A lib­eral dou­ble act

Jose Borgh­ino

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

TWO hun­dred years ago, on Fe­bru­ary 12, 1809, on dif­fer­ent sides of the At­lantic, two boys were born whose lives would change the po­lit­i­cal, spir­i­tual and in­tel­lec­tual his­tory of the planet. One would rise from poverty to un­prece­dented power, be­come a na­tional hero and then die vi­o­lently at the hands of an as­sas­sin; the other, born to ease, would be a dis­ap­point­ment to his fa­ther, travel the world and come up with one of the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas in hu­man his­tory, be­fore dy­ing qui­etly of old age in the English coun­try­side.

The boys were Abra­ham Lin­coln and Charles Dar­win, re­spec­tively, and the co­in­ci­dence of their birth dates is the bur­den and pre­text of Adam Gop­nik’s Angels and Ages .

Gop­nik is a reg­u­lar cul­tural critic and staff writer for The New Yorker mag­a­zine and has pub­lished a cou­ple of great books — Paris to the Moon and Through the Chil­dren’s Gate — both of which, like Angels and Ages , were largely com­prised of sto­ries writ­ten orig­i­nally for The New Yorker .

The ti­tle of this lat­est book comes from the dis­pute over what was said at Lin­coln’s deathbed. On April 15, 1865, af­ter the 16th pres­i­dent of the US was pro­nounced dead from a bul­let wound to the head, a prayer was said by the fam­ily min­is­ter. Then Lin­coln’s sec­re­tary of war, the for­mi­da­ble Ed­win Stan­ton, broke down and said, ‘‘ Now he be­longs to the angels.’’

Ex­cept that some peo­ple heard him say not ‘‘ angels’’ but ‘‘ ages’’.

The im­por­tance of the dis­tinc­tion for Gop­nik is that Lin­coln was a re­li­gious doubter, if not openly ag­nos­tic, and the word angels rel­e­gates him to a more con­ven­tional, the­is­tic apoth­e­o­sis. It would be more con­ve­nient for Gop­nik if the word used had been ages: im­ply­ing as it does that the old sa­cred mea­sures of a per­son’s worth were be­ing re­placed by more sec­u­lar ones, such as their place in his­tory.

For Gop­nik, Lin­coln’s po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, his method of metic­u­lous, le­gal­is­tic ar­gu­ment and his Shake­spearean gift for in­spi­ra­tional speeches en­cap­su­lates the mo­ment when a newly evolved species called ‘‘ repub­li­can democ­racy’’ be­comes vi­able and be­gins its march to be­com­ing the dom­i­nant form of gov­ern­ment for what we now call the West.

Sim­i­larly, Gop­nik ar­gues that the pub­li­ca­tion in 1859 of Dar­win’s best­seller, On the Ori­gin of Species , raises the sec­ond pil­lar of the lib­eral bour­geois as­cen­dancy: the pri­macy and au­thor­ity of sci­ence over re­li­gion as a way of ex­plain­ing hu­man­ity’s place in the uni­verse.

The stakes are high, as Gop­nik ex­plains: ‘‘ Dar­win and Lin­coln were mak­ers and wit­nesses of the great change that, for good or ill, marks mod­ern times: the slow emer­gence from a cul­ture of faith and fear to one of ob­ser­va­tion and ar­gu­ment, and from be­lief in the judg­ment of divin­ity to a be­lief in the ver­dicts of his­tory and time.’’

Pre­dictably in a book by a pro­fes­sional writer, much of Angels and Ages fo­cuses on the writerly skills of Lin­coln and Dar­win. Gop­nik ar­gues that his two sub­jects are em­blem­atic of a new lib­eral as­cen­dancy and that they ‘‘ mat­ter most be­cause they wrote so well’’.

Lin­coln’s abil­ity to turn a po­lit­i­cal phrase is al­most a cliche, re­ac­ti­vated to­day by the le­gion of com­men­ta­tors fall­ing over them­selves to anoint Barack Obama his 21st-cen­tury rhetor­i­cal avatar as well as his pres­i­den­tial suc­ces­sor.

What is more sur­pris­ing is Gop­nik’s treat­ment of Dar­win: the nat­u­ral­ist’s prose is com­pared favourably with that of Ge­orge Eliot, An­thony Trol­lope, Lewis Car­roll and Charles Dick­ens.

For Gop­nik, words mat­ter, and he ad­mires Lin­coln and Dar­win for the metic­u­lous care they take with their writ­ing. For him, it’s not about dec­o­ra­tive lan­guage but about the essence of lib­eral civil­i­sa­tion: ‘‘ Writ­ing well isn’t just a ques­tion of win­some ex­pres­sion but of hav­ing found some­thing big and true to say and hav­ing found the right words to say it in . . . Good writ­ing is mostly good see­ing and good think­ing, too.’’ ( Maybe some­one can ex­plain this to those politi­cians in Can­berra who seem to be­lieve that el­e­gant speeches are some­how un-Aus­tralian.)

Gop­nik’s fo­cus on the rise of lib­eral civil­i­sa­tion in the 19th cen­tury and its em­bod­i­ment in the rhetoric of Lin­coln and Dar­win makes a lot of sense. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy and the free flow of sci­en­tific ideas have un­doubt­edly re­in­forced and un­der­pinned the rise of the West in the past 200 years. And World War I, World War II and even the fall of the Soviet Union might be read as the process of re­mov­ing the last ves­tiges of the pre-mod­ern world.

How­ever, it’s in th­ese, his most tri­umphal­ist mo­ments, that Gop­nik is most vul­ner­a­ble. Sev­eral times he makes pass­ing com­ments on how the bour­geois lib­eral as­cen­dancy ( so neatly bound up by Lin­coln and Dar­win’s rhetoric) has out­lived Marx and Freud and many other so­cial mod­els. But he’s strangely si­lent on the crit­i­cal po­si­tion that China oc­cu­pies now.

Gop­nik pub­lished in 2006 and 2007 the orig­i­nal es­says for The New Yorker that be­came this book, so it would be un­fair to ex­pect any­thing about last year’s Wall Street crash or the sub­prime cri­sis or the global eco­nomic melt­down, but China’s as­ton­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion has been a story for more than a decade.

What do Lin­coln and Dar­win have to say to China? Gop­nik has no an­swer.

In­stead, he re­mains comfortable telling us, the rad­i­cal-chic elite who read this kind of high-end lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, what we want to hear: that all’s well with lib­eral civil­i­sa­tion and that we are the heirs to two moral and in­tel­lec­tual giants.

The weak­est part of the book, the end, reads as though it has been stitched on to tail the orig­i­nal es­says. Gop­nik tries to rec­on­cile the pro­foundly con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious cul­ture of mod­ern mid­dle Amer­ica with the, at best, ag­nos­tic or scep­ti­cal Lin­coln and the rad­i­cally athe­is­tic Dar­win. It’s at such mo­ments one re­alises that the we ad­dressed through­out the book should not be as­sumed to in­clude all of us all of the time. Jose Borgh­ino lec­tures in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

A way with words: Abra­ham Lin­coln

Pri­macy of sci­ence: Charles Dar­win

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