"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Changed My Mind

Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene 3
by Thomas Stothard, 1755 - 1834
"Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths"

from Love's Labour's Lost
by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)


“They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other - since there are no kings - messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service.”
from On Parables
by Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

I changed my mind ~ apparently easier done than said. At the very beginning of their careers, Kafka's couriers have the free will to make a choice, and the choice they make out of this free will is to be couriers instead of kings. Now they are locked into that choice, no matter what. Kafka reveals the meaninglessness of the messages they relay and he blames their meaningless lives on the fact that they adhere to a truth in the spoken word which, in fact, does not reside there.

The couriers initially made this choice as children would, referring perhaps to the excitement that seems inherent in travelling to and for with messages, the action and movement, and the nature of the responsibility such a position entails -- the satisfaction of a mission accomplished rather than that of executive decision making. Unfortunately, everyone has chosen the role of delivering the truth rather than the office of determining what the truth is or just what truth it is that needs to be pronounced. Now they experience the discouragement of carrying messages with no content and to no purpose.

They are like Stephen Crane's "ship of the world" which slipped away at a fateful moment before God adjusted the rudder:
"So that, forever rudderless, it went upon the seas
Going ridiculous voyages,
Making quaint progress
Turning as with serious purpose
Before stupid winds."
But the couriers do not have even the saving delusion of naive or wrongful belief that their purpose is serious. Not only does the reader know that their progress is quaint and ridiculous and stupid -- they know it as well; yet they persist in shouting their messages to the "stupid winds."

The couriers, unfortunately, have no auditor. They suffer from a disjunction of form and content in their profession. Surely, in their cases, silence is preferable to their hopeless and meaningless shouting. Yet they feel compelled to continue their "work." The last sentence of the parable suggests that the compulsion derives from a seriouis misunderstanding of the power of language. The couriers mistakenly believe that words are real, more real even than actions. Their miserabale lives belie the truth of their oaths of service but they hold fast, somehow convinced of the authenticity of the oath. They honor a commitment to the spoken word, even though they have been more or less betrayed by the profession they feel committed to. Keeping an oath is undoubtedly honorable, but the fact that the couriers lead a miserable existence suggests that greater truth and greater honor, as well as greater happiness, might be found in breaking or modifying or redefining the oath if the couriers had the strength of mind to do so.

They need to learn the lesson of Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's play about "the sweet smoke of rhetoric." The four main characters have taken an oath "Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep" (I, i, 48). They swear to lead this ascetic life of contemplation for three years' time in order that they might become "heirs of all eternity" (I, i, 7). It seems a small price for such a reward, and the final bond of the oath is "That his own hand may strike his honor down / That violates the smallest branch herein" (I, i, 20 - 21). But contrary to finding that a violation of the oath is a violation of honor, they learn just the opposite. By the end of the play, Longaville questions, " . . . what fool is not so wise / To lose an oath to win a paradise" (IV, iii, 270 - 71) and Berowne proclaims: "Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves / Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths" (IV, iii, 359 - 60).

They are calling into question, as Kafka's couriers should have the sense to do, the power and value of the word, written and spoken. Is breaking an oath to gain what at least appears to be a paradise a wise choice? Of course, the decision must always be relative to the weight of the oath and possibility of paradise. The line between "losing our oaths to find ourselves" and "losing ourselves to keep our oaths" is not always as clear as it is for the lords in Love's Labour's Lost, whose oaths were perhaps not very weighty ones in the fist place.

However, since the couriers in the parable have been reduced to living meaningless, frustrating lives, it is time, Kafka suggests, that they examine the validity of their oaths of service. Initially weighty though it may have been, it should be reconsidered in light of prevailing situations and conditions. Instead of taking this initiative, though, the couriers continue acting against their better judgment because they said they would. Clearly they are losing their lives to keep their oaths. Language has failed them, leaving them unable to discern when it may be right action, right behavior, to throw over a commitment they have made, a commitment not to another person so much as to the words they heard themselves say.

John the Baptist Reproving Herod, 1848
by John Rogers Herbert, 1810–1890

I draw a similar conclusion whenever I hear the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. As you may recall, Herod offers his daughter "whatever you wish . . . Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom," as a reward for her performance of a pleasing dance for the the guests at a banquest. The girl confers with her mother and requests John's head on a platter. Although Herod is "deeply grieved" (is he really?) at this morbid request, he proceeds to grant it. Why? "Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests" (Mark 6: 22 - 26). What? This story never sounds right to me. Herod has all the power in the situation, including the power to renege on his oath and the power to save a man's life, should he so choose. He has the power to change his mind.

We've heard it all our lives: you must be as good as your word. Perhaps the real challenge is to be better than our word.

Three Conspirators Swear an Oath, 1779
Henry Fuseli, 1741 - 1825



1. Parables on Parables:

"They were offered the choice between

2. Previous Blog Posts:
Little Door
Take Up Your Cross
Sancho Panza
Celtic Blessing
Imperial Messenger
Go Over

3. Fascinating Artwork:
Illustrations for Kafka's Parables by Aimee Pong

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, May 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of "being better than our word!"