A liberal double act
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