They were given the choice of becoming kings or the kings’ messengers. As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers. That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless. They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath of loyalty.

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (ed. by Max Brod), tr. by Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins, Exact Change, 1991, p. 28 (December 2, 1917).

Published posthumously, the “Octavo Notebooks” are usually distinguished from Kafka’s better-known Diaries. From the English editor’s website:

From late 1917 until June 1919, Franz Kafka stopped writing entries in his diary, which he kept in quarto-sized notebooks, but continued to write in a series of smaller, octavo-sized notebooks. When Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, published the diaries in 1948, he omitted these notebooks — which include short stories, fragments of stories, and other literary writings — because “Notations of a diary nature, dates, are found in them only as a rare exception.”

The entry about “the kings’s messengers” is therefore not included neither in the English, nor the French editions of the Diaries. It is dated from December 2, 1917 and, in the Exact Change edition, appear in “The Third Octavo Notebook”.

In German, the fragment was published in the sixth volume of Kafka’s Gesammelte Werke in zwölf Bäden titled Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer und andere Schriften aus dem Nachlass (edited by H.-G. Koch, Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, 1994). It does not appear however in the English edition of The Great Wall of China. Stories and Reflections (tr. by Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books, 1946).

The German version is also available online at various locations. “The Projekt Gutenberg” hosted by Der Spiegel has it as an entry of “Das dritte Oktavheft” (also “The Third Octavo Book”) included in Die Acht Oktavhefte:

Es wurde ihnen die Wahl ges teilt, Könige oder der Könige Kuriere zu werden. Nach Art der Kinder wollten alle Kuriere sein. Deshalb gibt es lauter Kuriere, sie jagen durch die Welt und rufen, da es keine Könige gibt, einander selbst die sinnlos gewordenen Meldungen zu. Gerne würden sie ihrem elenden Leben ein Ende machen, aber sie wagen es nicht wegen des Diensteides.

Die Franz-Kafka-Website hosted by the University of Bonn has the fragment in the Nachlass 1916-1918 where it is classified under “Oktavheft G (II, 2)”. Mauro Nervi’s website The Kafka Project also has the German version of the fragment classified in the same way: Unpublished Work 1916-1918, Oktavheft G (II, 2).

Finally, a French translation can be found in the third volume of the Oeuvres Complètes published in La Pléiade collection:

On les a placés devant cette alternative: devenir des rois ou les courriers des rois. À la manière des enfants, ils voulurent tous être courriers. C’est pourquoi il n’y a que des courriers, ils courent le monde et comme il n’y a pas de rois, se crient les uns les autres des nouvelles devenues absurdes. Ils mettraient volontiers fin à leur misérable existence, mais ils ne l’osent pas, à cause du serment de fidelité. (tr. by Marthe Robert, ed. by Claude David, Paris: Gallimard, 1984, p. 454).

Peter Sloterdijk commented this specific fragment in Selbstversuch, a book produced from a conversation he had with the Spanish philosopher Carlos Oliveira. The conversation was recorded in September 1994 and first published in German in 1996 (Munich: Carl Hanser; Amazon). It was later translate in French as Essai d’intoxication volontaire (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1999; Amazon.fr) and in Spanich as Experimentos Con Uno Mismo. Una Conversacion Con Carlos Oliveira (Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2003; Amazon). As of 2013, the book has not been translated into English. Here’s the relevant excerpt in French:

Je ne connais pas de meilleure théorie du sujet hébété ―ni du reste de description plus perspicace du journalisme moderne. C’est un fait, ceux qui apportent les messages tournent à toute vitesse dans le vide, sans posséder ce qu’ils ont à dire. Les courriers puérils, c’est nous tous, les prétendus auteurs. Nous n’avons personne derrière nous, aucun roi dont la parole, faisant autorité, donnerait un sens à notre mission. Où est donc l’émetteur? Qui parle au juste? Ce sont de véritables questions modernes. Kafka a vu l’essentiel: nous sommes des anges sans maître. La crise de l’intelligentsia contemporaine s’exprime dans cette perplexité: nous devons faire des commissions dont l’unique nécessité jaillit de leur propre cours et de leur propre progression, sans que nous ayons à restituer les ordres d’un roi ou les signes d’un dieu, sans que nous portions les paroles du pouvoir et de la maîtrise depuis un centre vers la périphérie. (tr. by Olivier Mannoni, Paris:Calmann-Lévy, 1999, pp. 37-38).

• • •

Previously:

  • “Many years ago I sat one day, in a sad enough mood…”, Franz Kafka, February 15, 1920
  • Incommunicability: Kafka’s “On Parables”
  • Kafka’s Aphorisms: Believing in progress
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