Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Genius of Little Men plus Darwin's Wizard Work Maurice Thompson's "The Domain of Romance" (1889) forwards an unusual argument about Darwin’s relationship to realism and romance. According to Thompson, the “little realists” took down the last historical romantcer, Victor Hugo, then proceeded to yelp like jackals around the great man’s knees as he lay dethroned, and the burden of their barking was: “Give us commonplace; we are tired of heroics.” They could not see that out of a mass of commonplace Darwin had wrung the romance whose significance filled the whole area of life. The epoch-interpreter had spoken through the “Origin of Species” and the “Descent of Man.” The petty analytical fictions and the smooth verses of mediocrity fell dead-born. But some one may suggest that the world has not taken the works of Darwin for romance. Well, the world has not, but that goes for nothing; it remains true that they are romance; nor does this impair their scientific vale. Truth is not less true because it satisfies the imagination. If Darwin’s theory is true, it is so because it satisfies the imagination; the missing links of facts are many and important. Darwin comes no nearer absolute proof of the conclusions arrived at ini his masterly romance of the rocks, plants, and animals, than Hugo comes to proof of those reached in “Les Miserables.” In the far future the most valuable significance of the theory of evolution will attach to the fertilizing effect it had upon the imagination of the age... There’s too much to parse in there, but needless to say, it interests me that—contra the conventional accounts of the relationship of evolutionary theory to literature—Thompson claims that Darwinism will murder realism and revivify romance. To wit: What wonder is it that, just at the time when science was thus flowering forth in a mighty raceme of romance, the smaller fry of geniuses should make the mistake of realism? They saw nothing of Darwin’s wizard work save his lucid catalogue of facts and his half-repressed statements of conclusions; but they shrewdly guessed that the world was hungry for fiction of the Darwinian sort. It appeared very easy to satisfy public appetite by writing novels on the scientific plan. They overlooked the central secret, the romance inclosed in Darwin’s work, and they refused to see that the world adores wonders. They saw Darwin’s petty analyses; they failed to see his grand synthesis, the work of a colossal imagination. The time is past for any novelist to redeem the error. Darwin has forestalled realism. While not quite so spectacularly wrong as, say, the JV basketball coach who cut Michael Jordan because he thought His Eventual Airness lacked potential, that’s still pretty spectacularly wrong.

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