Thursday, November 11, 2010

Archdeacons and earthworms: Charles Darwin, the good novelist

Enchantment, Utopia, epiphany, sublime insight – the grand words of Romanticism are not Darwinian words. (In fact, they never occur anywhere in his writing.) Slight, small, varied, struggle, helpful, hopeful, natural, selection, modification (not revolutionary change) – these are the words of Darwinism, and they have become the words of liberalism. By giving us a new set of words, Darwin changed our minds.
Extended essays don’t usually make compelling books, but Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life is an exception. It began life as two long pieces Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker last year, and some critics might say the very premise of those essays was a little dubious: they were based on the coincidence that two great men – Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, whose collective achievements altered the way human beings think about their relationship with other species as well as with other races of people – were born on the same day in 1809.

But Gopnik, to his credit, doesn't over-romanticise this coincidence of birth. “Coincidence is the vernacular of history, the slang of memory,” he writes, “the first strong pattern where we begin to search for subtler ones.” Angels and Ages examines many aspects of the life and work of Darwin and Lincoln, but the one I found most interesting was the observation that both men had a lucid, direct writing style that was the perfect conduit for the (radical for their times) ideas they needed to express. Alone among major scientists of his time, Darwin wrote books that an amateur reader in the 21st century can understand and enjoy (I’m currently halfway through The Voyage of the Beagle), while Lincoln's writing was marked by what Gopnik calls a “liberal eloquence” even though his profession required him to deal in rhetoric. Their styles can be seen as natural offshoots of their personal qualities, including clarity of thought and the questioning spirit.

I’ve been very interested in Darwin’s life and work for some time, and I thought the outstanding passages in Angels and Ages were the ones where Gopnik analyses him as a writer – even comparing his work to some of the great novelists of his time.
Turning the pages, we realise that Darwin, the greatest Victorian sage, does not write like a Victorian sage. He writes like a Victorian novelist ... [his] prose is calm and exact and, in its way, witty – not aphoristic, but ready to seize on a small point to make a large one, closer to George Eliot and Anthony Trollope than to his contemporary defenders ...
Gopnik shows how Darwin moved almost imperceptibly from studying small, seemingly insignificant things to raising large and difficult questions about the
workings of the natural world, and how – importantly – he did this in an almost diffident way, without ever beating the reader over the head with his knowledge; how he anticipated many of the objections that could be made to his theories and pre-empted his critics by raising those points himself (and occasionally expressing self-doubt).

Little wonder that Gopnik says if he had to pick a single book “to sum up what was great and rich in Charles Darwin – a book to place alongside Middlemarch and Phineas Finn and Through the Looking Glass and Great Expectations”, it would be not his obviously important works but the almost oddball On the Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, which Darwin published near the end of his life. Here was a book with an apparently narrow subject (the title tells the story), which ends up demonstrating that even a “lowly” creature like an earthworm can play a very important part in the history of the world, given enough time.

I love this passage, which likens Darwin’s methods in On the Origin of Species to the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope:
... Both Trollope and Darwin work in the mock-epic mode: the acts of very small and humble and comic creatures, archdeacons and earthworms, are shown to be not just illustrative of heroic and cosmic workings but an aspect of them. Trollope’s Barchester is a smallish place, but its acts are not diminutive; every kind of passion and betrayal and tragedy can be found within those narrow, provincial precincts. Archdeacon Grantly is a Greek hero and Mrs Proudie as big as Clytemnestra if we pay them the right kind of attention. England’s pastures are small, and its kennels cosy, but for Darwin they contain the keys to all creation ...

... Darwin had the gift – the gift of any good novelist – of making the story sound as if it just got pushed out by the descriptions. The plot seems to grow out of his observations rather than being imposed by his will; in reality, the plot came first, as it usually does.
In the reviewer's parlance, it might be said that Darwin, like the best novelists, was adept at "showing rather than telling".

P.S. While on great thinkers who expressed themselves lucidly, consider this quote from Mahatma Gandhi’s editor K Swaminathan:
Gandhi’s literary style is a natural expression of his democratic temper. There is no conscious ornamentation, no obtrusive trick of style calling attention to itself. The style is a blend of the modern manner of an individual sharing his ideas and experiences with his readers, and the impersonal manner of the Indian tradition in which the thought is more important than the person expounding it. The sense of equality with the common man is the mark of Gandhi’s style and the burden of his teaching.


  1. I think it was Robin Wood in his Hitchcock book who commented on Hitch, Charles Laughton & Noel Coward being born in the same year (1899) & briefly comparing their respective careers as British origin show business personalities who found fame & fortune in US after moving from UK.

  2. I agree that technocrats and scientists of yesteryear were probably more lucid and
    generally accessible in their style of written communication than the ones today.

    This is particularly true of economics, which has increasingly become a math-intensive subject
    over the years. Most of us would struggle to understand papers in economics written today without
    a very strong background in high math.

    In contrast, the classics in the subject like Smith's Wealth of Nations or even Keynes' The General Theory.. almost read
    like essays and are bereft of equations altogether.

    Perhaps the loss of prose spontaneity is a concomitant of increased rigour in the study of these sciences. So, perhaps it isn't something to
    be bemoaned.

    Here's a post i did recently where I briefly
    discussed a short piece of Irving Fisher's prose that remains startlingly simple and jargon free when compared to even the newspaper articles of today.