The dumbing down of culture in the education system and in social media is fortunately only one trend among many others. The disquieting acceptance of scientific experts pontificating on subjects outside their domain of competence is today counterbalanced by the increasing readiness of the lay public to debunk the arrogance and laziness of media-promoted experts and intellectuals presume that their mastery in one narrow field can be carried over without any further work into totally unrelated fields. The sad case of Stephen Hawking proclaiming the worthlessness of contemporary philosophy without any knowledge of its major works is just one particularly notorious example of scientistic conceit.
The triumph of democracy of thought over encroachment by supposedly pan-noetic pundits is to be celebrated and encouraged. However, sometimes it can lead its digital constituencies to a certain blindness that sees no value in a real intellectual’s boundary-traversing genius. This cognitive bias leads them to see unfamiliar insights as exhibiting a blindness that can only be attributed to their own statistical certainty that « this is yet another case of that ». Unfounded induction replaces sound investigation and solid research is mocked and noetic democracy is replaced by mob rule.
People have been unjustly ridiculing a tweet by Richard Dawkins about Kafka’s short story THE METAMORPHOSIS. I shall argue that the tweet in question contains in concise form a theory of modernist literature that does honour to its author.
Dawkins, to say the least, has done his research. He takes off from Roland Barthes’ concept of a form of literature, la littérature blanche, that belongs to no determinate genre and whose style cannot be classified in terms of such dualisms as literal/metaphorical, high culture/low culture, intellectual experimentation/popular recreation. Unlike Barthes and other French intellectuals Dawkins has a real talent for popularisation in the noble sense of taking abstruse theories and abstract concepts and explaining them in terms that the layman endowed with common sense would have no difficulty understanding.
We are privileged here to see how a mind used to inventive ground-breaking research can see even popularisation as an opportunity to push its creative skills to the limit. In order to create a bridge between the so-called « two cultures » (the sciences and the humanities) Dawkins had to proceed pedagogically. He chose a well-known but mysterious tale by a famous but enigmatic modernist writer, THE METAMORPHOSIS by Franz Kafka.
Simply translating Barthes’ highbrow expression, la littérature blanche, into English would have given the rather infelicitous expression « blank literature ». Dawkins had the genius to see that another image (naked literature) would work better in English. He had the further inspiration to associate this still slightly puzzling expression, with the familiar fairy tale THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. These insights allowed him to characterise Kafka’s tale as a form of literature that is realist, without appearing so. This literary realism without the habitual garbs of literature is the first trait of THE METAMORPHOSIS considered as blank literature that Dawkins gets us to see.
The next step was to consider the appearance and to « peel off » the stereotypes that could hinder our understanding of the naked writing of modernist realism. Richard Dawkins had to deconstruct the appearance of the text, without appearing to indulge in deconstruction.
To accomplish this, Dawkins considered the question of genre, and quickly got us to see, by way of Socratic interrogation that a problem was posed by the hypothesis that the text was a form of naked realism that nevertheless recounts seemingly impossible, or at least currently unexplainable, events. Dawkins gets us to see by clever questioning that the tale cannot be considered to be science fiction (nor, by implication, fantasy, but a single tweet cannot contain Dawkins’ full thought) nor allegory (appealing to a familiar example, ANIMAL FARM). So he provokes us to discover, as if by our own thought, a second trait of blank literature, it belongs to no determinate genre.
At the same time, such is the compression of his writing, Dawkins considers the style of the tale, in the sense of its use of language. He makes us see that it is neither literal (as in SF) nor figurative (as in allegory). He gets us to understand that it is pure writing vibrating back and forth between sense and nonsense, creating an abundance of possible meaning by its very blankness, now seen as a synergy of void and excess. Thus he allows us to come to the insight of a third and fourth trait of blank literature, its indeterminacy of sense allied to a non-standard use of language, neither literal nor figurative, but neutral.
Dawkins is aware that he may be pushing his readers (the readers of his tweets, whom we may call his « tweaders ») too far without signposts to guide them. He knows that he has to convince them of the value of a type of literature whose multiple levels of meaning are not obvious at first sight, that requires us to think. He does this by means of a joke, « I don’t get it », implying that we need to work at understanding the tale, perhaps even re-read it several times, discuss it with others, read some other works, etc. If even such a great mind as Dawkins’ doesn’t get Kafka’s tale straight away, we say to ourselves, it is normal that readers such as we must struggle to understand it. This is Dawkins’ way of sugar-coating the bitter pill that reading a literary text requires hard work and much thought – thus conveying the fifth trait of blank literature, its very indeterminacy is a feature, not a flaw, it is deliberate, it makes us think.
The final remark on Freudian and feminist interpretations is a simple corollary of this fifth trait (of indeterminacy and multiple meanings) and need not be commented on.
This is my long-winded attempt to unpack what Dawkins’ was able to express in such concise form to his followers, many of whom are still mired in the rudimentary scientism that does not even allow them to properly understand the science side of the great divide, and leaves them totally uncomprehending of the literature side. Such clarity and courage must be saluted.
Appendix – Richard Dawkins’ magic Kafka tweet:
Kafka’s Metamorphosis is called a major work of literature. Why? If it’s SF it’s bad SF. If, like Animal Farm, it’s an allegory, an allegory of what? Scholarly answers range from pretentious Freudian to far-fetched feminist. I don’t get it. Where are the Emperor’s clothes?https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/1401239365678997506