Because of my reading of E.O. Wilson and Frederick Turner this year, I’ve begun to look at the series So Are You To My Thoughts differently. I found the form for it seven or eight years ago, but I didn’t know what I was doing. The books don’t feel like novels, but they are fiction, a kind of family saga. Looking at them through an anthropological and evolutionary lens, however, helps me make sense of them.
Wilson is a prolific writer who is still making major contributions. In this brief interview, he discusses how little we still know about the world and how the extinctions which are going on in the natural world may affect us. He writes that science and the humanities must come together, that neither is complete without the other. He shows how empiricism destroys “the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the center of the universe in order to serve as the summit of Creation” [Consilience, published 1998].
I was thrilled to find that Wilson doesn’t think the post-modern turn literature has taken of much value. When he quoted the poet and professor Frederick Turner, I immediately went out and found the only book by Turner I could get my hands on, Epic: Form, Content, History [published 2012].
Turner was raised in Africa, the son of anthropologists. He believes the current culture is trying to break out of social and political fallacies that proclaimed authority over human life. In literature, art, music and architecture, the mediums of production became fetishized, turning a spiritual gift into “a work of art, a collector’s item, a connoisseur’s pleasure, a critic’s meat, a statement of the most recent and ‘novel’ frame of reference and model for fashionable behavior.” He sees epic, the story of human evolution, as the solution. “It is story that opens up the world, that truly represents the world as branchy, free and full of surprises.” You can get a glimpse of Turner’s wilder side here.
All of this has helped me see the work of my series So Are You To My Thoughts with new eyes. I had no idea, for instance, that my books are about “exogamy,” the attempt of Line, Marty and Paul to find mates far from their kin-group. They are stories of growth, in which the siblings negotiate the need to find employment and build families of their own in precise social environments not known before their time. Though some of them do not have children, their altruism helps their relatives to pass on their genes.
I don’t expect that thinking about these things will change my work very much. When I started, I imagined how plants in a garden, given good soil, plenty of rain and sunshine, still bloom in very different ways, depending on their inherited color, leaf structure, height and type of bloom. No one of my three intertwined characters is privileged over the other. Line hopes to do good in the world, Marty wants most to make beauty and Paul is dedicated to truth. Do they succeed? Do they become more integrated and productive as they grow older? And what of their parents and children? And the places they call home?
People are not as complex as we make ourselves out to be. As Wilson says, early humans invented the arts to express and control aspects of the environment “that mattered most to survival and reproduction. … The arts still perform this primal function, and in much the same ancient way. Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature.”