So, some scientists have found, based on a questionnaire about whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth and Heathcliff are nice or nasty, that novels are “not just by-products of evolutionary adaptation,” but actually “continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way,” especially Victorian novels, which “have a function that continues to contribute to the quality and structure of group life.”
This makes me sick. If I believed that, I would stop writing immediately.
It’s amazing how this particular Platonic error of interpretation about literature persists, century after century – how we keep trying to find justifications for literature which somehow make it contribute to the social good. Literature is good for religion, good for politics, good for philosophy, good for science – now it has to be good for evolution?
Literature is not “good” for anything except being itself. Poetry makes nothing happen. The Victorian novelists were writing against the social order as much as within it, and the fact that their characters reflect facets of that social order does not mean that the novels helped bolster it.
No one can predict who will be inspired to do what by a work of art. The same books and the same music have been inspiring to both pacifists and murderers. The other side of this argument about Victorian novels leading to a better society is that old familiar one about Marilyn Manson being responsible for Columbine. We have to take responsibility for our own actions and stop blaming (or crediting) the books, the music, the art.
This is the first time in my life that I have found myself arguing on the opposite side of the fence as an evolutionary scientist.