The Essential Rabbit in the Sky
Yesterday I posted an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth, in which I wanted to give some flavor of the book on its own grounds, as it made its case for evolution against the well-financed onslought of anti-science creationists.
But I’m not a scientist or a polemicist or a philosopher or a critic primarily. I’m a writer of narratives first and foremost, and when I read, I’m no less prone than anybody else to engage what I’m reading in a conversation with my extra-textual preoccupation, which is my own work, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but often toward productive enough ends that I don’t care whether or not my habits as a reader honor or don’t honor the intentions of the writer I’m reading.
Reading Dawkins, I came across something personally useful. Dawkins is trying to figure out why it took so long for human beings to unpack the idea of evolution, which is relatively more simple or obvious than, say, Euclidean geometry. He blames Plato’s notion that “the ‘reality’ we think we see is just shadows cast on the wall of our cave by the flickering light of the camp fire.” In this vein, geometers are preoccupied with an ideal perfect conceptual triangle, and biologists got sidetracked with an ideal perfect conceptual rabbit.
“The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be a resistance to change — as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit in the Sky. The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendents can depart indefinitely from the ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.” – Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, page 22
And here of course I’m thinking about a certain rigidity toward this or that idea of “right” literature-making I’ve embraced at different stages of my education as a writer. Sometimes this embrace has been good for my work — has given me a functional fiction that has produced something good, which means for me I’m happy to have embraced it for as long as it was productive, whether or not it was right. But more often this Platonic inheritance (I know what to call it now, thanks to Dawkins) has caused me to resist opportunities to be brave enough to make a thing whose possibility is apparent but whose advisability I’ve questioned because I have the voices of past readers or teachers or parents or dead writers in my ear, and I’ve let them stay there, granting them an authority that I ought grant no one but myself, since if I am to be an author I must speak with a singular authority particular to the thing I am authoring, embracing the new variant I am birthing, and trusting direct observation of the thing in front of me to judge the virtue of the thing in front of me, rather than comparing it to some Essential Rabbit in the Sky, as though such a thing ever existed.