On a recent Thursday evening, the English Department gathered in the Maude Fife Room on the third floor of Wheeler Hall for the annual Charles Mills Gayley lecture, the department’s highest honor. The speaker that evening was Professor Ian Duncan, an expert in Victorian literature and Scottish Romanticism, whose talk was entitled “Darwin’s Voyage.”
Department Chair Sam Otter introduced Professor Duncan along with a witty description of the institution of the “Gayley lecture.” “There are not many rituals in the Berkeley English Department,” he observed, “but this is one of them.” He went on to explain how the lecture’s namesake, Charles Mills Gayley, had joined the department in 1889 and served as its Chair for an unbelievable 34 years, during which time he shaped the structures and policies of the department as well as modern English letters as a discipline. This left rather large shoes for Professor Duncan to fill when he took the lectern, though the lecture he delivered, on the way Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on HMS Beagle spawned not only the theory of evolution but also a distinctly literary and aesthetic discourse that places Darwin as much in the arc of literary history as it does in the history of science, did just that.
Professor Duncan began his talk by situating Darwin’s diary of his voyage on the Beagle in the tradition of the “circumnavigation” narrative, the “voyage ‘round the world” whose mapping of the oceans and distant lands made travel writing a major genre of the European Enlightenment. In particular, Duncan pointed out, Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent played an important role for Darwin, who repeatedly referred to that text in his journal and letters to his sisters. Humboldt’s descriptions of the equatorial rainforests, which Darwin himself characterized as “a rare union of poetry and science,” provided him with a model for the relationship between scientific discovery and aesthetic experience.
Duncan cited Darwin’s own description of his mind as “a chaos of delight” at moments on the Beagle’s journey. This overwhelming, if pleasurable, ecological complexity sparked, Duncan pointed out, both the retroactive scientific organization of the natural world into ordered systems and the appeal to aesthetic categories of the sublime which speak to the impossibility of fully grasping this world. “Delight,” Darwin writes, “bewilders the mind.” The complexity of nature finds an analogue in the realm of history: how does the scientific writer negotiate the multiple and at times contradictory scales of history – that of the earth itself, of living species, of mankind, of nation states – that he is witnessing? Rather than forming a stable system of concentric and homologous narratives, these different scales intersect and interfere with each other. In particular, Duncan suggested, human history forms a barrier or blockage between Darwin’s local, individual experience on the voyage and the grand horizon of natural history.
Duncan went on to trace Darwin’s articulations of this problem. He showed how, in addition to evoking the lush complexity of a primeval forest, Darwin mined another version of the sublime, arising from the privation of the senses that landscapes like the desolate plains of Patagonia offered him. These scenes of a kind of “negative” sublime gripped Darwin and haunted his imagination in a way that provided opportunities for quiet contemplation after the fact. Duncan spun out a model of what Darwin called “negative possession” – less an intellectual ordering or aesthetic jubilation that placed the multiple registers of history in a human perspective than a cognitive apprehension of the “deep time” of the world that goes beyond the strictly anthropocentric. This apprehension opens up, in terms both Kantian and Wordsworthian, a “free scope of the imagination,” a reflection that does not finds its origins in the human mind but in the larger world.
Duncan closed his talk with a discussion of the way this enhanced cognitive frame conditions the pedagogic functions of Darwin’s works as he revised them for later editions. His point helped him to address the “sentimental and moral blind spot” in Darwin’s writing – his astonishment at and revulsion from the obscene spectacle of “man in his lowest and most savage state” in Tierra del Fuego. Duncan argued that Darwin casts the insurmountable difference between wild and civilized man less as a biological phenomenon than as a historical one. What Darwin intuited – and later recognized – was that the effect of obscenity attending the encounter belonged less to the Fuegians themselves than to his own “civilized” relationship to them.