Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism | The Nation


Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism

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Literary Darwinism's reductive tendencies enforce an impoverished view of both literature and life. Because it deals only with fiction and drama, the narrative modes, the field ignores one of the three major branches of literature, lyric poetry, altogether. Then there is the sensitivity with which it handles the things it does address. "Genre," Carroll says, "is largely a matter of feeling--tragedy is sad, and comedy happy." First of all, genre is not largely a matter of feeling; it is largely a matter of form. Second, Carroll's scheme leaves no room for mixed cases like dark comedy or tragicomedy. Third, Oedipus Rex or King Lear may leave us feeling many things--stunned, emptied, exhilarated, exalted; Aristotle's catharsis of pity and terror will probably never be improved upon as a description of that unique state--but "sad" is not one of them. Another study cracks the conundrum of Hamlet. It turns out the play is about choosing between personal self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing your uncle) and genetic self-interest (letting Mummy provide you with a few siblings, who would carry a share of your genes). Aside from being completely daft, and missing everything important about the play, this reading ignores the fact that, with a 30-year-old son, Gertrude is not going to be having any more babies anytime soon.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz, a Nation contributing writer, is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American...

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The exception to all this is The Rape of Troy. Gottschall's study of Homer is prudent, patient, thoroughly researched and very smart. Gottschall argues that the violence of Homeric society reflects the struggle among men over reproductive resources--mainly women, of course--in self-reinforcing conditions of scarcity. He draws not only on the Iliad and the Odyssey but on archaeology, anthropology and the history of Homeric scholarship to illuminate neglected aspects of the epics and put together a wide-ranging understanding of the behavior of Homer's characters, holding out the promise that Darwinian insights might, as part of a far larger battery of critical tools, prove useful to literary scholarship. Still, there are problems. Gottschall can explain the ordinary course of Homeric behavior, but he can't explain the exceptions. He can't explain moments when the meaning of an action is literary rather than anthropological (like Odysseus' "bizarre cruelty" in concealing himself from his old father, the climax of the theme of disguise), and he can't explain behavior that rises above the norm. In other words, he can't explain the poems' essential subject: heroism. Why does Achilles sacrifice himself to avenge a beloved friend when his status as a great warrior is already secure and he knows he can retire to a long and fertile life at home? Why does Odysseus risk years of peril at sea to return to a wife who can no longer provide him with offspring when he could be scattering his seed across the Mediterranean?

In any case, Gottschall has moved on to other things. His second book represents an initial glimpse at the brave new world of the "new humanities" that its title foresees. Gottschall doesn't just want to make literary studies Darwinian, he wants to make it quantitative. So we get statistical analyses of folk tale collections designed to show that the obsession with female beauty is not confined to the West, or that romantic love is a human universal. Forthcoming work, undertaken with Carroll and others, uses polling data to disprove the postmodern belief in "the death of the author" by showing that writers really do have an effect on the way people react to their books. There are several things to say about this and similar work. For one thing, a lot of it isn't literary at all. It simply uses literature as a source of data for social-scientific investigation, and it takes no cognizance of literary form--that is, of what makes literature different from other modes of discourse. For another, unlike fields such as criminology or public health that were transformed by the introduction of statistical methods, literary studies is not concerned with large classes of phenomena of which individual cases are merely interchangeable and aggregable examples. It is concerned, precisely, with individual cases, and very few of them at that: the rare works of value that stand out from the heap of dross produced in every age.

Finally, these common-sense conclusions about beauty, love and the death of the author are noteworthy only in relation to the nonsense of Theory. That such arguments need to be made in the first place only shows what a pass we have come to. If literary Darwinism does nothing more than discredit the old paradigm, it will have done very well indeed. But it will, I fear, do a great deal more. The Darwinists have a research program, and few things in the academy are more powerful than that. Gottschall wants to put readers in MRI machines to test their responses, though he is also willing to take advantage of less expensive technologies, like "simple salivary swabs that can provide hormonal indicators of emotions experienced during reading." Carroll lauds a study that analyzed the creative process by giving subjects a personality test "to determine their position on a scale of Machiavellianism," then had them write short stories. Hearing of such remarkable schemes, I feel I've been transported, with Gulliver, to the Academy of Lagado, where one sage endeavored to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and another sought to restore ordure to the condition of food.

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