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  • The Entangled Eye: Visual Perception and the Representation of Nature in Post-Darwinian Narrative
  • Gary Willingham-McLain
James Krasner. The Entangled Eye: Visual Perception and the Representation of Nature in Post-Darwinian Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 191 pp. $35.00, cloth.

After Darwin, narratives represented nature with a new exteriority. After Darwin, human vision became part of the nature it observed and narratives therefore appropriated natural landscapes into a new interiority. Embracing these conflicting "naturist" and "modernist" readings of Darwin's influence, James Krasner argues that although post-Darwinian representations do not reduce landscape to metaphor, "narrative portrayals of nature become portrayals of the perception of nature in which the limitations of visual perception determine the structure of the representation."

Krasner clearly focuses his own literary object. His topic is "narrative renditions of single acts of perception," and to examine these acts he invents a "narrative eye." Defined as "a perceptual organ with certain powers and characteristics" that is "located relative to the fictional landscape," this narcological idea yields precise analyses of ways in which authors let readers see, in a newly physical sense, textualized nature.

Romantics and Victorians, for example, often thematized the difficulties of observation, and yet their texts' narrative eyes visualized natural detail with an omniscient confidence. Juxtaposing complex developments in visual perception theory to those in narrative vision throughout his study, Krasner shows that, by contrast, Darwin's perceptual practice was strictly empiricist in its exhibition of the constructive process involved in its own seeing. Darwin's empirically constructing forms out of fragments, furthermore, envisions a "prodigality of form" in nature; ironically, Darwin used limited "entangled" vision and "optical failure" to present an expansive nature.

Whereas empiricism had the eye constructing forms out of fragments, nativist theories on the other hand subscribed to a stable correspondence between external events and "brain events." Post-Darwinian writers and perception theorists embraced Darwinian limited vision, yet reacted against an empiricism that "emphasized the fragmentation and disorganization of wholes into parts and the consequent multiplication of formal variety." "In both cases," Krasner continues, "their responses involve ways of seeing that regularize perceived form and interiorize the natural landscape." In his excellent readings of literary and scientific texts, Krasner documents the [End Page 203] complexities of this process. Thus Hardy's "selective vision" typically sees a few well-defined forms—not Darwin's "edgeless, fluid forms" and endless multiples—and groups visual phenomena around a central human figure. Similarly, the imperialistic vision of Wallace, Tomlinson, and Conrad uses the eurocentric familiar to reduce the heterogeneity of the foreign and unfamiliar. The last chapter takes representations further away from Darwin's world of "dynamic forms" into the "formless dynamism" of field theory and energy physics. The writings of Jeffries, Hudson, and Lawrence represent nature as fields of motion, color, and energy.

The Entangled Eye portrays the departures from Darwin's celebration of nature's otherness as a kind of fall, or retreat, into the nativistically familiar. Nativism "diminishes" nature's abundance and variety. The epilogue's elegiac mood, in fact, suggests extending this book's narrative to its own postmodernist context. If postmodernism has gone further down the road of reflexivity mapped out here, it has also negotiated a return, of sorts, to the Darwinian celebration of otherness and variation against which modernism often reacted.

Gary Willingham-McLain
Carnegie Mellon University


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pp. 203-204
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