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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darwinolatry and Literary Criticism

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/14/09 at 12:44 PM

Darwin was a deep and influential thinker, however . . . enough is enough. Writing in Time Carl Zimmer says: “But there’s a risk to all this Darwinmania: some people may come away with a fundamental misunderstanding about the science of evolution. Once Darwin mailed his manuscript of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life to his publisher, the science of evolution did not grind to a halt. That would be a bit like saying medicine peaked when Louis Pasteur demonstrated that germs cause diseases.” Zimmer makes the same point in conversation with John Horgan.

Carl Safina argues a similar point in The New York Times:

Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples. He spent 20-plus years amassing and assessing the evidence and implications of similar, yet differing, creatures separated in time (fossils) or in space (islands). That’s science.

That’s why Darwin must go.

Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him. He knew nothing of heredity or genetics, both crucial to evolution. Evolution wasn’t even Darwin’s idea.

Nowhere is this idolatrous tendancy more evident than in Darwinian literary criticism, the application of evolutionary psychology to the study of literature. As an example, consider Joseph Carroll’s study of Pride and Prejudice (PDF), which Carroll himself offers as a paradigmatic example of the power of Darwinian criticism. The article has a two-part rhetorical structure in which the first part of the article is a synthesizing review of two decades of work in evolutionary psychology while the second part is a critique of Austen’s great novel. Carroll is arguing, in effect, that once you have mastered this body of material, evolutionary psychology, you will be able to do this kind of criticism.

The problem with this rhetoric, as Steven Pinker has noted (PDF), is that Carroll’s criticism of Austen is only loosely linked to his review of evoloutionary psychology. Carroll’s remarks on Austen are perspicuous, witty, even true, but they could have been written 50 years ago. You don’t need to master 20 years of work on evolutionary psychology to write that kind of criticism.

What, then, is the point of mastering evolutionary psychology? As far as I can tell, it gives you grounds for dismissing other kinds of criticism, mostly capital “T” Theory in its various forms. Once that is done you are left with a view of human nature that is pretty much like common sense folk psychology. The last 50 years of work in literary criticism simply didn’t happen.

To be sure, there is more to Darwinian literary criticism than this Grand Dismissal – for example, the cross-cultural studies that Jonathan Gottschall has done – but it is not clear that any of this work derives from Darwin’s in any interesting way. The literary Darwinians are not examining literary culture in a way analogous to Darwin’s examination of the biological world. They have not taken the multiplicity of literary forms as a central object of study, nor do they seem interested in the interwoven histories of those forms.

Their lack of interest in literary form is, of course, a deficiency they inherit from mainstream literary criticism, & Theory too. Even literary formalism – which seems so long ago and far away – was more interested in the existence of form as a justification for treating the text in isolation than in understanding how forms work and how they evolve. It is not so surprising, then, that the Darwinians are oblivious to form. But their lack of interest in history would seem to be more willfull, as historicism is the warp and woof of mainstream critical practice.

In fact, their dismissal of history is a direct consequence of their version of Darwinism, which is focused on demonstrating how the actions of literary characters provide illustrative examples of human biological nature. While they give no end of homage to the idea that actual human behavior is subject to environmental influence – as far as I can tell, no one seriously doubts this – they seem to have no interest in investigating how behaviors and environments amplify into history. Literary Darwinism is paradoxically static, the examination of flies caught in amber, and Darwin himself has become a Platonic fetish to ward off the evils of change, of history.


Thanks for this interesting post. In this context it might be worth remembering Franco Moretti’s sketch of a literary evolutionary practice--discussed at length on this site some time ago--as one version of evolutionary lit crit that (whatever other problems it may have) does seem legitimately “Darwinian” in paying attention to multiplicities of literary forms.

By on 02/14/09 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Moretti is up to something more interesting.

By Bill Benzon on 02/14/09 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I became pretty impatient with Literary Darwinism when I read this 2006 interview with Jonathan Gottschall in which he asserts “...I feel that I saw things in Homer that even 2,600 years worth of Homer scholars hadn’t seen.” (http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/04/shakespeare_meets_the_selfish.php)

And what did he see?

“Instead of suggesting that winning women is merely a proximate goal masking competition for wealth, power and prestige, an evolutionary perspective suggests that honor, political power and social dominance are the proximate routes to the ultimate goal of women--for Homer’s heroes and for ordinary men.”

This is an interpretation that no one has made? It seems that Gottschall hadn’t participated in a decent undergraduate discussion of the Iliad. Or maybe such discussions wouldn’t count, since undergrads are not “Homer scholars.”

If the work Gottschall is doing is more compelling than this interview suggests, maybe I can write off his statement as youthful grandstanding.

By on 02/15/09 at 03:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gottschall is an interesting case. I’ve not read his Homer book, though I’ve glanced at a paper or two. But his cross cultural studies of fairy tales have some value & the methodology has merit. It’s really the methodology that interests me. I’ve got a critique of one of his essays in a long essay-review where I compare Moretti with the Darwinists:


By Bill Benzon on 02/15/09 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You don’t need to master 20 years of work on evolutionary psychology to write that kind of criticism. Just as you don’t need to study physics to understand why Sisyphus finds it so hard to roll that rock up the hill.

Or, maybe better: you don’t need to study physics to understand why we that Sisyphean image has endured. Our experience with gravity is universal--it’s woven into nature itself--and I suppose one could invoke gravity’s universality in a kind of humanistic criticism of the myth of Sisyphus. But any such criticism would not be strengthened in the least by a digression on Newtonian physics.

Sure, claims about hardwired human nature and its relevance to criticism are a bit more complex, but I think critics like Carroll are on the wrong path. I don’t see much of a future in simply putting an evolutionary-biological foundation under hoary notions of human nature. But I do think cognitive science might be able to tell us many helpful, even revolutionary, things about how the brain processes language, about the processes of interpellation, etc. Knowing more about how brains actually work, right at the levels of thought and consciousness, will be fantastic; speculating about the evolutionary underpinnings of the brain, not so much.

By on 02/15/09 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

People like Zimmer, but in real-world America Darwinolatry is hardly a problem, whereas evolution-denial is. A lot of people who should know better suck up to the crazed Armageddonists by pretending that evolution is an open question.

Many in science and social science still haven’t grasped the consequences of evolution, contingency, history, and emergence, most of which are there in Darwin, more or less. Safina’s “That’s why Darwin must go” is far off the mark. A lot of people haven’t got the word yet. Philosophers from Peirce (tychism) to Whitehead (emergence) and Dewey were working out the consequences of evolution for almost a century, but around 1950 the metaphysical hammer came down and that line of thought was blocked—only today are people tentatively starting to pick up the thread. (Donald Campbell did keep on going, but he hasn’t been terribly influential even if people have been discovering him recently).

As for evolutionary criticism, it just strikes me as one more desperate attempt of subjugated colonials in literary studies or whatever it’s called now to get the respect of the big boys by methodologizing and becoming truly scientific, rather than capitalizing on their comparative advantage in eclectic, generalist, humanistic studies.

By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, have you actually read Safina’s whole essay, not just the bit I quoted?

By Bill Benzon on 02/16/09 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Instead of suggesting that winning women is merely a proximate goal masking competition for wealth, power and prestige, an evolutionary perspective suggests that honor, political power and social dominance are the proximate routes to the ultimate goal of women--for Homer’s heroes and for ordinary men.”
(Jennifer de Guzman quoting Gottschall above)

The most bizarre thing about this stuff is that by making sexual selection the primary mover for aesthetics, EP lit crit finds its nearest ancestor in Freud, not Darwin.

By on 02/16/09 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So according to Gottschall the taste of major political figures for princesses and heiresses is because noblewomen and princesses are more fertile—or maybe more beautiful—or maybe just more sexually skilled? Gotcha.

By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Pseudonym.

And the rise of EP is intimately intertwined with the reaction against psychoanalysis. In fact, one of the main precursors to EP is John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst of coined the term “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA) in his work on infant-mother attachment.

By Bill Benzon on 02/16/09 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What matters, John, is how good their genes are and how well they’ll take care of their kids to thereby ensure that the paternal genes will live on in (fertile members of) the next generation.

By Bill Benzon on 02/16/09 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So a healthy peasant girl is to be preferred to a sickly heiress? History does not tell us that.

By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wealthy heiresses were generally more likely to be unhealthy and infertile than other people, because of inbreeding.

It can be assumed that they were generally more “beautiful”, if beauty equates to lots of time and resources to spend on dress, grooming, etc.

But really John seems to me to be right—even if you’re into evolutionary adaptation interpretations, wealth need not be a proxy for anything except wealth.  The primary differential that affects your children’s chance of surviving, in almost all human societies, is wealth.

By on 02/16/09 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That line of thought (evolutionary psychology at its crudist) seems Darwinian in the way that certain bad Freudianism is Freudian and inadequate Marxism is Marxist:  reductionist, unwilling to follow more recent science, and treating the founder in reverential terms, as the source of authority.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 02/16/09 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s pretty clear that dynastic and diplomatic marriages have nothing much to do with sociobiology. The most important thing is to get a bride who is as highly placed in the line of succession as possible. Examples that come quicthe proposed marriage between Eudocia, daughter of the western emperor Valentinian, and Vandal King Gaiseric’s son Huneric. There’s another case when the Turkish or Hsiung-nu Khan rejects a marriage proposal because his spies had told him that the bride was a niece and not a daughter of the Chinese Emperor. I’m sure I could find dozens of examples with in a couple of hours.

Queen Jadwiga of Poland was declared a saint primarily because, at the age of 12, she married King Jagiello of Lithuania, the last pagan emperor of Europe, who converted to Christianity as part of the deal and founded a famous dynasty—but only after Jadwiga and her only child had died, and he had remarried.

The Paris-Helen story, I presume, was of that type, regardless of how Homer told it in his epic entertainment. Even the story of Achilles fighting with Agamemnon over Briseis almost certainly was about the insult to Achilles rather than about desire or breeding stock.

BONUS TRIVIA: Technically, Jadwiga was “King Jadwiga”, because her claim to the throne was inherited from her father rather than via marriage to a king.

EXTRA BONUS TRIVIA: Karl XII of Sweden was betrothed to Sophia Hedwig of Denmark but the marriage could not take place because the two nations were at war. His sister Hedwig Sophia did marry the duke or whatever of Schleswig, an ally, even though he was an evident jerk. Their mother was from Denmark and their grandmother was from Schleswig. Those people were all cousins.

By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even the story of Achilles fighting with Agamemnon over Briseis almost certainly was about the insult to Achilles rather than about desire or breeding stock.

Since I’ve not read Gottschall’s book I don’t know what he has to say about that particular case, or any other case. But it’s likely that at some point he’d invoke the distinction between proximal cause and ultimate cause, which is common in evolutionary thinking. The ultimate cause is the particular type of biological fitness promoted by the behavior while the proximate cause is the psychological mechanism that sets the behavior in motion and brings it to completion. Thus sensations of hunger cause one to eat (proximal) and eating replenishes the body’s reserves of nutrients (ultimate).

So, in the case of Achilles and Agamemnon, a biological critic could argue that the need to avenge an insult is a proximate cause in service to the ultimate cause of reproduction. On the face of it that doesn’t seem obviously wrong nor obviously correct. It is obvious, however, that the proximate/ultimate distinction is an invitation for abuse since one could declare a small fixed set of objectives to be the only possible ultimate causes of behavior and, consequently, insist that all other causes are merely proximal psychological mechanisms. In the absence of deep knowledge of the neural and psychological mechanisms involved there’s no way to determine just what’s going on.

By Bill Benzon on 02/16/09 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Jadwiga”, of course, is Polish for “Hedwig”. It’s as though the Baltic rulers married the same cousin over and over again.

The Jagiellons were famous for marrying late (ca. 50) and not being very fertile, so when they died their heirs were still quite young, and each reign was very long. Around 1525 the Jagiellons ruled Lithuania, Poland Bohemia, and Hungary, a domain reaching from the Baltic to the Black to the Adriatic Sea.

The sociobiological champion is Genghis Khan, who had about 800 wives and is the ancestor of 0.5% of the people in the world today.  One Rus ruler had 800 wives, and there was a Barbary Coast ruler more recently had 800 children. Probably in Saudi Arabia there are more examples.

On the other hand, Shaka Zulu founded a state and had dozens of wives, but took care to have no children at all, either killing them once they became pregnant, or usig some kind of birth control method.

By John Emerson on 02/16/09 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, Helen, the genes that launched a thousand dicks…

By on 02/16/09 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The irony, of course, is that Helen was only able to bear one child for Menelaos, a daughter, named Hermione.  As Homer tells it in *The Odyssey*: “for the gods had never after granted Helen / a child to bring into the sunlit world / after the first, rose-lipped Hermione, / a girl like the pale-gold goddess Aphrodite” (Book IV, l. 12-15).

So if thousands of prime male breeders kill themselves merely to help one man win one woman, the evolutionary logic seems, uh, off somehow.

Now, the reality of Bronze Age warfare was no doubt more like Gottschall talks about, given the sexual slavery the Greeks would have won from Troy.  But Homer’s poem clearly places the value system above the biological system: Aphrodite or Eros are either aids or diversions from the quest for kleos. 

I don’t understand biological criticism of stories, because stories are not real.  If Homer says Akhilleus is motivated by monkey-juice, we have to assume that in Homer’s world, monkey-juice is the prime mover. 

(Of course, *The Odyssey* poses an even greater problem.  Odysseus constantly endangers his own life (i.e., his breeding possibilities) to increase his kleos, which delays him getting back home to breed.  And there’s no sign Penelope demands any more glory from her husband for any future lovin’ to go down.  Odysseus seems far more interested—like Penelope—in ensuring his reputation is eternal than in ensuring his breed is eternal.)

By on 02/16/09 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t understand biological criticism of stories, because stories are not real.  If Homer says Akhilleus is motivated by monkey-juice, we have to assume that in Homer’s world, monkey-juice is the prime mover.”

This is an essential point but applies far beyond just biological criticism, though it may have particular bite when deployed against this evolutionary stuff (Theory-derived crit is of course quite comfortable arguing that literature can dramatize stuff without “knowing” it via determining mechanisms like the unconscious, interpellation, Ideology, etc).  The ultimate cause argument noted by Bill fulfills this function, but seems to edge EP even closer to psychoanalysis, and if that’s what it boils down to I prefer the conventional Freudian variety.

By on 02/17/09 at 03:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To go on, Freud’s primal Ur-father who mated with his own daughters and was eventually killed by his sons, or the Saturn myth, seems a bit sociobiological. He could be compared to the stallion, bull, or boar with his harem and his subordinate males. Turkish and Mongol khans did have that kind of nearly-absolute power, during wartime at least, and Genghis Khan is the nearest example I can think of that kind of political leadership. I wouldn’t think of this as primal, though, because dominance of that kind by a champion / military leader seems to be a function of fairly advanced military organization. (The truth of this stuff is probably unrecoverable, ca. 50,000—10,000 BC).

The quest for power may be an exaption of the quest for mates, a drive turned to a different purpose than its original one. Besides Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great is another conqueror who seemed indifferent or hostile to reproduction.

By John Emerson on 02/17/09 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All this is nicely unfalsifiable, really.  But much as I’ve been amused by e.g. John’s bit about history clearly showing that healthy peasants are preferable to wealthy heiresses, that, and the bits about Homer, really don’t work as objections.  The point of this kind of thing is that we were supposed to have evolved to fit the ancestral environment.  The ancestral environment did not have armies contending against each other on the fields of Troy.  It had small bands of hunter-gatherers.  So it’s quite possible that behavior that might be optimal for a strong hunter-gatherer (impress the other members of the tribe with how good a fighter you are in a very minor clash, possibly not even a deadly one, between you and a member of another tribe, and you get more food and your children have less chance of malnutrition) becomes already inoptimal by the time of the Greeks.

So I don’t see how evolutionary arguments really matter.  They might say, OK, people have a drive for power.  But so what?  We already knew that.

By on 02/17/09 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Changing hats, I’ll say that one thing ev psych does is to try to identify the biological or “instinctive” substrate beneath culturally coded behavior. I’m not completely sure that social science ever did argue the blank slate as a positive doctrine, though probably when it was made part of the paradigm installed in grad students, many of them ended up assuming that the blank slate was a scientific truth rather than a possibly-counterfactual working assumption. From what I remember, the blank slate seemed to be a way of developing sociology, anthropology, and political science without interference from physiological or psychological reductionism.

Following SJ Gould, your best evidence for inherited behavior patterns would be harmful, inefficient, or otherwise un-useful behaviors. (Successful behavior might be personal rationality or cultural rationality). It’s sort of a reflex of the Christian argument from design—the argument from historical relics which are no longer adaptive. For example, our shoulder was “designed” for a four-footed beast and gradually adapted to use erect; the same is true of our spine. Neither is well-designed for its present use; starting from scratch, both would be quite different.

There’s no particular presupposition that our innate behaviors and emotional responses are good at all, and in fact a lot of them count as the “old Adam” that makes us sinful, and they can be a threat to civilized life.

A particular example is the impulse toward revenge, which I would guess is innate and has been a major organizing principle of many societies even very recently (and in Albania to this day)*, but which must be repressed under the rule of law. (A lot of tragedy is about that). Another might be male protection of female chastity, even when the females don’t want to be protected.

*Black-Michaud, “Cohesive Force”, highly recommended.

By John Emerson on 02/17/09 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John writes, “So according to Gottschall the taste of major political figures for princesses and heiresses is because noblewomen and princesses are more fertile—or maybe more beautiful—or maybe just more sexually skilled? Gotcha.”

Made me wonder what Swift would make of EP, and put me in mind of the following passage where Gulliver educates the Houyhnhnms on the mating behavior of the European nobility:

“our young noblemen are bred from their childhood in idleness and luxury; that, as soon as years will permit, they consume their vigour, and contract odious diseases among lewd females; and when their fortunes are almost ruined, they marry some woman of mean birth, disagreeable person, and unsound constitution (merely for the sake of money), whom they hate and despise. That the productions of such marriages are generally scrofulous, rickety, or deformed children; by which means the family seldom continues above three generations, unless the wife takes care to provide a healthy father, among her neighbours or domestics, in order to improve and continue the breed.”

By on 02/17/09 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reading a bit more about Gottschall’s book, I realize that his argument is that Homer’s epic does in fact represent a real-world state of affairs for Bronze Age Greeks: a scarcity of women, leading to increased competition for them. 

I still wonder, though, why Homer would have rendered all the battle scenes wrong (using Archaic Period military forms) and left out the Greek and Trojan use of chariot warfare, but would have accurately captured a regional scarcity of sexual objects from 500 years in the past. 

In the end, if I wrote a story about AIDS, and in my story I show that space aliens are responsible for the disease, a critic couldn’t come around and say, “My school of disease theory reads this all as a coded vision of viral transmission.” What’s real in the world does not trump what’s real in a work of art, even if at times the work of art shares elements of the real world. 

Which is to say, Homer’s ancestors might have cared more for sex than glory, but Homer’s characters care more for glory than sex.  That’s why they’re heroic, for Christsake. 

(It’s Old Man Rubenstein’s 90th birthday party, and his buddies at the retirement home think it would be great to have a naked lady jump out of a cake.  They wheel in the giant cake, the stripper jumps out, and she cries, “Do you want super sex?”

And Old Man Rubsenstein says, “Honey, I think I’ll have the soup.")

By on 02/17/09 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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