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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Literary Darwinism: Crap? Lit crit chasing its collective tail?

Well, if we go by Britt Peterson's survey article "Darwin to the Rescue "in Chronicle Free, even its supporters don't totally disagree, despite all the huffery:
Gottschall points out that much of his writing has been published in scientific journals. He admits, however, that under the name of Literary Darwinism "there's also a lot of crap. There really has been a lot of crap. Now the question is, what does that prove? Does it really prove that it's futile and jihadist and all of that? Or does it prove that we need to do a better job? Because you can also go out and find hugely depressing lists of problems in quantitative approaches."
The original idea was to put literary criticism on a "science" footing, in order to rescue it from competing nutty ideas.

The literary Darwinist traces "evolution" themes (= war and sex among cave men) in, oh, Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot. Charts, graphs, PowerPoints.

But their efforts have not been well received.
For the Literary Darwinists, however, the urgency is so high that they see their work, whatever its flaws, as the literary academy's last, best hope — if, of course, it has the courage to embrace the inevitable. "We're desperate," says Gottschall. "The field is really, really desperate. Morale is so bad. No one really knows what to do. Everyone is saying what I am, in some way — they have the same critique, the same feeling that our old ways are just plain spent.
I studied HELL (Honours English Language and Literature) in the bad old days ('71) before my profs had heard of any of these fads. HELL was the course you took if you wanted to be a writer. We studied the history of criticism as well as of literature - a good approach in my view, and an excellent inoculation against fads.

Now, as for literary Darwinism, it has a small, rightful place, as follows: Some famous writers were in fact conscious Darwinists, and the Darwin theme in their work repays study.

I recall, for example, that early twentieth century British playwright George Bernard Shaw had a habit of editorializing on why his characters married whom they did. In Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle marries the foolish Freddy, instead of Professor Higgins (but the movie version was compelled to almost redact this fact, because sentimental taste simply could not endure it). Such themes resonate through Shaw's work. Darwinian themes are also easy to spot in the work of H.G. Wells.

Seriously, one can dispute design in nature perhaps, but not in plays and novels. These works of art are not created by "selfish genes" to blindly spread themselves.

Oops, I better be careful. Next, I will hear from some pontificator about the "selfish meme" that blindly spreads itself in literature ...

"The hardwired brain memes do all the writing but fool the writer into believing she is sweating over the word processor herself" ... As if.

(Oh wait! For all I know, that might be next month's New Scientist feature.)


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