Joseph Carroll wrote:
"Reading through a lot of Darwin
at any given time, one runs into various rhetorical and imaginative
models--trying them on. Some are dark and gloomy--the wasteful,
painful, cruel and inhuman processes of nature. Some are grand
and sublime--the evolution of the mind of man from the lowliest origins.
Some are serene and detached--the endless processes of nature. Possibly
as people absorb evolution into their basic vision of life, they will adopt
various versions of the emotionally charged implications of these
visions. Conrad picked up on the more negative version, speaking
of what a "droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic
for a futile purpose" (Heart of Darkness). But there are other
I wonder if it would be useful to try to catalogue some of the "various
versions" that Joe alluded to. For instance, Conrad seems to be
objecting to the absurdity with which evolution seems to color life, almost as
though Darwin is a proto-existentialis t.
I've been thinking a bit about the uses of neuroscience in contemporary
fiction, as I consider neuroscience to be part and parcel of ev. theory. Two
more types to add to the catalogue, then, might be a sort of "evocative"
response that treats the brain's material status as a source of poetic
inspiration, and what I'll call the "retro/satirical" response,
which sees blatant neuro-materialism as merely the latest manifestation
of human greed, pettiness, and selfishness.
In Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje takes the evocative road
on pg. 134-35, a meditation on the amygdala. I wish I could reproduce the
whole page, but I will just take the essence. "Amygdala.
The name had sounded Sri Lankan when Anil first heard it. Studying at
Guy's Hospital in London, having cut tissue away to reveal a small knot of
fibres made up of nerve cells. Near the stem of the brain....She remembers the
almond knot. During autopsies her secret habit of detour is to look for the
amygdala, this nerve bundle which houses fear--so it governs everything. How
we behave and make decisions, how we seek out safe marriages, how we build
houses that we make secure."
Ondaatje is a poet and we see him wrapping his tongue around the
word "amygdala" as if it was a flower, attending to its etymology in "almond
knot," and finally connecting it to character and theme. Ah, to be reduced to
a brain in Ondaatje's fingers--wouldn' t be so bad, would it? One can only
wonder what he would do with the temporal-parietal- occipital
In contrast, in the Corrections (yes, I'm big into Franzen these
days), the author satirizes our sense of ourselves as material entities,
treating them as just another excuse to behave badly or absolve ourselves of
responsibility for our actions. Here he is on pg. 137: "Although in general
Gary applauded the modern trend toward individual self-management of
retirement funds and long-distance calling plans and private-schooling
options, he was less than thrilled to be given responsibility for his own
personal brain chemistry, especially when certain people in his life, notably
his father, refused to take any such responsibility. But Gary was nothing if
not conscientious. As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of
Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting
seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 levels were
likewise outperforming expectations, and that his Factor 1 had rebounded from
an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he'd drunk at
Franzen is a social satirist and perhaps an old-fashioned moralist, and
he does a fabulous job of spoofing the way knowledge of the brain might become
just another form of narcissism, the latest version of the American dream of
success through self-improvement.
Both writers make a pretty good case. I'm glad I don't have to