Darwin Won’t Help

Terry Eagleton

  • On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd
    Harvard, 540 pp, £25.95, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03357 3

In pre-Romantic times, a treatise on the mollusc or the optic nerve would have been considered part of literature. In the post-Romantic era, literature has looked on science with a much more sceptical eye. Once the arts come to achieve a monopoly on the imagination, so that ‘imaginative literature’ means poetry and drama rather than history or psychology, scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger can be dismissed as dull, uncreative souls. Science deals with the actual, while fiction trades in the possible; and in the bleak conditions of modernity, the subjunctive is always likely to trump the indicative. What doesn’t exist seems more precious than what does.

Science, so the story goes, delivers us a world bleached of taste and texture, purged of value and feeling. The task of literature is to restore to the world its plundered body, redeeming it from the reductive schemas of the technocrats. Art is organic, science is mechanical. Poetic language is richly connotative, while scientific language is merely denotative. (It isn’t clear where Francis Bacon would fit on this axis.) Science deals with facts, and art with values. The Victorian man of letters spent much of his time seeking to coat unpalatable scientific truths with the sugar of spiritual consolation. Science’s chilling reports on the material world were not what the spiritual self, hungry for order, purpose and transcendent value, wanted to hear.

At some point in the 19th century, the natural sciences became more or less synonymous with knowledge as such, and the arts were faced with a choice. On the one hand, they could simply refuse to compete with the laboratories, disowning any claim to be cognitive. Their business was not knowledge but the affections; and since the affections are of vital concern to political power, which needs to scrutinise the hearts of its underlings quite as much as their conscious beliefs, this lent art an enviable status. Perhaps its function, as with the realist novel, was to alert the middle classes to stretches of social experience beyond their ken. Or perhaps it was to adapt human sensibilities to new social conditions, re-educating the body to render it suitable for urbanism, technological change or socialist revolution. From Alfred Tennyson to the Soviet Proletkultists, the human sensorium was to be reshaped by art. Art would help us come to terms with the fact that Darwin had apparently struck all purpose from the cosmos, or it would construct the New Man demanded by the first workers’ state in history. Science told us what the world was like, while art told us what it felt like. Literary propositions, according to I.A. Richards, were really ‘pseudo-propositions’, which looked like descriptions of the world but were secretly accounts of the way we felt about it. Kant had come up with a similar doctrine a century or so earlier. By brandishing their non-cognitive credentials, the arts in a scientific culture could carve a distinct identity for themselves, striking an uneasy truce with the chemist and biologist. Art was an emotional supplement, not a superior form of knowledge. It was no longer out to change the world, but to soften its rigours. Dickens’s Hard Times is not intent on dismantling a philistine industrialism, but on adding a spot of imagination to it. John Stuart Mill did not reject Benthamism; he simply mixed it with a creative dash of Coleridge.

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