Aspirant Evolution

danYell's picture

Literature and science are both attempts to explain reality. The story of evolution explains the process through which species mutate, adapt, and evolve. Evolution offers an answer to the question, How did we get here? Literary stories are not as devoted to offering answers to that question, but focus more on the Why are we here?, What is our purpose? Literature is an attempt to tell stories that get it less wrong in terms of the way in which we think about people and their interactions. If we think about science as a process of discovery, we can also think about literary analysis as an attempt to discover the answers to the big questions, and we can use the loopy scientific method to offer insight into literary analysis. Not attempting to find the Truth frees the thinker up to discover other things. For me, this means less pressure and freedom to experiment with ideas rather than having to be Right.

An evolved creature can be viewed as the sum of all that came before it. Humans today are the current final product of all the millions of years of biological evolution. This can be applied to culture and its literary aspect. In Forster, the species struggling to survive become classes and nations. Forester highlights the differences between the classes, his fear of suburbanization, the importance of land ownership, and the ideal of ‘only connect.’ Forster pulls from sources such as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Homer’s Ulysses to show that his characters are cultured. He even uses the language of evolution; for Margaret, work and culture are the markers of the ascent out of the protoplasm. "If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No--perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm” (ch 19). Through work over time, one rises up. One aspect of this work is adapting to new environments successfully.

Leonard Bast’s struggle is rooted in his aspiration, his desire to take on the characteristics of the upper class, to evolve. Bast attempts to fill himself up with the culture that he feels he has missed; with Beethoven and Ruskin he feels he is being “done good to… and that he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe” (ch 6). He fails at this task, but Forster allows us to feel hopeful for his son. The inheritor of all England is the illegitimate child Helen and Leonard Bast, and Paul Wilcox is the catalyst for his conception.

Paul, who we meet only twice in the novel is the character on whom the whole plot hinges. It is Paul that Helen falls in love with initially and whose rejection spurs her on to solidify her class views and her entanglements with the Basts. “It was morbid, and, to her alarm, Margaret fancied that she could trace the growth of morbidity back in Helen's life for nearly four years. The flight from Oniton; the unbalanced patronage of the Basts; the explosion of grief up on the Downs--all connected with Paul, an insignificant boy whose lips had kissed hers for a fraction of time” (Ch 34). It is through Helen’s interaction with Paul that she undergoes the mutation that enables her to go against the societal structure in which she is embedded and create a child that will theoretically be a blend of the classes.

Zadie Smith in her novel On Beauty takes up Forster’s issues again in a modern setting. Forster could not have known that Smith would pay homage to his text with a parallel one of her own, but he may have hoped that the readers of his day would appreciate and integrate his text into their personal cultures. “Only Connect,” opens his text and throughout he urges his readers and his characters to align the way they think about the world. Smith chose to use Forster’s text as her starting point, but the author is the sum of all the works that s/he has read and integrated to the point of her departure. Her personal culture is made up of the sum of texts she has read and the way in which the allusions and references within them affected her. This will affect not only her own writing, but the readers of her writing, and the writing that the readers of her writing produce as well. In this way the author has a lot of responsibility as a carrier of culture into the future. Especially when we start to ask questions like, How does Forster's impatience with Imperialism, or Paul's relationship with Africa inform our view of the notion ‘only connect’? How does Smith use her reading of Forster's and others work to shape her own writing?

E. M. Forster’s Howards End gives the reader an idea of life in England in the early 20th century, Smith’s On Beauty, a description of reality in the early 21st century America. Smith continues the discussion of class and cultural acquisition, with a focus on the way in which conceptions of race affects culture. The high culture of the English in 1900 shaped the American culture of 2000. Can we say that culture has evolved? Evolution is not a move towards greater perfection, but it is a move towards greater complexity in our understanding of reality, a new way of exploring the interpretation of reality. I read Howards End with an eye for certain details that I would not have been looking for as a contemporary of Forster. At the same time, I know that when another century passes, a reader at that time will find something wholly different to remark on that will be shaped by all the writing that is yet to come.

Forster, E.M. Howards End. Vintage : New York, 1989.
Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. Hamish Hamilton : London, 2005.


Anne Dalke's picture

Whole greater than the Parts?


This seems a paper in search of an argument. @ the very end, you ask whether we can say if culture evolves. Is that the question which motivates the whole?

Each portion of the essay is a thoughtful one: the first paragraph describes the sense of freedom you get from the "loopy" exploration of both science and literature. The second sees (and shows Margaret seeing) humans as products of biological evolution, and literature as the product of humans. The third focuses on the particular aspirations of Leonard Bast; the fourth on Paul's function as fulcrum for the evolution of Helen's class consciousness (a new detail for me; thanks for flagging it). The fifth paragraph describes Smith (and all writers) as carriers of culture; and the final one describes all culture as moving toward greater complexity.

Taken together: what have you demonstrated? I see many interesting parts, but don't have a clear sense of where the whole is headed--or why.

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