[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “I” for Vanity Fair — Katherine Miller Weber.]
n his delightfully-titled final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881), Charles Darwin returned to a creature that had fascinated him early in his career. Worms, however, also contained many of the hallmarks of Darwin's lifetime in science. It was the classic Darwinian study of the stupendous effects that small processes operating over long periods of time can produce, but it also reminded readers of his early writings as a geologist; of the lively descriptive natural history of his Journal of Researches from the Beagle voyage; of his detailed studies of lowly, seemingly insignificant creatures like coral and barnacles; and of the patient observations and homely experiments of his botanical work. Its closing paragraph, inviting readers to reflect on the effect of worms on any "wide, turf-covered expanse" (313), even echoed in content and structure its more famous counterpart from the Origin of Species (1859).
Although we can hope that this new book will not be George Levine's final word on Darwin, it resembles Darwin's Worms in revisiting with fresh eyes the concerns and curiosities of a career's observation and thought, in this case about Darwin and his work. Most prominently, this new book continues and extends the project of Darwin Loves You (2007), with Levine arguing that Darwin's vision and writing are infused with a sense of wonder. In addition, Levine explores terrain that could be incorporated into an expanded edition of his influential first book on Darwin, Darwin and the Novelists (1988). His new chapters on the prose of the Origin of Species and the Journal of Researches (1839, 1845) would fit easily into that earlier work, as would his chapter on Hardy, a fleeting presence in Darwin and the Novelists but more prominent here. In its concern with the role of the mind in Darwinian writing, the new book also recalls Levine's exploration of the paradoxes of objectivity and scientific epistemology in Dying to Know (2002). And in using Dwight Culler's essay on "The Darwinian Revolution and Literary Form," Levine takes us back to its home: his early, co-edited collection on The Art of Victorian Prose (1968).
Yet this new book neither retreads old paths nor collects chapters omitted from earlier works. Instead, it rewrites Darwin and the Novelists, or at least explores some of the wildly (and Wildely) different ground that his earlier work largely avoided. Both Darwin the Writer and Darwin and the Novelists extend Levine's analysis of the nineteenth-century English novel in The Realistic Imagination (1981), but they do so from opposite directions. In The Realistic Imagination, Levine had argued that realism absorbed rather than eclipsed romance during the nineteenth century, and that romance had itself borrowed increasingly from realism. Darwin and the Novelists, with Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983), primarily cast Darwin in the role of a narrative realist pursuing the scientific version of the fictional project of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy. In Darwin the Writer, however, Levine links his man with very different traditions—particularly the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, the Hardy of The Woodlanders rather than Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, and the modernism of Virginia Woolf.
In writing as an unabashed and self-proclaimed "partisan" (vi) of Darwin's ideas and art, Levine has two main purposes. The first is to demonstrate that Darwin was indeed a writer, that his prose is infused with imaginative and literary qualities inseparable from his factual descriptions and theoretical proclamations, and hence that the success of the Origin in particular is partly due to these imaginative and literary qualities. Secondly, here as in Darwin Loves You, Levine aims to refute the notion that Darwin's writing and his theories create a bleak and nihilistic vision of the natural world. Rather, argues Levine, Darwin's world is full of wonder and awe—in all of its nooks and crannies, and even (perhaps especially) among its most grotesque or bizarre creatures. Although Darwin removes the solace of a benevolent Creator superintending his creation, the world that emerges from his naturalistic explanations is no less amazing, and the human mind's ability to understand and construct order in this world is, to adapt Wordsworth's phrase from "Tintern Abbey" (text) "abundant recompense" (88) for what has been lost. This compensatory reading of Darwin, Levine believes, is truer to Darwin's own encounter with nature as well as far less gloomy than the dark and algorithmic versions of Darwinism offered by prominent modern interpreters like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.
The book's six chapters fall roughly into two sections. In the first section, the opening chapter lays out the book's arguments, while the two that follow examine Darwin's prose in the Journal of Researches and the Origin, respectively. Despite the differences between the two books, Levine argues that the Journal anticipates the Origin's ways of arguing and of representing nature. Both works display Darwin's extraordinary visual sensitivity and attentiveness to virtually everything, his probing curiosity and questioning, his refusal to take anything for granted. Darwin draws our attention to organisms and phenomena we would normally overlook and compels us through his prose to acknowledge how interesting, strange, or awe-inducing they are. His descriptions and explanations invariably demonstrate the interconnectedness of all life and the deep relationships between organic and inorganic worlds as they conjure up past or future environments. "Seeing with Darwin's eyes," writes Levine, "meant filling the world with meaning, registering all things visible in relation to other things and other times. Seeing with Darwin's eyes entails active imaginative intelligence that can pry from the visible the traces of an invisible past and of minutely suggested unobvious relations" (56).
This Darwinian way of seeing is also deeply ethical, Levine stresses, challenging us to abandon notions of human exceptionalism and to reconsider our responsibilities to the earth and to other creatures. While many of Darwin's contemporaries—not to mention our own contemporaries—regard as deflating this refusal to accord humanity any special position in the natural order, Levine reminds us that it was not so for Darwin. In many extended analyses of Darwin's prose, this book shows how consistently he interweaves seemingly dry, factual description and objective evidence-weighing with emotional affect and imaginative empathy. Levine's close readings, moreover, display the same characteristics he finds in Darwin's writerly art: close attention to detail, rendered in language at once simple and charged with meaning, even poetic.
In the three chapters of the book's second section, Levine elaborates on what he calls the "double movement" of Darwin's prose, which he uses to connect Darwinism to literary suspects less likely than George Eliot or H. G. Wells. The "double movement" is at once emotional and scientific: Darwin frequently registers (and often ascribes to his reader) an emotional response to some natural phenomenon—surprise, disgust, amazement, pleasure—for which he then provides a naturalistic explanation that reconfigures the original emotion rather than dissolving it. For Darwin, the immediately striking ball-and-socket ornaments on the wing feathers of the male Argus pheasant are even more extraordinary when we understand what produced them: untold generations of females chose males with ever-so-slightly more three-dimensional shadings on their wings. The evolutionary emergence of adaptation is more wonderful for Darwin than a single act of design by a superintending God. This double movement, Levine argues, characterizes both Darwin's writing and the paradoxes in Darwinism. In Darwin's world, momentous change is slowly wrought by lowly creatures and insignificant forces; what seems peaceful is in fact a war zone; and stasis is really constant change. Most significantly for Levine, nature is both unintelligent and intelligible. Despite the presence of myriad adaptations, nature does not spring from a designing mind; only our human minds, themselves the product of natural selection, can discover the laws of nature that have effected those adaptations. For Levine, then, the ultimate paradox of Darwinian objectivity is the way it admits subjectivity and mind back into science.
On this basis, Levine develops and extends Culler's argument that the true form of Darwinism is not tragedy but comedy. Like comedy, Darwinism is counter-intuitive; it upsets and reverses our expectations and assumptions. This, Levine notes, is remarkably similar to aestheticism, particularly in its Wildean form, which utilized paradox to challenge bourgeois aesthetic, social, and economic values. In a bravura reading of Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist," Levine demonstrates that Darwin indeed "softened up the world for aestheticism and Wilde" (178). Pressing on to the age of Virginia Woolf, he casts Darwin as a father of modernism, arguing that the "literary transition from Victorianism to modernism" is "borne on the back of science itself" (125). In his final chapter, on Hardy and The Woodlanders, Levine contends that this formally strange and not-quite-canonical novel is Hardy's most Darwinian one, precisely because it doesn't stress the bleakness characteristic of Hardy's more famous works.
Levine's arguments about Darwin as writer are compelling and welcome, a reminder that the imaginative or literary elements of Darwin's works cannot be segregated—as even literary scholars are too wont to do—from the "scientific" content. While Gowan Dawson—in Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007)—first explained in full how the Victorians' cultural mindset linked aesthetes and decadents to Darwin and scientific naturalism, Levine's arguments about Darwinism and aestheticism add layers to that portrait. So powerfully did Darwin and the Novelists and Darwin's Plots connect Darwinism to literary realism that it has taken a generation for other possibilities to emerge—or re-emerge. Further, since modernist narrative, like much of the art of the period, saw itself as pursuing an aesthetic rooted in scientific knowledge, Levine plausibly argues that Darwin was a father of modernism—although this is a point he suggests rather than comprehensively demonstrates.
The final chapter on Hardy and The Woodlanders is the book's least successful. While Levine's analysis of Darwinism and aestheticism unfolds over two chapters, he treats Hardy and the Darwinian grotesque in what is by far the book's shortest chapter, where his points are less fully developed and the evidence less compelling. Levine argues that the odd blending of different literary forms and modes in The Woodlanders resembles the kinds of blendings and reversals he traces in Darwinism, but the chapter feels less satisfying and less well integrated than the others. Fortunately, however, the book ends not with this somewhat flat chapter but with a long and distinguished coda: a marvelous and detailed reading of the concluding paragraph of the Origin, written with the insights and from the perspectives Levine articulates throughout Darwin the Writer.
Before closing, I must admit that I am acknowledged in this book for my contributions, direct and indirect, to Levine's thinking about the topics it explores. Like Darwin in this regard as well, he is generous—probably too much so, in my case—in crediting those whose own work was originally stimulated by his. I must also note that the book contains an inordinate number of typographical errors as well as a couple of factual ones. Wilde's "The Critic as Artist" is several times referred to (and is indexed as) "The Artist as Critic," although Wilde would have found the reversal appropriate to his argument. As a birder and as a Darwinian, George Levine would also want readers to know that the fabulous ornaments of the male Argus pheasant appear on the wing feathers, not the tail feathers—a fact that makes the bird's display even more wonderfully bizarre and comic. These minor blemishes, however, will not prevent most readers from saying of Darwin the Writer what Levine says of the Origin: that its success springs from the form of its argument and the nature of its language as well as from the power of its ideas.
George Levine. Darwin the Writer. Oxford, 2011. xx + 244 pp.
Last modified 27 July 2023