- How The Mule Got Its Tale: Moretti’s Darwinian Bricolage
1. Darwinian Preliminaries
1805: Cousin de Grainville, Le dernier homme. A world in which humans have displaced the oceans dies from ecological exhaustion. 1836: Louis Geoffroy, Napoléon et la conquête du monde. A history in which Napoleon wins at Waterloo and becomes emperor of the world. 1854: Charlemagne-Ischir Defontenay, Star ou Psi de Cassiopée. A distant planetary system filled with its own mythologies, histories and migration patterns. . . . A litany of lost names and titles: dead, discarded, ignored, out of print, reduced to pulp and brief entries in reference books, known only to experts specializing in early French science fiction. Cut off from each other with little sense of coherence or continuity, two generations of writers had been probing the many possibilities of a new literary form, some of them in highly imaginative ways, but nobody could have foretold the fate of what Félix Bodin had named littérature futuriste. Suddenly, the literary equivalent of a mass extinction wiped out a broad spectrum of conjectural imaginations. Did they deserve their fate? Wrong question. Who is to blame for their disappearance? Cui bono? The prime suspect, no doubt, is Jules Verne. “It was as if SF had for sixty years sought in vain for an institutional ‘landing point,’” surmises Marc Angenot, before pointing out that Verne’s success coincided with, indeed was based on, the repression of a wide array of promising alternatives . Displaying that jovial bluntness which in his days passed for commendable virility, he extracted certain formal features from his environment, eliminated the rest, and engineered his selections into a highly marketable literary model. A lot began with Verne, but a lot ended with him, too.
At the outset a rapidly emerging set of random and undirected variations opens up a multiplicity of future possibilities; then a choice is made, a selection that locks in one particular variant while locking out the competition. Subsequently, a winner—who need not be the best or most promising candidate, but who by virtue of his selection manages to impose definite constraints on future developments—spawns a tradition that coasts along until another crisis is heralded by yet another round of proliferation and selection. Readers familiar with Franco Moretti’s work will recognize this Darwinian scenario, which provides the theoretical backbone for his analyses. In the programmatic essay “On Literary Evolution” in the revised edition of Signs Taken for Wonders, it allows him to whittle down the development of the European novel from its experimental phase in the eighteenth century to the victory of the Bildungsroman in the nineteenth century and its subsequent disintegration to what must be the shortest account of the history of the novel ever written: “Novels/novel/novels” . In The Way of the World it helps explain how it was possible for the Bildungsroman “to emerge victorious from that veritable ‘struggle for existence’ between various narrative forms that took place at the [End Page 18] turn of the eighteenth century” . Modern Epic, in turn, uses the Darwinian model to plot the evolution of the hybrid genre announced in its title, while Atlas of the European Novel explains the morphological change novels undergo when they move from one space to another. But why Darwin? Or, since “Darwin” means many different things to many different Darwinists: why this punctuated, nongradualist, highly contingency-tolerant Gouldian Darwin? How much do we gain by applying the proliferation/lock-in sequence to the development of devices, texts, and genres? What motivates the optimism that the Darwinian paradigm may “help us to explain in a new—and better—way numerous questions that literary history has never succeeded in resolving satisfactorily”? [ME 5].
But then why raise these arcane questions? Surely, Moretti’s books center on more relevant issues. Atlas is about space—and given the current critical focus on space, what more timely topic could there be? And what more obvious criticism than...