Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins

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Author: Richard C. Sha
Date: Autumn 2017
From: Wordsworth Circle(Vol. 48, Issue 4)
Publisher: Wordsworth Circle
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,478 words

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Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins

(The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) x + 339 $55.00

Devin Griffiths argues that, at its best, analogy enacts a comparativist methodology from the bottom up, suggesting kinds of harmony and contact, which "explor[e] a pattern between two different sets of relationships, to see what common features the pattern picks out" (18). Crucially, these points of contact are open to revision. The Age of Analogy, then, not only provides important new ways of seeing relations between literature and science in the period between Erasmus and Charles Darwin, but it also posits analogy as part of a methodology of comparative historicism--a new relational way of thinking about antiquity--rather than as mere deconstructive figure. The result is a conception of literary language--for example, the notion of "natural selection" as metaphor--that has the power to enable full grappling with the world. The payoff is manifold: Erasmus Darwin's status as fringe scientist is now explained by his antiquated understanding of analogy; surprisingly, Charles Darwin looks to the historical novel to create an explanation of evolution that is, unlike his grandfather's, compelling, and revises what analogy does; and Charles Darwin is thereby able to develop an analysis of nature that accounts for social norms. In this view, Walter Scott educates Charles Darwin on how to dovetail narrative comparisons with nature. The fact that Charles wrote "Zoonomia" atop his first evolution notebook, reveals his struggle to find new ways of telling stories about the past, and to bring the past in dynamic relations to the present. Against the tide of convergent models of literature and science, this book shows how authors ranging from the Darwins through Scott, Tennyson, and George Eliot struggled with the implications of analogy as comparative historicism, developing both different attitudes towards its implications as well as different practices.

Now, to make this argument work, Griffiths distinguishes between a dated notion of analogy in terms of a speculative strategy of reasoning that stresses similarities (31), and a later comparative method, fostered by Walter Scott's novels, which engages similarity and difference within analogy. While I agree that Romanticism did stress resemblance, I wonder whether similarity can ever be contemplated without awareness of the differences to be kept at bay. And indeed, even as he takes pains to lay out this distinction, he notes an "entanglement of these two vocabularies" (33), one that blurs it even as it appears. He is on firmer ground when he argues that the latter method resulted in distinct practices. More helpful is his distinction between Erasmus's formal analogy and Charles's harmonic analogy: the former is top down and "imposes a pattern of relationships from one domain to the other" (36) and the latter proceeds from the bottom up, and reciprocally so. In the process, and against the turn to math within speculative realism, Griffiths shows how both mathematics and figuration have the wherewithal to extend our understanding to new phenomena.

Walter Scott not only changes the shape of the novel, and along with it how to experience alterity, he also changes the way Charles Darwin writes. In this view, Scott counters Erasmus's emphasis of universal patterns, and shows Charles how to translate artifacts into history. Scott's investments in translation, philology, editing, material history and antiquarianism, geology, coin collecting, economic history, anthropology, and even forgery encouraged his commitment to a comparativist method that had the power to understand the past, but at the expense of any central protagonist. Instead, history is revealed as an interplay between different historical actors, and therefore one must always consider the alternative narrative possibilities within as Scott does. Griffiths thus is attentive to "scenes of dialectical translation in Scott's fiction [because] they provide a powerful form of historical engagement, a zone of exchange between present and past that is characterized by immediate contact and investment, and generalized as a condition of modern experience" (121).

Analogy then changes what we think we know about Tennyson's In Memoriam, and particularly, in how we read its stanzas. Scientists respected the poem because it contributed to secularization. Tennyson's project was to analogize the dead and the living, and he profits from both Hallam's understanding of the ways in which envelop rhyme functions as "a vehicle of interconnection" (145), along with astronomer's interest in the possibility of plural worlds. The largest ethical, religious, scientific, and political questions in the poem are thereby folded back onto the reversing stanza, transforming it into an epistemological tool for interrogating and revising its propositional content (148). Form as epistemological exercise then returns the reader to Herbert Tucker's insight that the poem wobbles both between this world and another, and between the embrace and suppression of an alien self. Griffiths explains how analogy and form get this done.

For George Eliot, comparative readings of characters and experience enable the diagnosis of previous errors. In this view, Middlemarch stages a comparison gone bad, and the ways in which error can become productive. Here comparison itself enacts a contest between alterity and sympathetic understanding, and produces a technique of disanalogy whereby misunderstandings are the key to developing a system of knowledge. Rome and its profuse architectural styles stage a series of contrasts, while its art offers insights into the nature and complexities of historical perception. It is in the gallery that Dorothea herself becomes both particular and type. Later, Eliot's depiction of Dorothea's sympathy for Rosamund, creates a larger analogical triangle between Dorothea's own marriage and purported affair with Will Ladislaw, and Rosamund's marriage and her own potential affair (195). This misunderstanding is countered then by Rosamund's sympathy for Dorothea, prompting catalyzes Dorothea's marriage to Will, and thus female friendship functions as "a startling instance of wider harmonic identification" (197). The larger point is this: "what seems to be an analogy that specifies some relation between victim and prey, or between natural and social systems, turns out instead to flatten these distinctions, making a general case for the distribution of power that characterizes the interplay of individual characters" (204). Eliot's analogic sympathy, then, is compared to Charles Darwin's famous entangled bank.

The chapter on Charles Darwin turns to his work on orchids and submits that he "usually asks us to imagine particular stories that can plausibly explain what we now see" (212). These imagined stories provide the flesh to the bones of the theory of natural selection, and put in place the idea of harmonic analogy, one that, contra George Levine, facilitates traffic between natural history and natural theology by allowing talk of teleology while bracketing questions of supernatural agents. This argument of this chapter might have found a productive ally in Ralph O'Connor's work on the earth sciences and its turn to stories and simulation. Darwin imagines history as a dense web of "analogies between past and present, between domestic and natural species" (216), and these analogies allow his stories to filiate into what William Whewell called consilience. Darwin "spent over twenty years honing his use of analogy in its many forms and in dialogue with a variety of ... works" (218).

A major study, The Age of Analogy, offers many new promising leads for understanding the entanglements of science and literature during the 19th century. Here, figuration and form are transformed by understanding them as not just literary practices and tropes, but as cultural and scientific work that provide new ways of understanding both social and natural history, even as the historical novel trains Charles Darwin in how to bring together narrative strands of nature. Griffiths tracks Darwin's extensive readings in historical novels (236-37). In this way, analogy continues the parallel lives of nature and history within the tradition of historia or natural history (neglected here).

This is a book of enormous erudition, especially for a first book, though I did wonder where was Alexander von Humboldt, who not only stressed the web of life, but also inspired Darwin's wanderlust? Griffiths is especially alert to how analogy both holds its ends in suspension thereby enabling multiple solutions to epistemological problems. As a mode of active thinking, then, analogy acquires the power to address the entanglements of nature and social history and the development of ecology, and does so by enabling the development of models for understanding. Most illuminating is his sense that analogy works as a method, not just a figure, and it is this shift from language to practice that gives this book enormous leverage. One outcome is a shift in the understanding of intent, which Griffiths ascribes to persons and works. Such emphasis in his view underscores the "deeply social nature of authorship, its filiation with the collaborate nature of scientific inquiry, and the continuity between social and natural life" (253). Great books change how criticism does its business; unfortunately, this happens far more rarely than one might think.

A Review by Richard C. Sha

American University, Washington, D.C.

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