There is a parable that describes this situation very well: The Emperor, so it runs, has sent a message to you, the humble subject, the insignificant shadow cowering in the remotest distance before the imperial sun; the Emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He has commanded the messenger to kneel down by the bed, and has whispered the message to him; so much store did he lay on it that he ordered the messenger to whisper it back into his ear again. Then by a nod of the head he has confirmed that it is right. Yes, before the assembled spectators of his death — all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and on the spacious and loftily mounting open staircases stand in a ring the great princes of the Empire — before all these he has delivered his message. The messenger immediately sets out on his journey; a powerful, an indefatigable man; now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng; if he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters; the way is made easier for him than it would be for any other man. But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fists on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he his only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to 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; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate — but never, never can that happen — the imperial capital would lie before him, the centre of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.
— Kafka, ‘The Great Wall of China’ (trans. T. and J. Stern)
First, then, it must be said that in those days things were achieved scarcely inferior to the construction of the Tower of Babel, although as regards divine approval, at least according to human reckoning, strongly at variance with that work. I say this because during the early days of building a scholar wrote a book in which he drew the comparison in the most exhaustive way. In it he tried to prove that the Tower of Babel failed to reach its goal, not because of the reasons universally advanced, or at least that among those recognised reasons the most important of all was not to be found. His proofs were drawn not merely from written documents and reports; he also claimed to have made inquiries on the spot, and to have discovered that the tower failed and was bound to fail because of the weakness of the foundation. In this respect at any rate our age was vastly superior to that ancient one. Almost every educated man of our time was a mason by profession and infallible in the matter of laying foundations. That, however, was a not what our scholar was concerned to prove; for he maintained that the Great Wall alone would provide for the first time in the history of mankind a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel. First the wall, therefore, and then the tower. His book was in everybody’s hands at that time, but I admit that even today I cannot quite make out how he conceived this tower. How could the wall, which did not form even a circle, but only a sort of quarter- or half-circle, provide the foundation for a tower? That could obviously be meant only in a spiritual sense. But in that case why build the actual wall, which after all was something concrete, the result of the lifelong labour of multitudes of people? And why were there in the book plans, somewhat nebulous plans, it must be admitted, of the tower, and proposals worked out in detail for mobilising the people’s energies for the stupendous new work?
— Kafka, ‘The Great Wall of China’ (trans. T. and J. Stern)
I’m astounded whenever I finish something. Astounded and distressed. My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from finishing; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something. What I achieve is not the product of an act of my will but of my will’s surrender. I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit.
— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)
Professional, that’s what he should be, X tells me, a professional. He should approach his life in a professional manner, manage his time properly. He should start writing on his calendar, get a diary, get up early, shave, dress sharply, have breakfast, take responsibility, behave as if he’s under the public eye, as if the media might come through the door at any minute. Maybe he should get a PA, he says. Who needs a girlfriend if you have a PA? He should imagine his life under public scrutiny, because isn’t that what being professional means? he asks. He should consider the public eye like a professional, stop brooding and masturbating, be accountable, consider the eyes of public accountability, be an adult, promote profit and productivity, that’s obviously the right path. In essence, he should get some self-respect, he says, without self-respect how does he expect others to respect him? he asks. You certainly don’t get a girlfriend without self-respect, or if you do she’s bound to be bad news, he says, you’ll get taken advantage of if you’re not professional. What kind of girlfriend would you get if you’re not professional? An unprofessional one. And does he expect to live in a one-bedroom flat all his life? If he were more professional he could buy a house, get a mortgage and stop yapping at me all the time, he says. Who am I anyway, he says, that I should take up so much of his time, please, he says, give me a bit of space, I’m making plans, I’m trying to be professional and professionalism means self-respect. He should start wearing a suit, X says.
X has found out what he needs to do, he tells me. It was like a voice made it all clear for him, like a teacher talking to a child, was it you? he asks. Of course it wasn’t. It told him to get out and do some good in the world, be part of the solution not the problem, because right now he’s part of the problem, he’s very much on the side of the problem rather than the solution, though it wasn’t specific about the nature of the problem or the solution for that matter. The voice told him to be more like Obama, a wholesome American man of energy and goodwill, the father he never had. It’s true he needs change, a new direction. He should take some responsibility and do some good in the world, stop talking so much shit to me, surely that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? he asks. With hard work and positive thinking the sky’s the limit. He could feel the fulfilment of helping people, he can do it, that’s essentially what the voice meant, he says. Maybe he should read Obama’s book for inspiration, he says, it’s said to be highly inspirational.
X tells me he’s discovered that his life is a long, slow decline. But at least it’s his decline, he says. No, not his exactly, he says. No one has much influence on it, not even himself. It’s a successful decline in that sense, he says, there’s a certain integrity about it. We start dying the minute we’re born, he says, who said that? Someone or other, he says. What a profound statement! he says. But it depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it, he says. You might just as well say we start living when we’re born, he says. Life’s a mixed bag, it swings in roundabouts. Maybe he should be more positive, he says, after all life’s what you make it and you make your own luck. But why does he feel he’s on the decline when he wakes up every morning? That’s his first thought, he says, I’m on the decline. Right before he starts worrying about the colour of his tongue and checking his balls for lumps. It’s because I don’t have a positive outlook, he says. Maybe he secretly wants to be on the decline, he says, maybe he thinks it’s cool or something, like a teenager, what do I know, he says, you make your own luck that’s all I know. Maybe he needs to train his brain to think positive thoughts like the Americans, that’s how it’s done now, isn’t it? Or maybe he should just get some responsibility, he says, grow up be a man, choose life, choose a future, get involved in local politics, get a chinchilla to take care of. No, he’s on the decline, he says, no doubt about it. He’s just one of those sad cases like Eleanor Rigby or the guy down the street with the stained jacket. He probably just needs to get laid, he says, can I find him a girl? No, of course I can’t.