The Evolution of the Mind

epeck01's picture
Frames of mind and ideas about existence are probably not truly transmitted or passed down in an evolutionary manner, however they seem to be passed down culturally, and sometimes become apparent in a way that is parallel to reemergence in biological evolution.  Both Walt Whitman, or his narrator, in his poem Leaves of Grass, and Erik in Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American express transcendental ideas.  Although these books were written more than a century apart, Whitman’s ideas about universality and oneness reemerge at the end of Hustvedt’s novel.  In biological evolution, physiological elements may reemerge after having lost use, especially if they were kept in an organism after not truly being successful when they originally emerged.  Similarly, in cultural evolution, a trend or idea may emerge, and then after not catching on, remain dormant until it reemerges, possibly more successful.  The idea of universality that Whitman expresses and believes in shows up again in Erik’s character after more than a century, showing proof of cultural reemergence.

Leaves of Grass plays with ideas of oneness and connectedness between people.  Whitman often talks about nature’s perfection and mankind’s connection with nature.  He connects all types of people, asking “[i]s it you that thought the President greater than you?  or the richer better off than you?  or the educated wiser than you?” (Whitman 70).  He is asking the common man, or any man, if there is something inherently greater in people whom society reveres.  Whitman’s answer would be that, no, one person is not greater than another.  We all have an inherent equality and right to happiness and peace.  In this sense, Whitman’s views are very eastern.  He believes in a oneness that conjures up ideas of nirvana or enlightenment.  Whitman finds his semi-enlightened state through nature, and other people.

In the beginning of The Sorrows of an American, Erik is often lonely.  He even sometimes speaks his feelings out loud in his apartment while he is by himself.  Erik was once married, but has been divorced since before the novel begins, and rarely speaks of the divorce or of his ex-wife.  Erik does have other people in his life, but he generally keeps his distance from them.  As a psychiatrist, Erik is obligated to keep a professional distance from his patients, and as he analyzes everybody in his life, including himself, perhaps he feels subconsciously obligated to distance himself from everyone – leaving him in a state of sad and perpetual loneliness.  Because of his loneliness, Erik always views himself as being separate.     

Upon first glance, Erik’s frame of mind is completely different from Whitman’s.  Where Whitman is one with the universe, Erik is distanced and has divided the universe into groups of people and things that he is not a part of.  Whitman’s ideas seem to have died out by Hustvedt’s novel– become extinct.  However, at the end of the novel, Erik undergoes an epiphany.  He is out in the snow and has a realization that “there is no loneliness because there is no one to be lonely” (Hustvedt 301).  Erik’s realization differs strikingly from his thinking throughout the rest of the time the reader has with him.  This sudden and quite drastic change, towards a very Whitman-esque way of thinking makes me think that Whitman’s ideas were latent in Erik and reemerged during his moment in the snow.    

If Whitman’s ideas still can be found deep under the surface of people who think in ways that seem to be so opposite of the Leaves of Grass mentality, perhaps ideas and frames of mind remain concealed for generations until they can be of use again.  In this way, cultural evolution, or evolution of the mind is not so different from biological evolution.  Whitman’s type of thinking was useful to Erik after his life of separateness and loneliness, and so the idea rose up again, reemerging from its underlying state.  Erik’s loneliness was not working for him; it was not the “fittest” mindset for him to have.  Therefore, something in Erik came up with an older idea that may serve him well.  There seems to be an evolutionary reason why this way of thinking has not completely died out, or become extinct.  Despite the generational difference between Whitman and Husvedt’s worlds, Whitman’s ideas are echoed in Husvedt’s characters, through an evolutionary link.


Anne Dalke's picture

re-emerging after loss

A few days after you wrote this paper, we were told in class that “in biological evolution, extinction is really a misnomer.” What (is thought to) go out of existence just takes a different form: genes persist in other populations, mass converts to energy…but nothing is ever lost. You are arguing here for the applicability of that phenomenon on the literary level, and you make it very dramatic, the way Erik comes to a Whitman-esque revelation, @ the very end of a novel in which his position has been so explicitly anti-Whitmanian.

My questions, then, really have to do what provokes such a re-emergence of latent ideas. What motives them to become expressive again? Your conclusion seems to suggest that they are provoked by need, and puts me in mind of a passage from Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, which I have always found very moving:

…need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Is that what you are getting at? Erik needed a different way of being so much that it was provided to him, provoked by his longing?

I was also a little puzzled, earlier on in your essay, by your identifying ideas about “an inherent equality and right to happiness and peace” as “very eastern” views. They sound to me like conventional western democratic ideals. Why do you give them another geographic origin? Then you slip from equality into “oneness, nirvana, enlightenment….” Are those all the same thing? What are the connections among them, particularly the connections between “equality” and “oneness”? To be equal, must we be one? Mightn’t we be equal in our differences? (For more on this, see Culture as Disability ).

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