Sunday, May 6, 2007

"Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability"

Gowan Dawson is a Lecturer in Victorian Studies in the Department of English at the University of Leicester.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his new book, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, and reported the following:
Chosen at random from almost 300 pages, page 69 is actually the most striking, as well as perhaps the most disquieting, of the entire book. On this page, as throughout, my argument is that our familiar image of Charles Darwin as a deeply respectable Victorian gentleman, so helpful to the acceptability of his radical scientific theories both in his own times and even now, was something that he and his supporters could not take for granted and had instead to work extremely hard to fashion and maintain. This was especially the case when so many of his theories were predicated on sex and desire, and contemporary critics of evolution were not slow in exploiting some of the tensions between Darwinism and conventional notions of Victorian respectability. Page 69 contains an illustration of a French engraving from the 1870s entitled Troisième darwinique. Le prédécesseur, which responds to Darwin's famous insistence on man's evolutionary connection with simians by depicting an anthropoid ape performing cunnilingus on a reclining and entirely nude woman. The apparently consensual sexual coupling of human and ape represented in the engraving enacts, I argue, a rupturing of the boundaries of conventional taxonomic classifications. This transgressive sexual tableau not only emphasizes the instability of species identity, but also draws out the implications of Darwin's refutation of human uniqueness in provokingly taboo ways. The engraving, as I propose on page 69, implies that 'nubile Caucasian females might actually welcome and even initiate such carnal encounters' with bestial apes, thereby revealing the essentially animal nature of the sexual desires exhibited by human females, a persistent trope of much nineteenth-century pornography, which, in deliberate opposition to prevalent cultural assumptions regarding the natural modesty and coyness of women, habitually represented them as beings who were regularly overcome with insatiable and unmanageable desires. Darwin himself had anxiously repudiated any such suggestions, but, paradoxically, had at the same time actually made them more conceivable by rooting every aspect of human sexuality in animal behaviour. The self-consciously Darwinian etching featured on page 69, by visually representing man's intimate affinity with the lower animals in the explicit idiom of pornography, inexorably drew attention to precisely this feature of Darwin's thought. This is the first time that Troisième darwinique. Le prédécesseur has been discussed, or indeed even mentioned at all, in a book about Darwin. Significantly, though, I go on to argue elsewhere in the book that Darwin's sensitivity to precisely such attacks on his respectability had some very important implications for his scientific thought.
Read a description of the book and an excerpt at the Cambridge University Press website, and learn more about Dr. Dawson's other publications and research.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue