A not so odd combination

Adam Gopnik. Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009).
Robert Charles Wilson. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America (2009).

I read these books, together by a strange & as it turned out compelling coincidence, awhile ago. That is, before the US midterm elections & all they seem to demonstrate about the state of that (dis)union. The ways in which a thoughtful work of historical/literary analysis & a mordant work of speculative fiction connect may exist mostly in the mind of their reader, but they do exist, & that is one of the delights of reading.

Angels and Ages is a fascinating study of both men & their thought & legacies, under the flags of ‘liberalism,’ ‘humanism,’ & ‘modernism,’ all terms utilized in their best & broadest senses. Really interesting for someone like me, who has not read their works, nor that much about them (& there is so much on both!). Gopnik is interested in showing how their writing, their specific styles, were central to the impact their thought actually had, how Lincoln’s understated rhetoric & use of short anglo-saxon words to conclude his arguments from law, & how Darwin’s willingness to tell a story, of observed life, as well as to quietly amass huge amounts of observed detail (& to represent the objections to his theory in the very strongest manner), made the acceptance of their arguments possible in ways that more rhetorically ‘loud’ manners would not have. In the concluding chapter, Gopnik makes many points about the importance of what both men did, but the following seems especially important:

Lincoln and Darwin are both emblematic figures in the spread of bourgeois liberal democracy, and the central role for science that goes with it. They stand for those free and inquiring societies in their gift of eloquence, in their insistent need to persuade and convince, argue and substantiate, talk and justify. They remind us that literary style, eloquence, isn’t an ornament or frosting on an achievement created by other means; it is part of that achievement. Lincoln and Darwin were not otherwise great figures who happened to be great writers; we pick them out among their contemporaries because they wrote so well, and they wrote so well because they saw so clearly, and they saw so clearly because they cleared their minds of the cant of their day and used the craft of legal and scientific reasoning to let themselves start fresh. Just as Lincoln used the narrow language of the law to arrive at a voice of liberalism still resonant and convincing today, Darwin used the still more narrow language of natural observation – of close amateur looking – to change our ideas of life and time and history. Darwin is most fully himself, most alive, in the volumes of narrow observational science that he published regularly in between his speculative books. . . . In the same way. The legalistic side of Lincoln, the devotion to legal technicality, so disconcertingly evident in the Emancipation Proclamation . . . is inseparable from the celebrated soaring rhetorical Lincoln who saw the point of the thing: that no nation can be free and enslaved at once.
Induction and argument are the probity of liberal thought. Facts matter, logic counts . . . . The truth matters to the progress of a free nation – but it matters just as much that the truth be accepted. In an open society, new truths need to be told, and new truths need to be heard. It was Darwin’s inductive eloquence that allowed science to rewrite the history of life; it was Lincoln’s rational passion that ended the long horror of slavery, and began the adventure of democracy as a dominant, not a Utopian, way of life. . . .
And this rootedness in reasoning explains why of all explanations of life, evolutionary theory is not remotely like a religion. There is no resemblance between evolutionary biology, even if we call it Darwinism, and a religion. . . .
Darwin proudly called his idea of evolution by natural selection a ‘theory,’ which was not always the way that scientists talked about their ideas in the nineteenth century. . . . The invocation of theory has something modest about it, but it is also ‘massive.’ As the kids say now; theology was to be countered by theories, which are tentative, open-ended, and unsure but also explain things that were otherwise mystifying, and are always empirical – open to probing and testing and changing (183 – 6).

Of course, Gopnik is trying to be hopeful, looking for signs of their continuing influence (as thinkers, as exemplars of liberal thinking, that openness to the world & to change, that refusal of dogma[tism]), in a country & a world where their enemies seem to be finding far too much hold (that the denial of Darwin’s theories still has so many adherents is more than just troubling; & the attack on both the separation of church & state, let alone democracy is frightening). Angels and Ages makes me want to read more about them both.

In contrast to the carefully argued Angels and Ages, Julian Comstock is a post-apocalyptic tragic farce, I guess you could say (the farce underlining the statement about history happening first as tragedy then as farce). Some 100 years after the ‘Efflorescence of Oil,’ ‘the Fall of the Cities,’ ‘the Plague of Infertility,’ & ‘the False Tribulation,’ the United States (now covering all of North America) is an oligarchy run by Church and State united, the President resident in New York, the Dominion of Christ run from the former Air Force Academy in Colorado. Julian Comstock is the narrative of the rise of President Deklan Comstock’s nephew, Julian, to the Presidency, where he tries, it seems unsuccessfully, to break the Dominion’s hold on minds & hearts, to free the slaved intelligence of his people (he is one of the few who even knows about Darwin’s theories, which have been censored, & can be seen as a kind of Lincoln, even).

During the end of the Oil Age, Earth’s population was reduced by nine-tenths; now Mitteleuropans have invaded what used to be Newfoundland & Labrador, & the northern American Army is fighting them, in a war without end (which both President Declan Comstock & the Dominion want) [if this sounds familiar, it’s supposed to]. The President wants to kill Julian off by sending him to fight in the Army. Julian escapes from a small town only to be recruited elsewhere with his faithful older companion, Sam Godwin, & his best friend, from a lower class, Adam Hazzard. His ability to command respect & loyalty leads to his slow rise to a power he doesn’t want; when he eventually becomes President (& that tangled tale is the bulk of the narrative), he attempts to use his office to undermine the power of the Dominion. The story of Julian’s rise, his ‘failure,’ & death, is told by Adam, a wonderfully observant & naïve narrator who lets us know far more than he understands. The woman Adam eventually marries, Calysta, a Montrealer both wise & cynical, & something of a revolutionary (in a country returned almost to the time of slavery, although it seems to be a class situation rather than a racial one, with much of the population ‘indentured’ through generations since the end of the tribulations) sees this contradiction in him but loves him as much for his loyalty to Julian as his hopeful approach to life.

Impossible to summarize, Julian Comstock is a wise, funny, & often deeply moving novel, & also a story about the power of story (as the eventual film about Charles Darwin, which Julian produces, demonstrates). Adam lives to tell his story, & if he never quite understands all of Julian’s thought & behavior, he is a loyal friend, who always puts that friendship ahead of ideology or felt power (his beliefs, quite ordinary at the beginning, slowly grow & change, & if he doesn’t quite ‘see’ who Julian is, he always accepts him). Written, perhaps, for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (as Angels and Ages most certainly was), Julian Comstock is both a fine entertainment & a warning.

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