Franz Kafka’s brilliant parable “A Message from the Emperor” illustrates the paradoxical nature of nihilism: if something has no meaning, does that not mean something? In what is perhaps the shortest of his short stories, Kafka writes of an emperor who has dispatched a message “to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far, from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed.” The message is valuable; the emperor cherishes it. He sends his messenger dashing toward you, but the impediments between you are vast.
If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.
Futility separates possibility from actuality. You will never receive the message, and you will never learn its meaning, yet there is meaning in the existence of the message, that there ever was a message, and that you were given the chance to experience the message. You continue to dream of it long after hope should be lost, as does the messenger. He continues moving forward even though he will never, ever make it. Why doesn’t he quit? Why do you not stop waiting?