Friday, 22 June 2007

Thought-in-Process: Wharton's "The Descent of Man," Part I Indicative of my current juvenile acuity: while reading a discussion of male homosexuality in Victorian culture I laughed aloud when I encountered the name of the person whose work had been cited: Dr. Harry Cocks. I initially thought it a prank of some sort, but as you can see from the link, that's the man's name. His work seems high quality, but when I read his name, I snorted like a seventh grader. (For which I apologize.) Needless to say, I'm not in an intellectual place today. So, I'm borrowing a page from my friend Wally's book and begin this post by saying: No idea where this is going. Edith Wharton's "The Descent of Man" (from the collection of the same name) compels us to consider it in light of the other book entitled The Descent of Man, written by Charles Darwin. It won't surprise you to learn that there's no shortage of irony in the title. Parsing that irony is no mean task, but such is my aim. (The page numbers refer to those found on the page linked above. Haven't checked whether they actually match those in Scribner's.) The story opens with Professor Linyard returning from a holiday on which he has "eloped with an idea" (313). Eloping is a most grievous sins in a society in which matches are made with an eye toward improvement. It suggests something illicit has occurred, and Wharton's language backs this up: As the express train whirled him away from the somewhat inelastic circle of Mrs. Linyard's affections, his idea seemed to be sitting opposite him, and their eyes met every moment or two in a glance of joyous complicity; yet when a friend of the family presently joined him and began to talk about college matters, the idea slipped out of sight in a flash, and the Professor would have had no difficulty in proving that he was alone. (313) The playfulness aside, metaphorical eloping stirs similar feelings of impropriety in Dr. Linyard as actual, otherwise he wouldn't air his anxious little fantasy—not even or, perhaps, especially to himself. The time he vacationed alone (but for his idea) he describes in explicitly romantic language: There, during the long cool August days, lying full length on the pine-needles and gazing up into the sky, he would meet the eyes of his companion bending over him like a nearer heaven. (313) Does the story's title reflect upon the intersection of Darwin's theories of sexual selection (discussed at length in The Descent of Man) and the society in which such romantic narratives play out? Linyard, after all, is discussing the desirability of his idea as a companion. His interest in his own domestic affairs is similarly informed by the evolutionarily-influenced sociological theory: He took as it were a sociological view of his case, and modestly regarded himself as a brick in that foundation on which the state is supposed to rest. Perhaps if Mrs. Linyard had cared about entomology, or had taken sides in...
Thought-in-Process: Wharton's "The Descent of Man," Part III (Previous installments: Part I, Part II) Further rationalizations follow: his colleagues "would see the tongue in his cheek" (318); since the book was already in print, he was "caught ... in the toils of that mysterious engine," such that "if he had had time to think the matter over, his scruples might have dragged him back; but his conscience was eased by the futility of resistance" (318). His personal disavowals matter less, however, in light of the fact that he has promised not to reveal his insincerity to the public. He "descends" from the ranks of the professional scientist into those of the professional fraud, since he willingly peddles in pseudo-scientific nonsense for profit. It is not of the earth-shattering variety Darwin described, but a moral descent to which the title refers. But it resonates socially, too, via the crass advertising campaign Harviss orchestrates: Weeks in advance the great commander had begun to form his lines of attack. Allusions to the remarkable significance of the coming work had appeared first in the scientific and literary reviews, spreading thence to the supplements of the daily journals. Not a moment passed without a quickening touch to the public consciousness: seventy millions of people were forced to remember at least once a day that Professor Linyard's book was on the verge of appearing. Slips emblazoned with the question: Have you read "The Vital Thing"? fell from the pages of popular novels and whitened the floors of crowded street-cars. The query, in large lettering, assaulted the traveler at the railway bookstall, confronted him on the walls of "elevated" stations, and seemed, in its ascending scale, about to supplant the interrogations as to soap and stove-polish which animate our rural scenery. Given the title, the language of ascent here is telling: the newly elevated stations as one sign of debased modernity; the billboards destroying the same scenic views which initially inspired Linyard (in the indirectly roundabout way Nature does in American literature) another. To the writer of The Decoration of Houses (1897) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), these intrusions of crass modern and marketing culture into city and country alike suggest that "ascent" carries as much ironic heft as its obverse here. Linyard's descent is enabled by the ascent of an unaesthetic modernity, one more concerned with money than the taste with which is it spent, with moving from one place to another than the landscape traveled over. The cumulative effect of this unthinking is vitiating. Under the handling of the first reviewer, The Vital Thing's "emancipated fallacies ... [were] made up admirably as truths, and their author began to understand Harviss's regret that they should be used for any less profitable purpose" (319). The first reviewer "set the pace," the others followed, "finding it easier to let their critical man-of-all-work play a variation on the first reviewer's theme than to secure an expert to 'do' the book afresh" (319). In a culture in which thinking what everyone else thinks matters more than...

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