‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Franz Kafka "An Imperial Message" (September 1919)


The Emperor—they say—sent a message, dictated it from his death bed no less, sent it to you alone, to you his feeble subject, to that miniature shadow hiding at the remotest distance from the imperial sun. He instructed the messenger to kneel down beside his bed so as to whisper the message in his ear. It was important, he believed, to have the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the messenger’s accuracy by nodding his head. And before the whole crowd of them, all those people witnessing the emperor’s death—the walls surrounding him have been pulled down, and all the great men of the empire are arranged in a circle on the wide and high-tiered flights of stairs—before all of them he sent off his messenger. Away he went at once, a strong, indefatigable man. Thrusting out one arm and then another he pushes through the crowd. If he meets resistance he gestures at his own chest where is pinned the sun-shaped medallion. He’s the only one moving, pressing easily forwards. But the crowd is so very big; its mansions are infinite. If he were crossing an open field he’d fly along, no question, and you would very soon hear the wonderful pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that all his efforts come to nothing. He is still making his way through all the private rooms of the inner palace. He will never find a way through. And even if he did, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d only have to struggle down the palace steps, and, even if he did that, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d still have the courtyards to cross, and after the courtyards the second palace that encircles the first, and, again, down stairs and through courtyards, and then, yet again, another palace, and so on for millennia. But say he managed it at last, burst through the outermost door—although such a thing could never, never happen—why then: the whole royal capital city, the centre of the world, is standing before him, heaped buildings and streets clogged with mud. No one forces his way through such a place, certainly not a man carrying a message from a dead man. But nonetheless, you sit at your window as evening falls, and you dream the message to yourself.

4 comments:

  1. My translation (don't want to tread on any other translator's copyright toes). September 1919 was, of course, near the very end of the war to end wars, a few weeks away from the final surrender of Kafka's homeland, the Austro-Hungarian empire. ‘Eine kaiserliche Botschaft’ is clearly about that, on some level; about endings and the way news of the ending never quite reaches us. The old Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz-Joseph had died at the age of 86, late in 1916, having ruled his empire since 1848. Towards the end of his time his citizens could no longer remember a time when he hadn’t been emperor. It began to seem that he would go on forever. But of course he didn’t. His individual life ended, and two months after Kafka’s story the Austo-Hungarian empire was dismantled. I suppose that's partly what this story is about.

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