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Evolution of Literature

Alexandra Mnuskin

Alexandra Mnuskin
Story of Evolution-Paper #3
April 14, 2005

Evolution of Literature

Can the story of evolution be useful for understanding literature? Is there a common thread that somehow ties the two together? Like the process of evolution itself, all literature, be it the story of evolution or a fictional story, is ever changing. It builds on the existing stories, sometimes refuting, often reinventing but always drawing on literary predecessors. This paper will explore the possibility of this link between the stories of evolution and the literal tradition dealing with male pseudo-hermaphroditism.

Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is, is without question a scientific text. It is a concise, fairly understandable summation of Darwin's famous idea and the many years worth of genetic research that we now know supports his brilliant theory of natural selection. As Mayr himself states in the preface, the book is intended for three distinct groups. Firstly it is meant for those who are aware of evolution but want to understand it better, secondly for those who accept it but doubt whether Darwinian evolution is the correct story and finally for creationists who do not believe it, but who may want to know more about it. Despite the arrogance of his writing style, there is really very little to quibble with in the technical aspect of the book. Mayr accomplishes precisely what he set out to, namely to lay before the reader the facts behind the theory of evolution.

As of this moment, the scientific community has not yet acknowledged that there is an equally accurate scientific theory to account for the diversity of species. It seems that for now, Darwin's theory still stands. What then is the purpose of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea? Certainly it is not to present to the dilettante a succinct version of the theory, for we already have Mayr and works like his to accomplish this.
Dennett's novel presents nothing new in the technical aspect of the theory; his goal is rather to use that theory and build upon it an entirely new set of questions. These new questions go beyond the factual information of Mayr's text, but look at the implications that these facts have on our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. As Dennett points out, "one of Darwin's most fundamental contributions is showing us a new way to make sense of 'why' questions" (Dennett, 1995, p.25). He suggests this "universal acid" is not only capable of answering the apparent questions of diversity but is likewise capable of shedding light on such intangible and volatile questions as purpose, reason, ethics and God. The imagined becomes the possible and as Dennett himself puts it "we now have a much better sense of what a Darwinian algorithm is than Darwin ever dreamt of "(p. 521).

It is this same process of reinventing a story that is apparent in literature. The memoirs of Herculine Barbin, published by Michel Foucault and the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides deal with much the same topic, the experience of a male pseudo hermaphrodite. Herculine's memoirs, being the personal account of a nineteenth century hermaphrodite are much like Mayr's text in that they presents the clear facts. These facts are of course greatly colored by Herculine's ever-present laments, they may not be as explicit as the medical reports published along with them, yet they are unquestionably the actual experiences of an actual hermaphrodite.

What is striking about the memoir is that it completely fails to explore the climactic set up at the beginning of Herculine's tale. She/he starts her work with foreshadowing some traumatic event. "I have suffered much, and I have suffered alone! Alone!...Not a living creature was to share in this immense sorrow that seized me when I left my childhood, at that age when everything is beautiful, because everything is young and bright with the future" (Barbin, 1980, p. 3) . Yet, despite the factual nature of the story, the climax is never really felt. When Herculine discovers that she is a hermaphrodite she reacts almost coolly. Certainly it is not her physical state and sexual identity that throws her into such states of emotional upheaval. Although she relates in chronological order, the story of her life, she fails to truly explore the implications of being a pseudo-hermaphrodite, to shed light on how her physical state reflects on her perception of herself. In this sense, the memoir is not dissimilar to Mayr's text. It too presents the facts of the matter, but lacks that second step, the implications that these facts have on a larger scale.

It is these lack of the implications of hemaphroditism that Eugenides so laments in Herculine Barbin's memoir. He writes that Foucault "shows her memoirs, writes an essay about it and then you have the report of the doctors and all those things... as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is and... it's sad... she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition"(Moorhem, 2003).

In Middlesex therefore, Eugenides sets out to show not only the factual life of the hermaphrodite, but also the implications that Callie's situation has on both herself and those surrounding her. Cal may be perceived as an unreliable narrator, because he describes events that he could not have possibly experienced. His style however, is highly significant, mimicking exactly what Eugenides attempts in the novel. He bridges the conscious and accurate facts and the imagined or unconscious intuition that makes Cal the person he is. In the end, his hemaphroditism is not really a larger part of himself than the experience of adolescence, the history of his family and the history of Detroit itself. In Cal all of these things are present at the same time, "the wind swept over the crusted snow into my Byzantine face, which was the face of my grandmother and of the American girl I had once been" (Eugenides, 2003, p. 529). Like Dennett's "universal acid", Eugenides plays with the volatile idea of hemaphroditism, taking it beyond the merely clinical, but exploring it in it's relation to the self.

This evolution of literature can perhaps be likened to the process of evolution itself. At first there exist only model builders, creatures that, like the works of Mayr and Barbin, are able to make sense of actual, unambiguous facts. With the progress of evolution however, we see the emergence of story-tellers, equipped with a neo-cortex that can create stories out of facts, stories that are not apparent to the naked eye. It is precisely this way that Eugenides creates his novel: "I work with situations, characters, certain situations and characters that appeal to me. And then, I try to imagine them and write the story that seems to flow from them"( Moorhem, 2003). Both Eugenides and Dennett therefore, are the story-tellers of the literary evolution, taking the initial concrete idea and building upon it to create new and often intangible truths.

Works Cited
Dennet, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eugenides, J. (2002). Middlesex. New York: Picador.
Foucault, M. ed. (1980) Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a
Nineteenth Century French Hemaphrodite. New York: Pantheon Books
Mayr, E. (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Perseus Books Group.
Moorhem, B. (2003). The Novel as a Mental Picture of its Era: interview with

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