By D. R. Gayton
In Kafka’s “An Imperial Message” the narration tells of a message that can never be delivered, which represents the direct link between an ultimate form of Authority, and society. The incommunicability of this message in turn reflects the inherent inability of society to be in communion with this ultimate symbol of authority. This supreme authority, which in Kafka’s narration is embodied in the form of a moribund Emperor, sends a message to what appears to be the most humble of his subjects. This humble subject, who is simply referred to as “you”, is immediately upon the opening of the narration described as a cowering and “insignificant shadow.”
From his deathbed the Emperor beckons a messenger, commands him to kneel before the bed, and whispers the message onto him. So important is this message for all parties involved that the narrator promptly states that the Emperor, “ordered the messenger to whisper it [the message] back into his ear again. Then by a nod of the head he … confirmed that it is right.” Proceeding to describe the walls around the Emperor as having been brought down and the Emperor as being surrounded not only by the princes of the empire, but by a multitude that acts in the narration as spectator to his death, the predictable act by the Emperor of whispering stands in direct contrast to the lack of privacy that he has been submitted to by those present.
Although the content of the message is never described, this simple act of whispering in the midst of what has become a public spectacle serves to highlight the privacy, intimacy, and well nigh secrecy of the message being delivered. Further, by referencing the eminence of these princes who surround the Emperor and specifically adding, after what seems to be a very purposeful dash, “before all these he has delivered his message,” the narrator is accentuating the fact that the Emperor, from his deathbed, is privileging the “insignificant shadow” referred to as “you” over all the grandees who stand surrounding him as if in silent expectation. This final act on the part of the Emperor not only adds further significance and weight to the message being delivered in the tale, but it also allows the reader to infer that the Emperor’s final thoughts are not with those closes in rank to him, but with his most insignificant and humblest of subjects. This in turn creates a powerful and unequivocal link, which is perfectly crystalized in the message, between these two antipodal personages.
Described as a “powerful, an indefatigable man,” upon confirming the content of the message, the messenger immediately sets out on his mission. First, however, he must cut his way through the throngs of people assembled around the Emperor. This crowd, nonetheless, is not only infinite but it also occupies the entirety of the space between the Emperor and “you”, the humble subject. Despite the fact that the Emperor’s messenger has every advantage before him, such as physical strength and the authority bestowed upon him by the emblem of the sun he wears on his chest, the vastness of the crowd, so the narration goes, will forever prevent him from delivering the Emperor’s message.
So great, in fact is this crowd, that the distance the messenger must cross transcends measurable space and must rather be counted in time. Almost as if describing an infinite labyrinth that extends outward and upward without ground, the narrator adds:
[H]e must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and once more stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years.
Emphasizing the impossibility and futility of the of the messenger’s attempt to exit the palace, twice the narrator repeats the phrase declaring that even if the messenger were to succeed in making an exit, absolutely “nothing would be gained.” For ultimately, even if he were to succeed in exiting the imperial palaces, which is openly described as an impossibility, he must still contend with having to traverse the imperial capital, or as the narrator points out, “the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment.” By focusing on the repetition of obstacles and shifting from measuring space to time, the narrator is not only describing the nature of a world already far distinct from our own, but is underlining the fact that even if this most able of men were to cross this endless ocean of people, the time it would take any one to cross this endless space would exceed the lifetime of any being.
Accordingly, communication, at any given point in time between the supreme ruler, or any of his successors, and his subjects is rendered as being absolutely impossible. It is then within this marked distance and the impossibility of communication between the Emperor, and one of his subjects that Kafka’s message is delivered to the reader, or to you. For, in closing the narration with the last line that says, “But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself,” the narrator is inviting every reader to take the place of the “you” the Emperor seeks to address. In doing so, this “you,” who is previously made to seem uniquely privileged by the actions of the dying Emperor, becomes an anyone. Consequently, this last sentence serves two major purposes. On the one hand, by highlighting the dreamlike quality of the narration, it reinforces the impossibility and futility of receiving a message from the Emperor, or supreme authority, and on the other, it breaks the illusion created upon the reader by the use of the personal “you,” of being the chosen or privileged subject the narration is addressing.
It is then this great leveling off of the singularity of the message that completely nullifies it by democratizing it. That is, if everyone is allowed to think themselves the beneficiaries of the Emperor’s confidence, the message, which by its own impossibility of being delivered has already being made useless, is then further invalidated by this last sentence that allows anyone to dream it. In fact, by allowing anyone to be the “you” of the narration, the symbol of unity, intimacy, and communion (between this supreme authority and one of his subjects), which had been decidedly crystalized by the importance of the message was given throughout the beginning of the narration, is at this point utterly and irrevocably shattered.
In augmenting the capacity of the “you” to encompass anyone who chances upon this tale, not only does the narrative manages to destroy thereby the last vestige of the link between the ultimate symbol of authority, as embodied by the Emperor and his subjects, but it also leaves behind the image of a society that although completely detached and distant from the supreme authority, thinks itself uniquely attached to it. Although their ranks make up the entirety of the habitable world, and as polity they in fact allow the Emperor to exist, this society, by its very vastness and physical existence, impedes this Emperor from exerting any real authority. Ultimately then, the real power or authority falls not on the Emperor, who is fundamentally replaceable, but on the chaotic, lawless mass of people that contain him.
Kafka, Franz. “An Imperial Message.” The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1988. 4-5. Print.