morning a black disk seemed to swallow the sun and an unhappy darkness came down.
Oswalde came to Parley on a stout oak table in the middle of the field between my army and his. We broke bread and drank wine as is the custom and then he addressed me.

“You have no hope, Mark. My army is greater.” and he fell over stone cold dead.

Much cheering from both sides.

“It is I” said Oswalde’s cup-bearer, removing his hood to reveal himself to be David. “I have saved your kingdom along with my new friend Brutus the Dwarf!”

“You should put this victory in a saga, my friend! And we will sing it at our victory feast!”

“I cannot attend your feast or any more feasts in your court, Cyng Mark. I will travel across the sea to foster peace and avoid war by the administration of poison to leaders by way of tricks and subterfuge, and I will call my followers not knechts but assassins. It is not a doctrine I believe will require much in the way of sagas, but it will save many more men’s lives than did your bloody reign that I sang for. And if there need be sagas, I will not have to another man to lie for me as you did, for I am able to do so myself.”