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Tragedy after Darwin

  • Author(s): Lempert, Manya
  • Advisor(s): Hale, Dorothy
  • et al.


Tragedy after Darwin


Manya Lempert

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Dorothy Hale, Chair

Tragedy after Darwin is the first study to recognize novelistic tragedy as a sub-genre of British and European modernism. I argue that in response to secularizing science, authors across Europe revive the worldview of the ancient tragedians. Hardy, Woolf, Pessoa, Camus, and Beckett picture a Darwinian natural world that has taken the gods’ place as tragic antagonist. If Greek tragic drama communicated the amorality of the cosmos via its divinities and its plots, the novel does so via its characters’ confrontations with an atheistic nature alien to redemptive narrative. While the critical consensus is that Darwinism, secularization, and modernist fiction itself spell the “death of tragedy,” I understand these writers’ oft-cited rejection of teleological form and their aesthetics of the momentary to be responses to Darwinism and expressions of their tragic philosophy: characters’ short-lived moments of being stand in insoluble conflict with the expansive time of natural and cosmological history.

The fiction in this study adopts an anti-Aristotelian view of tragedy, in which character is not fate; character is instead the victim, the casualty, of fate. And just as the Greek tragedians depict externally wrought necessity that is also divorced from mercy, from justice, from theodicy, Darwin’s natural selection adapts species to their environments, preserving and destroying organisms, with no conscious volition and no further end in mind – only because of chance differences among them. The variations upon which natural selection acts are matters of chance: they cannot be fully predicted and occur regardless of their adaptive benefit to the creatures involved. In both tragic drama and evolutionary biology, one cannot work backward from fortune to foresight. As a result, tragedy and evolutionary theory have faced analogous interpretive distortion. Chance, the signature of the Greek gods, has also appeared to underwrite the evolution of life – and yet a preponderance of theorists have sought to banish the aleatory from narratives of individual and species-wide destiny. When Hardy, Woolf, Pessoa, Camus, and Beckett therefore reprise Attic tragedy’s worldview – constituting a literary backlash against comforting, anthropocentric narratives of human origins and human fates – they recast the Greek gods of tragedy as Darwin’s godless nature.

My project opens by contrasting philosophy’s and anthropology’s readings of Greek tragedy and the natural world with this fiction’s own. I show that Darwin himself grappled with the notion of a cosmic lottery of fate in the biosphere, in which no moral, loving, or teleological power determined each organism’s lot or the future of species. My first chapter argues that Hardy’s tragic novels proceed to indict manmade narratives that cast mortal luck and the cruelties of men as the victim’s wrongdoing. The impassioned narrator of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the titular character of Jude the Obscure resist the Aristotelian notion that protagonists initiate their own catastrophes, are the causal agents of their demises; these defiant figures eschew, too, Christianized tragedy that understands heroes and heroines to be morally responsible for their misfortunes in a providential universe. Although Woolf is often seen as a comedic author, I contend in my second chapter that she develops Hardy’s atheistic sense of the tragic – in her words, Hardy’s aesthetic that allows us to “feel that we are backing human nature in an unequal contest” against “Nature as a force.” Woolf perfects a novelistic structure that accentuates rebellious subjectivity at odds with an affectless environment. Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and Bernard in The Waves envy the longevity of wind and waves and seek to secure for their treasured moments the permanence of the “granite” (Woolf’s elected noun) of logical universals – all the while knowing that their moments in time cannot possess such solidity. Representing the natural world, its forces and processes, elemental materials and organic growths, as a site of extrahuman persistence and unpredictable chance, Woolf rejects vitalist and theistic professions of the underlying security of human life within this larger totality. Woolf rejects as well ritualistic and mythical construals of tragedy as the genre that redeems our mortal fragility. Woolf’s tragic form carries with it an ethics of human limitation and interdependence, and her characters do not equate their Sisyphean pursuit of happiness with the denial or subjugation of nonhuman otherness.

Reaching across the Channel in my third and fourth chapters, I turn more explicitly to a form of contrast – between tragedy’s moments of affirmation and the siren song of negation – that emerges within the novels of Hardy and Woolf and is essential to the oeuvres of Pessoa, Camus, and Beckett. Pessoa’s Baron of Teive composes his suicide note to silence the grief that attends tragedy. His foil is Pessoa’s Darwinian nature poet, Alberto Caeiro, who expressly condemns Nietzsche’s “wisdom of Silenus,” that never to have been born is best. Caeiro actively resists the impulse to merge with the insentient environment that time’s passing on occasion inspires in him. Camus’ magisterial negative examples of The Stranger and The Fall display characters who do cultivate states of ethical indifference akin to nature’s own. These, in turn, stand in opposition to Camus’ corpus of fiction based on Woolfian moments of being, and on the literary and ethical merits of resisting, not emulating or eluding, our tragic antagonists: the absurdity of the cosmos and the men who adopt its inhumanity. Individual and ideological denials of personhood and shared defenses of it prove the antimonies of the modernist response to a tragic universe. In my final chapter, therefore, what I argue to be Beckett’s narrator’s life-negating pursuit of nonhuman quiescence in The Unnamable finds its antidote in Company’s resuscitating endeavor to people its solitude. I thus offer a fresh account of modernism’s suicides, nihilists, and murderers; my work is unique in suggesting that such characters aim to suppress tragic knowledge with their strategies to deny life. A nihilistic posture toward existence – valuing nothing – serves to transform the very pains of tragic finitude, powerlessness, and inexplicable fortune into the calm of indifference. Yet characters rarely attain this degree of dispassion, fail to live a peril-free life, are disturbed by their still resurgent anguishes and attachments. Unconcern itself may also trouble them, feel distressingly vacuous or ethically remiss. I close my project with a theory of literary criticism: studying characters from whose behaviors we recoil, immersing ourselves in modernism’s negative examples, we disclose our own ethical commitments.

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