George Levine's work over the past three decades has illuminated the Victorian period. Dr Sharon Ruston, University of Keele, sends this report of Professor Levine's recent lecture at the University of Leicester Centre for Victorian Studies.
George Levine gave a public lecture at the University of Leicester on 21st November, taken from his book Darwin Loves You, the title of which, he revealed, was originally inspired by a car bumper sticker. Levine’s lecture was incredibly well attended, attesting to Levine’s importance as a scholar and also the success of Leicester’s Victorian Studies MA, the first to be set up in the country, 40 years ago.
The irritation that led Levine to write Darwin Loves You mainly consisted of the widely-held belief that Darwin was a ‘disenchanter’, that his writings and discoveries by explaining all natural phenomena naturalistically reduced the world of its mystery and emptied it of all but utilitarian values. Instead, Levine, with Darwin, resounded with: ‘there is grandeur in this view of life’; Levine’s lecture and book attempt to show us that there is virtue and value in this world without need or recourse to the transcendental.
Following Robert Richard’s lead, Levine too finds that Darwin was a Romantic, influenced by Wordsworth and Shelley and appropriating the sublime in his attempts to describe Nature as an organism, not as a machine. In his writings, Levine showed that Darwin speaks as others, whether pea-hen or any other animal, using a Romantic sympathy to imagine himself in another’s position. Natural selection causes Darwin, in a moment of sublime encounter, to declare himself ‘struck dumb with amazement’, so that even as he begins to demystify the world he never ceases to wonder at it. Indeed, Levine’s own wonder at Darwin’s writing and at the natural world came across most strongly during the lecture, in his conviction that even a secular view can still enchant us.