Aug 28, 2011

Meaningful ghosts & Darwin's tragedy in Jon Amiel's 'Creation'

Creation, the Jon Amiel film about Charles Darwin's turmoil at the time he wrote On the Origins of Species, presents Darwin as a tragic figure. He is haunted, literally and figuaritvely, by night- and daymares. He hallucinates and dreams of his dead daughter throughout, both as she was in life, and as a pestering presence pushing him to finish writing his book.

He doesn't dream of her as actually dead, though. Under the ground, eaten by worms, etc.

This is curious because death, not the very Victorian hauntings of an absent child but the literal sort, the rot and "red in tooth and claw" relevant to the theory of random natural selection, is the more troubling specter haunting Darwin throughout Creation. The Darwin character is troubled by the death that is rampant in nature, that is deprived of any purpose when nature is nature not creation, not made sensible by being part of a plan. Darwin sees, dreams, imagines and theorizes death: a baby bird fallen from the nest, maggots feasting, a fox with his teeth in the neck of a rabbit, trout eggs eaten by the millions.

"Well," says the parson in Creation, "the Lord moves in mysterious ways."

"Yes he does, doesn't he?" says Darwin. "You know I was remarking only the other day how he has endowed us in all his blessed generosity with not one but 900 species of intestinal worm, each with its own unique method of ... burrowing through to the blood stream. And on the love he shows for the butterfly, by inventing a wasp that lays its eggs inside the living flesh of catapillars."

He has nightmares of this death he cannot domesticate with purpose.


There is no plan to this sort of tragedy, and that's the tragedy of it: it's stupid pointlessness. It refuses to be in service of something. It's just tragic, and there's no way to domesticate it.

Two set pieces, early on, argue for the futility of attempts at domestication. In the first, two aboriginal children are "Christianized," but, returned to their people in the company of a missionary after a visit to the British royals, they throw off their domestication and run naked back into their jungle island, leaving "civilization" scattered on the beach in frilly, cast-off clothes. In the second, an orangutan is captured, given the name Jenny, and taken to a zoo in England. The first orangutan in Britain, she too is clothed. Darwin visits her and communicates with her -- they touch, finger to finger, like in Michelangeo's "Creation" -- but then Jenny dies.

"Go on," Darwin's (dead) daughter says. "Tell me about the bit where she gets sick and dies."

"Why do you want to hear that bit?" Darwin says.

"I like it," she says.

We might well ask the same question of stories of Darwin: why do you want to hear that bit, about the tragedy? Why do we like it that way?

Creation presents Darwin himself as tragic, as do many of the re-tellings where Darwin is the hero. In these narratives where science is heroic and brave, victorious over superstition and willful ignorance, The Darwin character in these narratives fully faces the reality of nature. He is the first and we -- "we" being believers in science -- follow him and his example. He refuses heroically, in these re-tellings, to domesticate the reality of the tragedy of death with a story about a mysterious plan. He refuses teleological readings of tragedy. He is, in this, the "first begotten of the dead," to steal a phrase: the first to conceive of himself as a creature, as merely another iteration of the blind stupidity of random life and pointless death, but instead of recoiling he looks at it squarely. He doesn't deny. He doesn't make up a pretty lie, a fantasy or fairy tale to cover over the image of the truth that is in the end nothing more than an image of a pointlessly dead little girl.

He refuses to pretend there's a point, when there's only a dead girl.

He's heroic enough to "choose truth." Which means: to let tragedy just be tragedy.

So the story goes. Darwin the tragic. The hero, doomed, but the doom making him heroic, and him overcoming it in the end. Because there is this face-to-face with tragedy, he can choose not to turn away, and because he doesn't turn away, he triumphs. A hero of truth. But then, of course, that is the purpose and point and meaning of the tragedy.

Thus, in the narrative of science the victor, of Darwin the brave first, the tragedy is only that which must be overcome. It's a key part of the narrative. And -- reversed just so -- the tragedy is not tragedy anymore at all, but the obstacle which, defeated, makes Darwin the hero.

This isn't terribly different in narrative form from the apocryphal story of Darwin's death bed conversion, actually. In that story, too, the hero at the last moment overcomes the tragedy, triumphs over it, and the tragedy (though different in this case) is also, in this narrative, not just tragic, but part of the structure of the story, necessary to the narrative, the obstacle which must be triumphed over. What would the conversion be, if it hadn't been necessary in the first place?

The tragedy isn't, then, just tragic, horrible and without point. But is subsumed into a higher plan. Maybe a mysterious plan, but a plan. And the tragic isn't tragic, then, because it's only there as a hurdle for the hero.

In the film you see this subsuming when Darwin suffers from the illness biographers have called mysterious. The parson and those of faith say the suffering is the pangs of conscious, the manifestations of his internal struggle with God. It has meaning, and it's meaning is this fight he's having with God. The scientists in the film do the same thing, though: Thomas Henry Huxley says Darwin is making himself ill "in holding back,"as if the book, kept within, has poisoned him. He should "write and be done with it," according to Creation's Huxley, just "lance the boil, so to speak."

The film assents to this reading of the illness, depicting the illness as a manifestation of his struggle with the book. He shakes and sweats and vomits when he's in doubt about what he should do, but his health improves considerably when he really commits himself to writing.

Either way, the suffering has a point. It's meaningful.

Nowhere in the story, or in the stories internal to it, is their even an allowance of the idea that the illness is just an illness. That it has no significance, a sickness that's just sickness, not manifestation. That's not even possible, in the world of Creation. It can't be random. Natural. The blind stupidity, etc., etc.

The daughter's death is even more this way -- it is treated as if it's teleologically connected to the writing of Darwin's book, as if the girl's death makes sense because it helped make happen what had to happen. As if it was part of the plan, and that suffering was in this way meaningful in how it led to and resulted in On the Origin of Species. As if "all things work for the good," as they say. And all things do, in the stories. Because, there, there is a plan, a structure, a point. So, here the actual dead girl is buried away, out of sight, and instead another is imagined, a ghost girl, whose tragedy isn't tragic at all, as it has a purpose, a narrative function, is part of a plan whereby tragedy can be conquered.

She is dressed-up death, senseless suffering domesticated.

However tragic the tragedy is, the correct answer is still, "well, the narrator moves in mysterious ways."

The right answer always is: it's part of the story, needful, right, quite sensible in the sense of making the story a good story. The tragedy must be, so it can be overcome. Of course it has a purpose. Of course, a point. Of course, in the end, it's not just suffering, not just death and pain. It's for this higher good which we see as the narrative reaches resolution in the last few minutes of film.

The little girl in the story has to die.

In Creation, Darwin's a tragic figure, and he suffers tragedy. But he's put through it (and we're put through it) so that he might triumph. It ends well, with that triumph and overcoming, the tragedy put in it's rightful place, domesticated by the narrative to be something he, Darwin, could overcome. It's very serviceable tragedy. It has meaning, as the story comes to a close, and it's exactly as the parson says. It's necessary to the story, makes sense and has sense as the filmmaker moves in mysterious ways.

"Why do you want to hear that bit?" Darwin might ask us. "The tragedy?"

And we could say, because we like it.

But then, of course, we actually detour around the tragedy just as the movie itself does. Because the real tragedy haunting the hallucinating main character of this little film is that the tragic doesn't mean anything, doesn't actually matter. It isn't meaningful enough to actually be tragic. It just is. Illness is illness, death, death, suffering just the way things are. The "tragedy" is like layers of sediment, turned to the strata of rock. Like leaves decomposing. The fact that there's no point to it is exactly what's tragic about it.

But Creation bypasses this ghost in preference for others which, being more spirit, less rotting flesh, haunt considerably less.

This is why the most important image of this whole film -- this meditation on Darwin's anguish -- doesn't show up in the film at all: the image of the buried girl.

This is the nightmare he can't have, the too-real specter he replaces with a ghost girl, the corpse replaced by an illusion that can do what the dead can't. Which is, be meaningful and purposeful. Have a point, a telos.

We do see the death of Darwin's daughter, but only obliquely. We see him seeing maggots in a hole in the ground, a bird fall from the nest, trout eggs dying, and so on. Throughout, there are references to the most central image, as he studiously avoids the one hallucination, the one nightmare, the one fantasy which is so horrible it has to be suppressed, giving rise to all these other images. When we actually see the daughter, she's been dressed up, domesticated, "Christianized" for presentation in polite society, an illusion which quite nicely replaces the pointless stupidity of death.

Because, buried, the tragedy just tragedy, the girl just dead, without there being a meaning to be made of it, it would be too much to bear.

Given a purpose, a meaning, something to do, the pointless death can have a point, and the tragic meaninglessness of tragedy can be overcome with a purposeful ghost. Darwin and Amiel and viewer alike forget all about the dead girl under the ground and going off with the happy, dressed-up, very Victorian specter. The girl's dead so usefully, with a nice, narrative function, as part, as the parson would say, of a plan we can't question.

It's so much nicer to make there be a point.

In this way the tragedy isn't tragedy at all. The death can be accepted quite peacefully, accepted as necessary, as good, as part of a plan. The fantasy fits, covering over the void where tragic -- tragic because it meant nothing and could mean nothing -- once was. That which was tragic vanishes, here, tragic no more, which may, in the end, be the real empty horror of it all.