Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Problems of Analyzing Literature via Darwin

I'm always interested in a good description of the limits of science, and here's a great one:
(Yes, it's from The Nation, and I intend to balance it with a different essay from the National Review very soon! I'm nothing if not fair and balanced!)

To summarize, this article is about the new English-department profs who try to apply Darwinian theory and evolutionary psychology to literature. Basically, they try to find a reason rooted in survival in the Pleistocene Era that would explain any work of fiction, whether the Odyssey or Sense and Sensibility. This essay's author does a good job of criticizing the approach fairly (while also criticizing the Theory-based "cul-de-sac" that post-modern literary analysis has been stalled in), bringing out some ways in which Darwinian analysis reinforces the value of art, but many other ways in which it plain has nothing to say. Two quotes summarize this well:

"I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their "fruit fly"), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution."

"That so many of the greatest works of literary art--the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby-Dick, the novels of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf and Coetzee--are ultimately concerned not with mate selection or status competition, however seriously they might consider such matters, but with the human place in the cosmos; that such a commitment is precisely what begins to distinguish these works from the kinds of things that are better studied with polling data and cheek swabs; that the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical: these are not possibilities that literary Darwinism envisions."

No comments: