Monday, May 2, 2016

yet we are dogs nevertheless

Kafka did not write science fiction. He did not write speculative fiction. He did not write fantastic fiction, nor did he write fantasy, certainly not in the sense that people tend to mean these days. He did not write weird fiction, what he wrote is not The Weird. People — terrible, bad people — sometimes try to lump Kafka in with science fiction or speculative fiction or fantastic fiction or fantasy or weird fiction or The Weird. This is of course because terrible, bad people are often terribly, badly wrong.

It is in "Investigations of a Dog", I think, that Kafka, though he did not write science fiction, comes closest to writing science fiction. A-ha, you say, it's because here he writes about dogs who think and talk like humans do — an sfnal concept — and so surely by that logic a story about a man who wakes up one day transformed into an insect, or a story about a castle that does not exist in reality, or a story about a horse who becomes a lawyer: all of these are also sf! But no — I suggest that "Investigations of a Dog" is the closest Kafka — who did not write sf — comes to writing sf not because of the dogs in the story, but because of the dogs out of it. Kafka, who did not write science fiction, makes his closest approach to something recognizable as science fiction in five words in this story, five words that appear in the middle of a sentence in the middle of one of his famously long paragraphs. He writes:

They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me...
(Or at least, this is how the Muirs translate him.)

Dogs like you and me — this invocation and fictionalization of the reader — accusing the reader of being something they are not, something they cannot be, something closer to the work than is possible, in more ways than one — but at the same time it's true, it's correct, it is neither a lie nor, for the moment at least, a metaphor. If Kafka has anything in common with sf — which is not to say that he is sf — it's not that he calls the narrator a dog, it's that he calls the reader a dog.


Ethan Robinson said...

Of course, "dogs like you and me" is also just another sign of the narrator's epistemological closure - for all his intellectualizing and for all his genuine insight he remains a dog, with a dog's limitations, and one of these limitations is the assumption that there exists nothing other than a dog that could be reading. This is not sfnal - it's not, to take the superficially closest example, the reason that the essays in Simak's City are written for dogs. Or - it might be better to say, in sf the assumption exists at a different level, with a different kind of irony. Something to think more about, probably.

Mongo, At The Moment said...

"for all his intellectualizing and for all his genuine insight he remains a dog." Is this a variation on the old joke ("Who's the greatest baseball player?" "Rüf" "See? He said 'Ruth' ")?

We Dogs possess an olfactory sense four thousand times as sensitive as yours. As a result, we also have a finely tuned sense of irony. Just sayin'.

Ethan Robinson said...

I'm in no position to say whether the limitations of a dog are greater or lesser than those of a human being, and I meant to imply no such thing! --only that both limitations exist, and are different from one another.

Mongo, At The Moment said...

No offense taken! Just because we can't use silverware and some of us have to sit in a child seat to get to most steering wheels doesn't mean we can't appreciate 'Candide' or Beckett.