Tuesday, April 3, 2007

George Levine

George Levine, Professor Emeritus of English at Rutgers University, is the author of, most recently, Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World.

About Darwin Loves You, from the publisher:

Jesus and Darwin do battle on car bumpers across America. Medallions of fish symbolizing Jesus are answered by ones of amphibians stamped "Darwin," and stickers proclaiming "Jesus Loves You" are countered by "Darwin Loves You." The bumper sticker debate might be trivial and the pronouncement that "Darwin Loves You" may seem merely ironic, but George Levine insists that the message contains an unintended truth. In fact, he argues, we can read it straight. Darwin, Levine shows, saw a world from which his theory had banished transcendence as still lovable and enchanted, and we can see it like that too -- if we look at his writings and life in a new way.

Although Darwin could find sublimity even in ants or worms, the word "Darwinian" has largely been taken to signify a disenchanted world driven by chance and heartless competition. Countering the pervasive view that the facts of Darwin's world must lead to a disenchanting vision of it, Levine shows that Darwin's ideas and the language of his books offer an alternative form of enchantment, a world rich with meaning and value, and more wonderful and beautiful than ever before. Without minimizing or sentimentalizing the harsh qualities of life governed by natural selection, and without deifying Darwin, Levine makes a moving case for an enchanted secularism -- a commitment to the value of the natural world and the human striving to understand it.

Last month I asked Levine what he has been reading. His reply:
As ever, most of what I read in the way of books is related to what I'm thinking as I say what's on my mind through essays, lectures, and books, as literary scholars do. Reading simply for the pleasure of the reading is so mixed for me with reading for what I will be writing that I often envy real readers -- people who read things just because they are immediately interested in the writer or the subject and find them temptingly on the shelves.

Right now, for example, I am reading, or trying to read, several second line Victorian novels, Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe and Dinah Mulock Craik's Olive and John Halifax, Gentleman. Such novels are always more interesting than one would expect (after all, they were successful in their time -- though the authors wrote literally hundreds of books) but they remind me too of why the "classics" are classics, after all. Not that there aren't, buried in the hundreds of Victorian novels, books worthy of much more attention than posterity has given them, but, on the whole, Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Hardy really are much better and more interesting writers -- at least for me. Still there is much to be learned from these books and often they can have moving and brilliantly written passages.

One novel that I recently read only for the first time, Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere, is truly worth the effort although we may not be entirely interested in or sympathetic to the travails of faith of an Anglican clergyman at the end of the nineteenth century. Ward was both very intelligent and capable of writing long sequences of gripping and sensitive narrative, often having nothing to do with Victorian crises of faith.

In addition, partly as a result of the subject of my last book, Darwin Loves You, I have been reading other recent and more popular discussions of questions of religion and science, most particularly, of course, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, both of which are passionately intellectual and passionately rational. For the most part I agree with their arguments, and find them brilliantly articulated, although it does seem to me that for people previously committed to their rational/empiricist/naturalist view of the world, they become a bit predictable. They are aimed at an audience that will be offended by their total rejection of religion but are undoubtedly largely read by people like me, the already converted seeking comrades in a world hostile to non-belief.

The problem, in these current wars between science and religion, is that there is no way to persuade believers, since belief tends to be based on non-rational qualities. But these qualities are real and important (even Dennett and Dawkins are passionate about their rationalism) and any discussion of the question needs to take into account this basic human need. I have been reading a recently completed book on Darwin by an Italian scholar, Paolo Costa, that argues similarly for some recognition of the ways in which Darwin and science can indeed come to terms with (because they participate in) the deep feeling for nature and the world that extends, even for scientists, beyond "reason."

In addition, I am always reading manuscripts about to be published and would recommend another one to people interested in these subjects, Gowan Dawson's Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability, being published by Cambridge University Press. Dawson shows in wonderful detail how the very shape of Darwin's theory was affected by his sensitivity to public opinion and by his abiding desire for respectability.

And finally, for pleasure, literature in Italian, which I have been teaching myself for ten years with enormous pleasure -- this time Luigi Pirandello's brilliant and complicated, "Il Fu Matteo Pascal," as they say in Italian, a capolavoro.
Adam Gopnik praised Darwin Loves You in the New Yorker:
Darwin Loves You ... tries to vindicate Darwin for students of literature by emphasizing his modest “sense of wonder,” the almost mystical awe at the sheer existence of life in the universe; Darwin disenchanted believers in Heaven, but he re├źnchanted lovers of Earth. Levine’s book is one of the most appealing and subtle attempts to bridge biology and the humanities. It proposes an “enchanted secularity”; because Darwin robs mankind of place and purpose, he gave us a chance to love and revere nature “precisely in its refusal to be like us.”
Read Chapter One of Darwin Loves You and the Page 69 Test results for the book.

Among Levine's other books are: Dying to Know (Chicago, 2002); The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (Cambridge, 2001); Darwin and the Novelists (Harvard, 1988); The Realistic Imagination (Chicago, 1981); Lifebirds (Rutgers, 1997). He also wrote the introduction and notes for The Origin of the Species (Barnes and Noble, 2004).

--Marshal Zeringue