Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 13th, 2012

Charles Darwin and the triumph of literary genius

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Last week, while browsing at Open Books in Chicago, I made one of those serendipitous discoveries that are the main reason I love used bookstores: a vintage copy of The Tangled Bank by Stanley Edgar Hyman, which I picked up for less than seven dollars. Both the author and his work are mostly forgotten these days—Hyman is remembered, if anything, for his marriage to Shirley Jackson—but this book caught my attention right away. It’s an ambitious attempt to consider Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as imaginative writers who made their arguments using the strategies of narrative artists and storytellers, and as such, it’s a great bedside book, if not completely successful. Hyman obsessively details how books like Das Kapital mimic the tropes of narrative art (“The dramatic movement of Capital consists of four descents into suffering and horror, which we might see as four acts of a drama”) while neglecting the main point: if authors like this are storytellers, it’s because they’ve turned themselves into the protagonists of their own books, with their attempts to impose order on reality as their most enduring literary monuments.

And we may never see such protagonists again. If Darwin or Freud are literary characters as memorable as Pickwick or Hamlet, it’s in the tradition of the solitary man of genius considering the world through the lens of his own experience, a figure who has, of necessity, gone out of fashion in the sciences. As Jonah Lehrer recently pointed out in the New Yorker, the era of the lone genius is over:

Today…science papers by multiple authors contain more than twice as many citations as those by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to so-called “home-run papers”—publications with at least a hundred citations. These were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.

The explanation for this is easy enough to understand: most remaining scientific problems are far too hard for any one person to solve. Scientists are increasingly forced to specialize, and tackling important problems requires a greater degree of collaboration than ever before. This leads to its own kind of creative exhilaration, and perhaps a different model of genius, as that of a visionary who can guide and direct a diverse team of talents, like Steve Jobs or Robert Oppenheimer. But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get to know such thinkers as living men and women, at least not as well as the ones profiled in The Tangled Bank.

Of these four, the one who interests me the most these days is Darwin, whose birthday was this past Sunday. (And while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t picked up a copy of Darwin Slept Here, by my good friend Eric Simons, you really should.) Darwin emerges in his own works as a fascinating figure, a ceaseless experimenter whose work is inseparable from the image of the man himself. One of the pleasures of The Tangled Bank lies in its reminder of how ingenious a scientist Darwin was. To  compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out and weighed the paper. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. And this impression of Sherlockian thoroughness, of leaving no experimental stone unturned, is more than just a literary delight: it’s an integral part of the persuasiveness of The Origin of Species, which is convincing as an argument largely because we’re so charmed by the author’s voice.

As Daniel C. Dennett has famously argued, Darwinian evolution is probably the best idea of all time, but it’s also impossible to separate the idea from the man, who survives in his own work as one of the great literary characters of the nineteenth century. It’s true that if Darwin, or Alfred Russel Wallace, hadn’t arrived at the principle of natural selection, somebody else would have done so eventually: it’s one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect. (After reading The Origin of Species, Thomas Huxley is supposed to have said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”) But there’s no denying that the force and appeal of the book itself, which Darwin worked on quietly for years, bears a great deal of the credit for the theory’s rapid acceptance, at least among reasonable readers. Without that presentation, and the author’s personality, the history of the world might have been very different. And for that, we have literary genius to thank.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

Quote of the Day

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When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.

The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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