Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Evolutionary Ponderings of Characters in Literature

With the recent release of a major film challenging Darwinian evolutionary though (no, I haven't seen it), there's been a lot of buzz on all sides about the question of how (or whether) one's belief's about how life began effect how we act.

I think we tend to see in people's behavior's confirmation of our assumptions about possible connections between belief systems and living. That's why this quote about Clare, from George MacDonald's A Rough Shaking caught my attention:

If we have come up from the animals to be what we are, Clare must have been a dog of a good, faithful breed, for he did right now as if by some ancient instinct.(158)

One could argue that the use of the conditional here does not indicate that MacDonald did, in fact, believe in trans-species evolution. What strikes me as interesting, though, is his narrative lack of concern about the question. The nature of animals is a reoccuring theme in this particular novel, and it shows how MacDonald was capable of very flexible theological thought because, I think he only really held fast to two axioms as far as I can tell: God exists and He is good.

Perhaps this passage struck me more in tone than content, since I just finished talking about Gosse's excerpt on evolution in the Victorian literature section of the Norton. Gosse says of his father's confrontation with evolutionary thought that there was a kind of "agony" in being confront with two, incompatible truths. MacDonald never seems to have this sort of existential agony (what if I'm wrong? what if there is no God and I cease to exist at death?) and yet he doesn't seem to avoid it through a philosophical retreat to dogmatism. He seems to avoid it through, well not belief,exactly, through knowledge.

Here's a rough transcription of an exchange between Violet and Dr. Cukrowicz in Suddenly Last Summer:

Sebastian saw the face of God.

I’d like to hear about that.

One long ago summer, sitting right here in this garden, Sebastian said to me, “Mother, listen to this.” He read to me Herman Melville’s description of the Encantadas, the Gallapagos Islands. He read me that inscription and said we had to go there. And so we did go there, that summer, on a chartered boat a [----] schooner looking as close as possible to the sort of boat Melville would have sailed on. We saw the encantadas. But on the Encantadas, we saw something that Melville hadn’t written about. We saw the great sea turtles crawl up out of the sea for their annual egg laying. Once a year, the female of the sea turtles crawls up out of the equiatorial sea onto the blazing sand beach of a volcanic island to dig a pit in the sand and deposit her eggs there. It’s a [--] and dreadful thing the depositing of the eggs in the sand pits, and when it’s finished, the exhausted female turtle crawls back to the sea half dead. She never sees her offspring. But we did. Sebastian knew exactly when the sea turtle eggs would be hatched, and we returned in time for it.

You went back?

In time to witness the hatching of the sea turtles and their desperate flight to the sea. A narrow beach. The color of caviar was all in motion. The sky was in motion, too, full of flesh-eating birds, and the noise of the birds, their horrible, savage cries, as they circled over the narrow, black beach of the Encantadas, while the new-hatched sea turtles scrambled out of their sand pits and started their race to the sea.

Race to the sea?

To escape the flesh-eating birds that made the sky almost as black as the beach. And I said, “Sebastian…no…no…it’s not like that” but he made me look. He made me see that terrible sight.

What was not like that?

Life. I say no! No! That’s not true! But he said it, yes. He said, “Look Violet. Look. There on the shore.” And I looked and saw the sand and all alive, all alive, as the new-hatched sea turtles made their dash to the sea while the birds hovered and swooped to attack, and hovered and swooped to attack. They were diving down on the sea turtles, turning them over to expose their soft, undersides. Tearing their undersides open, and rending and eating their flesh. Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of one percent of their number would escape to the sea.

Nature is not created in the image of man’s compassion.

Nature is cruel. Sebastian knew it all along, he was born knowing it. But not I. I said, no, ‘those are only birds, turtles, not us.’ I didn’t know then it was us, that we are all of us cracked by this devouring creation. I couldn’t, wouldn’t face the horror of the truth. Even that last day in the Encantadas, when Sebastian left me, and spent the whole blazing equatorial day in the crow’s nest of the schooner watching that thing on the beach until it was too dark to see. And when he came down the rigging, he said, “Well now I’ve seen Him” and he meant God.

Do you believe he saw God?

He saw the whole thing there, that day on the beach. But I was like you. I said, “no.” I refused to believe. Until suddenly, last summer, I learned that my son was right. That what he had shown me in the Encantadas was the horrible, the inescapable truth.

The character(s) in Williams's play do not seem to be arguing that evolution leads to man acting brutally or nihilistically. It does seem to suggest that cruelty--the strong preying on the weak--is the operating principle witnesses in the evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest.

Is this offensive? Ideological? A slight on atheists who don't believe in God? It's funny (strange) to me that MacDonald, a Christian, basically says that MacDonald, in holding on to a conviction of God's operation and intention in the development of man and the universe is more charitable towards the (possible) effects of evolution than is Williams (or his character anyway). There is a hopelessness in Violet's speech that is 20th century, to be sure, and one that is consistent with a mother grieving for her son. But I'm not sure it's all just surface grief speaking and that there is not some intentional comment about the pointlessness of human existence in a (solely) Darwinian universe.

Funny, Violet opines early in the film. A child who loses a parent is an orphan. A woman who loses a husband is a widow. And a parent who loses a child is..."nothing." The surface meaning is, of course, that we have no word in our language for that. I wonder, though, with the evolutionary motif running throughout the film, if there isn't a claim there that we only exist through our offspring (the whole film is about Violet trying to preserve the existence of Sebastian as she wants him by trying to get Elizabeth Taylor's character lobotomized) that one might wonder if what she is saying is that the end of the (family) line is the end of the (existence) line.

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