November 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

September's Colchicine column was very short,and so will this one be, in part because I am working document review hours and have no time for movies and little even for books. But there is another reason which now can be told: I have been reading the Orihgin of Species, notoriously heavy sledding, for almost two months.

What am amazing book. I rediscovered the idea at which I bogged down when I last tried to read it, fifteen or twenty years ago: Darwin describes a village in which cats control mice, which eat the honey of bees, which fertilize the flowers, so that the proliferation of certain flower species nearby is indirectly but tightly controlled by the cats. Trying to determine how much of the earth consists of certain kinds of geological formations, Darwin cuts up a map and weighs the shreds. I have a vision of a brilliant, eccentric old white-bearded man working with his map, scale and scissors while people bustle around him, setting the table for dinner or folding laundry. "What's he doing then?" answered by, "Whatever it is he ever does." His logic is impeccable, his viosn of life grand and encompassing; a man so brilliant, so avid of knowledge, that to better understand the nature of speciation, he went out and learned all about the geological strata of the earth as well. His prose is only difficult because filled with Latin names of animals and other specialized vocabulary. Here is an example from the last page of the book of Darwin exercising some poetry of phrase: "Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows." Then, I find myself thinking how remarkable it is that Darwin, with his cool receptiveness to information, his drive and fascination with the linking of facts, existed on the same planet and was even a member of the same species as Rick Perry, the ignorant blowhard whose unfounded moral certainty transforms into great cruelty. Perry calls evolution just a theory which is "out there", and incorrectly told a school child at a campaign rally that creationism is taught in the public schools of his state. Then I had a more frightening thought still: in the internal struggle within the human species, as to which variation is more suited to survive our current circumstances, who triumphs, Darwin or Perry? However, Perry denies global warming, and most of the other immense dangers we are facing, and that does not seem to me what Dawkins terms an "evolutionary successful strategy".

I read another book on my phone, Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier. The epitome of the "unreliable narrator", I expected his protagonist to be a liar, but instead he is a self-deceived man, whose view of the people around him-- his wife of twelve years, and the couple who are their closest friends--fluctuates like Schrodinger's cat. His wife is faithless, as is the friend he most admires; the other wife is simultaneously a warm and cultured sophisticate, and a cruel shrew; the cheating husband, the "good soldier" of the title, is at once a seducer and a victim. Despite, or paradoxically, because of, the difficulties of settling down to the truth, the novel has a satisfying click. By the time it ends, you are ready, along with the narrator, to stop asking questions.