Further to “Were you learning “survival of the fittest” in lit class and didn’t know it?”, here’s Nancy Pearcey again in Saving Leonardo, on Darwinism as a theme in literature:
(Recall that this is not “literary Darwinism,” a version of evolutionary psychology that seeks to subsume all literature into Darwinism, whether the latter was part of the authors’ vision or not. This discussion is rather about the acknowledged use of Darwinian theory by literary figures who believed in its basic message themselves. They were expressing their own aesthetic vision. Their work endures as a worthwhile subject of study and they were not merely advancing the view that all the other writers who do not believe in Darwin’s theory are really iterating it anyway on some kind of genetic autopilot. )
The naturalist writers took their lead from science. They even conceived the novel or play as a kind of laboratory. “The rise of the scientific worldview led to the idea that the stage . . . should become like an instrument of scientific inquiry into human behaviour,” writes a theater critic. It would be “a laboratory in which the laws governing the interaction of human beings and social classes could be studied.” They aimed at a tone suitable for scientific investigation—detached, clinical, and above all, value free. Events were to be presented without moral commentary.
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary , the main character engages in various adulterous affairs and suffers a gradual breakdown of character until she commits suicide. Yet the process is portrayed with clinical detachment—no sympathy, no redemption, no moral to the story. When Flaubert (1821–1880) was charged with obscenity, his lawyer defended him by arguing that the book’s scenes exhibit the same fidelity to fact as a camera. But that was precisely the problem. Events were described photographically, without moral comment. Flaubert once wrote that art should strive for “the exactness of the physical sciences.” He treats his characters as somewhat repellent specimens that he picks up with tweezers to examine.
Today’s readers are puzzled by the charge of obscenity, given that the book contains no explicit sexual descriptions. But nineteenth-century readers were far more sensitive to the shift in worldview.
They were aghast at the novel’s naturalistic worldview—its refusal to apply any kind of transcendent perspective or moral principle—which they recognized as reductionistic and dehumanizing.
The literary naturalists may have claimed to be scientific and objective, but they were not simply observing human experience. They were imposing a preconceived philosophical framework that reduced humans to biological organisms in the Darwinian struggle for existence.
The best-known theorist of naturalism was Emile Zola. He disliked the way earlier realists (like Charles Dickens) had laced their stories with moral themes. In Zola’s view, the novelist should be an amoral observer—“a recorder who is forbidden to judge.” Like a scientist, the novelist simply sets up the lab conditions, then reports on how his human specimens respond: “experiment tried in such and such conditions gives such and such results.” The goal was to “dissect piece by piece this human machinery” until the novelist is able to explain human passions by “the fixed laws of nature.”
In Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, a couple engage in an adulterous affair without love, driven by sheer animal drive, then conspire to murder the woman’s husband. Afterward they destroy one another psychologically and finally commit suicide. When the book was first published, many readers thought the plot suggested a moral theme—crime and punishment. Outraged, Zola wrote a preface to the second edition making it clear that he had no intention of communicating a moral message or dealing with themes of sin and guilt. What he was doing in the book was conducting a scientific analysis of the human personality—dissecting the psyche in the same dispassionate way a scientist dissects a body. In his words, “I simply applied to two living bodies the analytical method that surgeons apply to corpses.” I was portraying characters “without free will,” governed by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. They “are human animals, nothing more.” (pp. 148–52)
2 Replies to “More “survival of the fittest” in lit class that you maybe didn’t get at the time”
…Wish we could time travel & invite these 19th century fans of amoral darwinism…and give them a brief tour of the 20th-early 21st century’s “dog eat dog” mass murders and general cultural breakdown, scattered like festering garbage heaps alongst our nations and cultures…
And let them see the most nihilist artworks we’ve created…and those works of vulgarity which might make most of them gasp…
(OF course they would see some beauty amongst the ashes of our only partly deconstructed world. Perhaps those who were taught ancient history (with its lessons about cultural destruction)…would see how full frontal…hard core…social darwinism works.
I’d suggest as a first stop…the films General Eisenhower ordered shot…of the concentration camps. And then move on from there!!!
It’s WAY too easy to make up ghastly theories and to deconstruct human worth…safe in one’s nicely appointed classroom/office. It’s another thing to wade amongst the actual horrible reality.
I read that Zola once remarked that he’d believe in the alleged miracles at Lourdes, when he witnessed one with his own eyes. He did. And he didn’t. Plus ca change.
We’re more than a little familiar on this forum, aren’t we, with the irrationality of those who believe that, once upon a time, nothing turned itself into everything, and who dismissively disparage the implications of quantum mechanics as just some meaningless ‘woo woo’. Except to make a living off, when, gosh, it’s quite useful.