Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

As a budding Victorian Literature scholar, I learned early on about the importance of Darwin's writing to literature, as well as the writings of other Victorian scientists, like Sir Charles Lyell. I always reminded my students that we're used to living in a time period where this year's scientific fact will be overturned very shortly. We're used to living in a time period where our dearest beliefs will be challenged. The Victorians were not.

I remember the first time I taught a British Literature survey class. I was just finishing up my Ph.D., and I was allowed to teach the class at the local community college in Columbia, South Carolina. I talked about Darwin as I launched into our study of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." I said, "Of course, these days, there's no one who doesn't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution." I looked around the room at the disbelief in those faces, and from the ensuing discussion, I came to realize that I was the only person in the room who did believe in evolution. Granted, it wasn't a very big class. But still, I was shocked that this theory was still seen as debatable.

I realize that scientists use the word "theory" differently than the rest of us. My students did not realize that, and no amount of arguing on my point could convince them.

Several years later, I came across a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in a used bookshop. Across the nation, school systems were embroiled in debates about whether or not evolution could be taught in Biology classrooms. I probably bought that book as my own silent protest. When I brought that book to my college classrooms on the day when I talked about Victorian thinkers that changed our lives, I could see some students fighting revulsion, as if I had brought them porn.

Strange to think of how revolutionary that book has been, how radical it has seemed to people--and how boring it is to read. It's like reading Marx, another writer, whose books students react to as if I've brought them porn. I can't decide if it's because the ideas seem so basic to me or because the prose is so lumbering.

Darwin, Marx, and Freud: I would argue that those Victorian writers probably changed the twentieth century more than any other. We could have spirited debate about whether those changes were for the better or worse. As with any great writers, I suppose the answer would be that those changes were both for better and for worse.

2 comments:

Dale said...

They all, to speak in wild generalization, argued that we're not in control of ourselves, that we don't own ourselves, as we ordinarily think we do: that other forces are operating through us, even (especially?) when we think we're free agents.

No wonder their ideas exploded with such force in the Victorian world, which believed so fervently in self-control, willpower, and responsibility! (As all three of these men did, for that matter: they all arrived at their conclusions with reluctance -- even sometimes horror.)

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