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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The birth of realism in literature

The science of extrapolating from detail
New York Times Opinionator has another interesting item today, one that opens an interesting window into the development of a literary technique, though the topic is scientific.

Called "Lost and Gone Forever," and written by Richard Conniff, it describes the impact of the discovery that species could become extinct on scientific thinking in the era we now call "the Age of Enlightenment."  The trigger was a lecture given by a young French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, at the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris in January 1796.  Basing his logic on the comparative anatomies of various elephants, he argued that some species that had roamed the world in the past were not around any more.  

(The bits of elephant anatomy included a massive tooth from some gigantic pachyderm that had been fossicked from somewhere along the Hudson River in 1705, called the "Incognitum" -- a favorite word in those days -- because no one had ever glimpsed the animal it had come from.)

In a word, these species were extinct.

Shock.  Horror.  The world was supposed to be exactly the way God had made it, with worms and jellyfish at the bottom and mighty man, Homo sapiens, at the top.  Nothing, ever, was wiped out, like some kind of silly mistake.  It was an argument that would reach fever pitch with Darwin's Origin of Species, and is still around today.

Intriguingly, there was another development of this theory, one that was literary, not scientific.  A French novelist, Honore de Balzac, was inspired by Cuvier's knack of building up the concept of a whole animal from a fragment.  As Conniff observes, "Balzac now set out to do the same thing in fiction, building characters on the smallest details of gesture and dress.  It was arguably the birth of literary realism."

Tennyson, on the other hand, took inspiration from the idea of extinction itself -- grim inspiration, as testified by famous lines from his elegy, In Memoriam A.H.H., written after the premature death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. 

Would Nature treat man, her greatest and last work, just as she had the mysterious Incognitum?

In memoriam A. H. H. Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair                                                  
Such splendid purpose in his eyes
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed --

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

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