[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial I

n this post-postmodern age, even the most thoroughgoing cultural relativist should think hard about what might remain stubbornly, imperviously "natural" despite the encroachments of the text. Recently, literary critics of historicist bent such as George Levine have reminded us that while science may be a fallible human activity offering textual and visual representations of the world, the world itself remains empirically "real" and "science has to be discriminated from texts, even if scientific 'texts' are fair game for semiotic and sociological and literary analysis" (Realism, Ethics, Secularism, 178). Literary Darwinists like Clinton Machann make this important point in another way, by seeking to "take into account a body of scientific literature by anthropologists, evolutionary scientists, cognitive scientists, and other researchers about the 'human condition' that has been accumulating over the years" (Machann 2), and to interpret literature in the light of it. In this study of four Victorian long poems -- Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Arthur Hugh Clough's Amours de Voyage, and Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book -- Machann applies science to the problem of masculinity. While acknowledging his debt to relatively recent studies of Victorian masculinity by scholars such as Donald E. Hall and Herbert Sussman, Machann rejects what he sees as their cultural determinism. Gender is not only a cultural construction, he argues, but also the product of a biological reality. More to the point, he argues that this biological reality has been explained and defined by the sciences mentioned above, and it is their definition--he says--that we should use to interpret literary texts.

Each of Machann's readings reveals a conflict between cultural constructions of gender and the biological urges, desires, instincts or identities of literary characters. Idylls of the King, in Machann's view, tells the story of "potentially destructive male energy ... curbed and controlled by the rigid chivalric code instituted by Arthur," a code based on "woman-worship," a particular cultural response to the universal and primitive childbearing and childrearing functions of women. The chivalric gesture to civilization fails because Arthur fails as a man -- fails to produce an heir and to satisfy the rules of kinship -- and because Guinevere does not live up to the culturally-constructed forms of worship which are imposed upon her. "Natural" male violence spontaneously erupts into the fabric of Arthurian social order and, at least in this case, Machann argues, the social order subsequently dissolves.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's characters are more successful, despite their desire to defy the conventional social order. Aurora Leigh and Romney, Machann observes, ultimately "affirm a normative heterosexual union but also as cousins in their own way reinforce continuities in kinship and social class that are consistent with universal patterns observed in cultures around the world" (143). According to Machann, adaptationist psychology has identified a range of cultural universals that societies (and literary texts) handle differently, but that nonetheless offer an explanatory key to Barrett Browning's poem. Women like Aurora, he says, are compelled to choose committed mates; male violence frequently threatens social orders through time and across culture; and in all societies, the bonds of kinship must be preserved. Whatever her seeming threat to society, Aurora's affirmation of those cultural universals is the key to her romantic and poetic success.

Culturally-specific pressures on the choosing of mates, on the uses and containment of masculine and violent energies, and on the preservation of kinship bonds also manifest themselves in the poems of Clough and Browning. As Machann reads it, Amours de Voyage reveals the innate desire for survival and mating in all men, though Claude is unable to succeed in either. And, in the best chapter of the four, The Ring and the Book is shown to stage a complex interplay between Victorian liberal individualism (with its increasing stress on female individualism and agency) and the innate need to survive, mate, and maintain kin relations.

In examining poems with epic pretensions or inheritances, Machann shows how they manifest "the universals of human nature" in different social and literary settings; each of his poets, he convincingly argues, "assumed . . . that biological and cultural issues are interrelated" (147). Machann also rightly observes that the multifarious debates on these questions were inflected by gender, and his discussions of gender roles are often sharpened by his urgent questioning of what--after poststructuralism-- we might consider "essential" about sex or gender. It is appropriate that he should turn to the Victorians for answers we may have overlooked in more recent debates, and Machann's interest in defining essential human characteristics, though modified by the more modern disciplines of literary theory and evolutionary psychology, has much in common with the interests of his poets. Accordingly, Machann's readings of his chosen texts are often insightful and provocative, and he shows how each of the four long poems insistently seeks to distinguish what is "universal" from what is culturally imposed. In discussing the tension between universal and particular human experiences, refracted by the complicated articulation of gender difference and by the evocation of different historical periods, he suggests a deep-seated Victorian yearning for the "universal" and a genuine intellectual dilemma about whether or not it can ever be understood.

Yet Machann dwells less on the yearning and the dilemma of his Victorian subjects than on the claim that universal human nature exists. This claim prompts questions. For the poets Machann considers, were sex and gender--or "human nature"--essentially "biological" or evolutionary properties? Or were they also qualities in which the "universal" could take natural (and not necessarily human) but also spiritual or otherwise inexplicable forms which both precede and exceed the terms of modern evolutionary psychological discourse? Here the turn to the troubled form of epic in the nineteenth century is important. As Herbert Tucker has recently reminded us, epic is a form peculiarly disposed to examine those things we might consider "universal": "From nebula to tissue, from testament to syllable, one had to learn that nothing had always been or would forever be. But that meant one might aspire to find the law of the change, integrate its differential into a compensatory permanence by writing its code" (Epic [2008], 23). As such, Victorian epics are a particularly good choice for Machann. Like Tucker, Machann sharply reveals that in the nineteenth century, laws thought "universal" or "permanent"-- the laws that underpinned things -- were relentlessly questioned and doubted. But unlike Tucker, Machann is disinclined to consider how the nineteenth-century concept of "universal" is irreducible to the "universal" of twenty-first century evolutionary psychology. And unlike Tennyson, Clough, and the Brownings, he is disinclined to accept doubt and struggle and questioning in the definition of the "universal" and what it might consist of.

What Machann calls "scientific studies" (147) occupy an odd position in this book. While he faults "more than a half-century" of literary criticism for ignoring the importance of authorial intention, and promises to revive it as an aid to interpretation, he spends much of his time attributing unconscious knowing to his authors. Each is treated as if he or she somehow "knew" the ineluctable reality of male violence or male-male competition as defining characteristics of what it is to be a male human. Since these traits had not yet been defined as such in the Victorian era, evolutionary psychology--as presented here--merely gives a name to what all of us are presumed to already know, even if we are not aware of it. What then does this "science" tell us that we don't already know? And how does it help us interpret literary texts with more precision or more fluency?

Machann's engagement with his poetic texts is always lively and engaging. But his chosen "science" often simply gives him a scientific-sounding terminology for concepts so basic, and so readily describable without such terminology, that they threaten to collapse under the strain of Machann's textual analyses. In a typical example, we are told that Tennyson's Merlin "represents a center of cognitive activity in Arthur's kingdom and his destruction is of course a major blow" (54). What do we learn from the phrase "cognitive activity"? Does it offer any further interpretive insight than that Merlin's destruction is, in a phrase so colloquial it feels almost bathetic, "a major blow"? And consider this passage:

Arthur's sorrowful confrontation with Guinevere in the convent emphasizes the centrality of adultery, and in more general terms, the violation of rules and rituals associated with mating, resulting in the dissolution of this version of civil society, and the essential links between mating practices and social relations are made clear. (54) Does it enrich our understanding of Tennyson's poem to see it as "making clear" how important "mating rituals" are to all human societies?

Indeed, if the terms of evolutionary psychology add anything here, it is often a troubling vagueness that runs against the grain of Machann's commitment to close reading. Take the phrase "human nature." Do any scientists in the here ignored fields of genetics, neuroscience, neuropsychology, and so on -- fields which are often deeply sceptical about the scientific status of evolutionary psychology -- use it with such ease and assurance as Machann? Do they consider its meaning fixed and definable? Similarly, what does it mean to say that "male violence is a phenomenon that has always been characteristic of human experience"(18)? Beneath this sentence seems to lurk myriad assumptions about societies for which we have no empirical evidence, about whether "male" refers to individual males or males in general, about what actually constitutes "violence," about which degrees and forms of violence are permissible and which are not, about what "male violence" may be (as distinguished from "female violence"), and so on. To his credit, Machann recognizes that "human nature" always signifies a mixture of "natural" and socially-constructed elements. But in my judgment, he does not do enough to interrogate the distinction between those elements, or to question and interrogate the historically and culturally-specific meanings of phrases like "human nature" and "male violence." I suspect that these are baggy monsters referring to everything all at once and to nothing in particular. Do we find them everywhere because they are everywhere and signify something universal to the human condition, or because they are so elastic that we can make anything fit them?

Machann's attention to the texts is sharpest when he addresses these criticisms of the "literary Darwinist" method. Accordingly, he studies the conflicts and connections between the biological and cultural aspects of our identities as they are explored (or reflected) in literary texts, and as they change over time. And it is in these productive sites of tension that his best analyses take shape. In discussing the protagonist of Amours de Voyage, for instance, he cogently explains Claude's relentless questioning of his supposed chivalric duty to protect women ("what should be a spontaneous, emotionally charged commitment to do his duty" [90]), his fear "of being moved by an artificial or inauthentic sense of duty rather than a genuine, natural impulse" (92), and the poem's "powerful nostalgic desire for universal meaning apprehended through classical art and cultural artifacts and acknowledging an 'instinctive' natural drive not just for sex but for meaningful familial and social bonds and recognition of masculine identity and status" (107). But one might argue that Machann did not need evolutionary psychology to explain the desire for universal meaning or an anxiety about whether to trust or abjure natural impulses.

Indeed, no matter how closely or commendably Machann examines the interplay of biological and cultural forces, his "literary Darwinist" framework often forces him to flatten complexities, avoid nuances, and create categories so broad that they contain those complexities and nuances without always explaining them. Despite his provocative and insightful consideration of the boundaries between the natural and the cultural, he does not turn his literary skills on evolutionary psychology itself. When he spots evolutionary evidence in literary texts, he sometimes overlooks their verbal complexity. He quotes long passages of poetry to illustrate single points even when the ironies, cross-currents, and rhythms of these passages might suggest alternative interpretations. He rarely calibrates the effect of intonation or metre or patterns of sound, or notes the repetition of the same words in different contexts.

His treatment of recent scholarship on Victorian poetry also contains revealing gaps. Though he mentions Colin Graham's Ideologies of Epic (1998), Simon Dentith's Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2006), and Herbert Tucker's Epic, he simply describes them as "recent studies that have analyzed the complex relationship between the historical present and ancient historical or mythic traditions in long poems by Victorians attempting to adapt an epic vision" (12). Only Tucker gets more attention--in barely a paragraph--and Kirstie Blair's important book Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (2007) does not appear in the bibliography, though one of her essays does.

Even more tellingly, perhaps, Machann quotes surprisingly little from anthropology, evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. Instead he often quotes from popular scientific books or from a small handful of scientific studies whose representativeness goes undiscussed. Consider his sources for the oft-repeated "evolutionary" maxim that men mate with multiple women in order to maximise the continuation of their genes, and women select mates materially and physically able to support their pregnancy, childbearing, and childrearing. For these points, Machann cites two works by the popular science writer David M. Buss as "easily accessible source[s] of information" and "an increasing number of popular books on sex differences" including the provocatively and amusingly-titled Madame Bovary's Ovaries (2005). But accessibility is not a reliable indicator of scientific quality, and the relatively small number of scientific papers that appear in the footnotes all come from fields tangential to mainstream science -- a tangent not discussed in the body of the text. Just how "scientific" these papers may be, or what "science" might be, are fit questions for a literary critic, but they are rarely raised here. Though he does scrutinize the boundary between the "natural" and the "social" or cultural, Machann--like "literary Darwinists" more generally-- does not always define his terms and distinctions with sufficient precision.

Nonetheless, this book does well to remind us that not everything about human beings may be reducible to cultural determinism. It offers fresh readings of four poems that remain appealing-- in part-- because they stress what makes us collectively human rather than what divides us. Though I have strongly criticized its methodology, it thoughtfully reckons with the accusations levelled at literary Darwinism. In reviving interest in the cohesive impulses of Victorian poetry, and in the study of what is "essential" about us rather than culturally-constructed, this book makes an important contribution to Victorian literary studies.


Machann, Clinton. The “Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics — a Darwinist Reading . Ashgate, 2010. 172pp.

Last modified 22 June 2014