Evolution and English Literature (Part 2)

The 20th Century

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Originally published in Creation 4, no 2 (June 1981): 28-31.

English literature of the 19th Century is often a stark portrayal of the influence of the newly emerging evolutionary theory. Conflict of conscience, clash of values and the grasping after a new but unknown reality to replace one lost, are readily seen.

However, for most writers in the 20th Century the clash is over, the battle for conscience is done. With rare exception, evolution has been totally embraced on the literary scene. Literature is no longer showing the effects of a sideline influence by evolution, but has itself become a significant influence for evolution.

Evolutionary Theory has become a law. In the popular mind it is synonymous with fact, and we moderns are more concerned with its method, its consequences and its implications, rather than with its existence or credibility, since these are taken for granted. The implications of this shift in emphasis in the world of literature have been many, but it is the pervading sense of despair, pessimism and nihilism surrounding most 20th Century literature since the 1920’s, which I will comment upon.

To provide a brief but broad approach to the enormous expanse of modern literature, we shall consider the works of the Australian Judith Wright, the Frenchman Camus and Irishman Samuel Beckett who wrote in French.

Most who have undergone a secondary education in Australia in the last 20 years are aware of Judith Wright. Generally recognised as being Australia’s most significant poet to date, her poetry is unashamedly humanistic. In this extract from “The Moving Image,” she locates the source and focus of life within man himself:

I am the maker. I have made both time and fear, knowing that to yield to either is to be dead.
All that is real is to live, to desire, to be, till I say to the child I was, “it is this; it is here.
In the doomed cell I have found love’s whole eternity.

Her total lack of any real hope of salvation is expressed in the comments:

“We are dwarfed by the dark. We inherit a handful of dust and a fragment of stone.”

She sees that the only end of man is to die. And after that, nothing. Not only will individual men die, but nations and races will pass away just as surely, just as coldly. The saddest part is that she does not see this as a tragedy, but merely the necessary completion of the order of things. In describing the death of Aboriginals, she concludes that we, too, the white race now in supremacy, will one day disappear.

We should have known the night that tided up the cliffs and hid them had the same question on its tongue for us.

But in all of this there is no vindictiveness or malevolence,—to Judith Wright these things are simply matter of fact, inevitable.

Night floods us suddenly as history, that has sunk many islands in its good time.

It is not surprising that nearly a century of evolutionary life-via-death, struggle-to-survive indoctrination should produce just such thoughts in any thinking person, as Judith Wright undoubtedly is. In fact she has often been described as more a philosopher than a poet, and certainly a poet-philosopher. Her philosophy is never more clear and never more tragic than in “The Nautilus” (A nautilus is a small spiral-shaped mollusc). The poem hints at the creatures evolutionary marine origins, and suggests that though like all life it is involved in a search for meaning that quest is doomed to failure, because the only final meaning is death.

Say that the thing was slave to its own meaning and the conscious labour of its body, The terms were these, that it could never guess how it conspired with time to shroud itself—a splendid action common to its kind but never known in doing.

Not even the end of making gave the meaning. The thing it made was its own self, enclosed it, and was the prison that prevented sight. Yet though death strands emptied spiral, this sweet completion puts term to time; and that I take it, was the bargain.

Any thoughtful evolutionist must ponder occasionally on man’s final destiny, (although this word is inappropriate within an evolutionary framework). In “The Two Fires,” Judith Wright sees life occurring spontaneously after the first fire—the early earth in volcanic disorder:

In the beginning was the fire: out of death of fire, rock and the waters; and out of the water and rock, the single spark, the divine truth.

Man’s final end, she supposes, must occur in similar vein, this time the fire resulting from nuclear or atomic warfare:

And now, set free by the climate of man’s
hate, that seed sets time ablaze . . .
Look the whole world burns.
The ancient kingdom of the fire returns. . ..
The world’s denied.

All of this pessimism and despair is clearly the result of an accepted belief in evolution as an origin and a mode of life. It is the philosophical outworking of Evolutionary Theory. It involves, for Judith Wright, an implicit humanistic base, with minor excursions into existentialism and pragmatism. Although these philosophies are in some areas contradictory, they are united in their concept of man as an animal developed into his present state by random processes of evolutionary development.

Two writers who have offered much thoughtful literature to the modern world, are the Irish writer Samuel Beckett and the Frenchman Albert Camus. Both these writers belong to the school of thought known as “The Absurd”—so named because they viewed the world as ultimately meaningless, and man as a being assuming a variety of stances which attempts to impose or establish some meaning upon that world. Even these efforts are regarded as inevitably doomed to failure.

Any attempt to perceive in man an element of non-material personality, soul, spirit, or conscience, is regarded as self-deception.
Their argument runs roughly like this. The whole world—including man—is the result of random development and adaptation, characterised by a struggle for survival in which only the fittest may succeed. In addition, the whole world is evolved only from material elements. Any attempt to perceive in man an element of non-material personality, soul, spirit, or conscience, is regarded as self-deception. Jean Paul Sartre in his work “Existentialism” said, “First of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself.”

In Camus’s novel, “L’Etranger” (The Outsider), the “Champion” is different from everyone else in that he is totally objective and non-emotional. But even this carefully-wrought objectivity is tested at the end of the novel as he breaks into an outburst of anger. Having lost his “cool” the character still exhibits no recognition that there is in the world some room for emotion. Instead he says: “. . .for the first time . . . I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”

In a short story by Camus, the main character, Duval, performs an act of charity by setting free a prisoner of war who had been entrusted to his unwilling care and security. Unfortunately, he does so too late for the prisoner’s friends to realize Duval’s charity, and incurs their threat of death. Equally, he is now under attack from his own government forces, because he has set a prisoner free. The last sentence finds Duval thus: “In this vast land which he had loved so much he was alone.” Duval’s predicament mirrors the human dilemma, according to Camus’ world-view. The world is wide and man is tiny and in a state of total isolation.

This same pessimism about man’s purpose and presence on earth is shared by Samuel Beckett. In the play “Endgame,” we hear repeatedly the question “What’s happening?”, and the answer, “Something is taking its course.” There is an unavoidable continuance implicit in the evolutionary process. But the “something” is indefinable, non-personal, and this is part of the essential problem—life is neither predictable nor definable. Beckett is suggesting that man’s lot is a totally meaningless one, in this exchange between two characters, Hamm and Clov.

Hamm: We’re not beginning to. . . to.. mean something?

Clov: Mean something? You and I mean something! (brief laugh) Ah that’s a good one!

Having established his viewpoint on life in this world, he suggests that our evolution has produced this problem and that by its very nature of random chance development, the whole process could re-start—or end—at any moment.

Clov: (anguished, scratching himself). I have a flea!

Hamm: A flea! Are there still fleas?

Clov: On me there’s one. (Scratching) Unless its a crablouse.

Hamm: But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!

Clov: I’ll go and get the powder.

Hamm: A flea! This is awful. What a day!

(Enter Clov with a sprinkling tin.)

Clov: I’m back again with the insecticide.

The more one reads of modern literature, the more obvious it becomes that modern man feels lost in the evolutionary world he has created for himself. Only a truly Christian and Biblical understanding of the nature of man, the purpose and nature of the material world, and the significance and purpose of his presence on earth, will be sufficient to enable a person to cope with life’s questions and perplexities and produce a literature, beneficial to man and nations alike.


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