It starts with a compelling proposition. The emperor, the greatest figure of civilization, is sending a message to you. That opening configuration is captivating: An extremely important person has something to tell you, and you alone.
But the piece focuses on the impossibility of that message ever arriving. It turns out that the palace has ring upon ring upon ring of walls, successive outer palaces, and the messenger has to get through one and then the other, and then the other. If he could ever do that—which he never could, the narrator tells us the palace is too vast and impossible—then he’d only be at the center of the city, which is filled with people and garbage, all kinds of difficult obstacles. He will never get through.
The ending is haunting: You will never hear this message that’s intended for you alone. This breaks my heart. Something important has been communicated to you, but you’ll never hear it. And yet you’ll sit at your window and dream it to yourself—and so there’s immense yearning and hope coupled with the sense of impossibility and futility. These incompatible sensations all assail you at the same time. This is just perfection to me.
It’s hard to miss that, on some level, “A Message from the Emperor” is a parable about reading. On the one hand, I’m resistant to say “this is all about what it means to tell a story!”—but it does seem to really be there. I like thinking of it as a reminder of how desperately we want to be spoken to. We want to be addressed. We want there to be some important message out there for us. And yet: how futile it might be to hope for that. The story goes beyond a mere illustration of the literary paradox: It hints at the supreme difficulty of ever truly connecting to anybody. With Kafka, you always have this kind of bleak futility—but the futility never feels flat and pessimistic. Despite the impossibility, we still have that messenger heroically striving to break through. The parable is a great form for capturing that paradoxical feeling.
This piece is a model for how I’d like to feel when I read. And what I might like others to feel, reading what I’ve written. What attracts me is the way it puts opposite, seemingly conflicting sensations into motion and makes them feel compatible against all odds. The sense of difficultly, futility, and tremendous obstacle—coupled with searching and yearning desire and hope.
And this is what writing is about for me—the way I can read a short piece and feel transformed within the small amount of time it takes to get from start to finish. There are deliberately cerebral pieces of writing that I think are fantastic and beautiful in their own right—but for me, in the end, I need literature to make me feel things. And not just a little bit. I want writing to be the most intense form of feeling that I can find. As if we’re putting words together in order to deeply alter or enhance or trigger our feelings – in order to feel more alive. This is part of why I write a story, why I put words together: because they are, in the end, a tremendous—possibly unrivaled—delivery mechanism for intense feeling. The kind of feeling that Kafka traffics in I find especially appealing because of its contradictions and conflicts, and because of the mixture of fear and beauty, the seemingly incompatible sensations are suspended and held aloft and presented to us.