George Levine, Realism, Ethics and Secularism

George Levine, Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science (Cambridge: CUP, 2008). ix+283 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 0-521-88526-3.

In Realism, Ethics and Secularism, George Levine reaffirms once again his position as one of the most thoughtful and relevant critics working on literature and science over the last thirty years. (For my review of Levine’s last book, see Darwin Loves You.) A collection of essays on related themes, mostly within Victorian literature and culture, Realism, Ethics and Secularism is extraordinarily learned. Levine moves effortlessly among the full range of Victorian fiction and non-fiction, even as he responds, always courteously and judiciously, to the arguments of contemporary literary critics, philosophers, scientists and historians. Yet for all his learning, Levine’s own style is never exclusive. Instead he writes with an accessible if careful voice, with a high seriousness that in the best Victorian tradition (which Levine himself happily embraces) is neither humourless nor sententious.

Alongside his immense learning and consistent clarity, Levine’s great strength as a critic in these essays is his willingness to take his Victorian subjects seriously, and to draw out the persistent importance of the debates in which they engaged. As he writes in his preface:

I am, throughout this book, more or less unabashedly committed to representing Victorian views literally, and sympathetically, and committed as well to addressing contemporary implications of these great Victorian issues for secularism, for the idea of objectivity, for our sense of the ideological complicity of literature, and for the way our culture thinks about science and religion. (ix)

Levine’s cognisance of the relevance of the Victorians and their concerns to current debates draws out the persistence of those debates themselves. In effect, he treats his texts and authors as both a historicist critic, always aware of specific cultural contexts and codes, and as a philosopher, making the effort to grasp afresh the thought-processes that led particular thinkers to particular conclusions, and probing the validity of those conclusions themselves.

Realism, Ethics and Secularism is a book of essays that were originally conceived separately from one another. Levine is able to avoid the risks of disjointedness and repetition that can stem from this form of compilation because, as he notes, the essays themselves ‘constitute a set of related explorations’ (ix). As it is, the essays work effectively both individually and collectively. After the preface and introduction, the book is divided into three sections. The first section, ‘The Subject Broached: Otherness, Epistemology, and Ethics’, is itself introductory, as its title acknowledges. Rather than setting out these themes in general terms however, as the introduction proper does, the one chapter that comprises this section is a case study of George Eliot as an exemplary secular realist novelist informed by and allied to the self-conscious empiricism represented here by her common-law husband G. H. Lewes. In this essay, Levine successfully reaffirms against a hostile and simplistic scepticism Eliot’s commitment to ‘disciplined, impersonal investigation and compassion’ (35). For Levine, Eliot’s realism in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda cannot be dismissed as a set of structures that assert their claim to truth in order to sustain preconceived values. Rather, it embodies a repeated process of forming and testing hypotheses which struggle towards ‘an ideal of coherence and meaning’ (35) even as they admit their own inevitable provisionality. In Eliot’s novels, this project is intimately linked, as Levine persuasively argues, to Eliot’s other key struggle, ‘to enter into the realities, the consciousnesses of a wide range of diverse and often antipathetic figures’ (26).

The second section is the one most overtly concerned with science itself. The first four chapters of this section revisit the contested and disputed clash between naturalist science on the one side and the voices of religion and ‘culture’ on the other. These chapters complement the discussion of disenchantment in Levine’s previous book, Darwin Loves You. In Chapters 2 and 3, Levine addresses the issues from the perspective of the opponents of naturalism, men such as W. H. Mallock and John Ruskin, for whom life in a purely material world was not worth living. As Levine explains, the ‘famous Victorian “crisis of faith” largely put beyond the emotional range of many intellectuals the possibility that the loss of religion need not be accompanied with a loss of a sense of meaning and direction in their lives’ (74). In Chapters 4 and 5, Levine re-examines some of those for whom science was able to provide that sense of meaning. Locking horns with Frank Turner, he defends first the scientific naturalists and then the positivists from the charge of, in Turner’s words, ‘existential, intellectual, and moral bankruptcy’. As Levine remarks:

That is a hard pill to swallow for someone who has read Huxley and Tyndall and Clifford with a sense of their extraordinary moral energy, with delight at the lucidity with which they expounded the new science, with admiration for their breadth of culture, and with, I must confess, considerable pleasure at the way they were able to slay some of their more retrograde antagonists. (105)

Levine’s discussions of Mallock and Ruskin on the one hand and of Huxley et al on the other are exemplary. He is at once honest about where his own sympathies lie and rigorous in giving all sides a fair and yet not indulgent hearing. His rationale for re-examining the debate itself is premised on the sound view that the effort to understand the Victorians on their own terms is the best way to educate ourselves in the risks we ourselves run if we accept too readily the binary set out by Mallock whereby a purely material world is a world emptied of any source of meaning.

Chapter 6, ‘Why science isn’t literature: the importance of differences’, is an implicit reply to critics such as Joseph Carroll and John Cartwright who have tended to read Levine’s work from the 1980s as asserting the post-structuralist position that science is a mode of discourse as open to linguistic and textual analysis as any other. Wherever Levine stood twenty years ago, it is clear that he does not take this line today. In this important and eminently level-headed essay, Levine enunciates many of the palpable differences between science and literature—literature resists systemization, scientists are not primarily involved in the production of texts, the ‘brute evidences’ of the effects of ‘scientists’ manipulations of “nature”’ (179), and so on—without giving up the ‘sense of radical historical contingency’ (181) that literary theory has rightly brought to our understanding of science’s place in culture. Following Donna Haraway, he argues that we need to combine the critical scrutiny of any given culture’s claims to objectivity in its science without presupposing that all such claims are necessarily bogus. In so doing, we can understand literature itself better, by considering ‘what could be that hard unaccommodating actual to which writers like George Eliot and Henry James felt the need to defer’ (176). We can also hope to move towards what Haraway calls a ‘faithful account of a ‘real’ world’, ‘a task that only science and literature together can achieve’ as Levine sees it (181).

The third section of Levine’s book is concerned with the workings of realist fiction, in particular its intrinsic (if not exclusive or consistent) secularity. Chapter 7 and 8 ground their discussion in Vanity Fair and Little Dorrit in particular, but their overall reach and resonance is much wider, making for one of the most suggestive and incisive introductions to this vast topic. Chapter 9, ‘The heartbeat of the squirrel’, is a brief but fascinating discussion of the place of animals and animal consciousness within realist fiction. In Darwin Loves You, Levine argues for Darwin’s anthropomorphism as a counterweight to anthropocentricism and as a source of re-enchantment. There, such anthropomorphism is a not illogical corollary of Darwin’s realisation that we are animals ourselves, by nature as well as by kind. Here, Levine argues that animal consciousness is always beyond reach, Darwin’s approach notwithstanding. It thus comes to stand at the very boundary of the realist project of comprehending the minds of others. Returning to Thomas Nagel’s famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Levine focuses our attention on animals in fiction who are not reducible to ciphers or symbols, whose ultimate difference is registered within the texts themselves. Finding Victorian fiction largely unable to accommodate the unaccommodated animal, he turns to Melville, Faulkner and (in Chapter 10, which of all the essays comes closest to being an outlier) Coetzee. Most strikingly, he returns at the end of this essay to Victorian fiction after all, finding in Heathcliff the closest approximation to ‘the wildly non-human energies of animals’ (258). It is a characteristically brilliant insight, at once startling in its originality and grounded in a long critical tradition which is rejuvenated at a stroke.

It is hard to imagine a better introduction to scholarship in literature and science today and to its wider significance than Realism, Ethics and Secularism. At the same time, Levine’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of Victorian culture and realist fiction. Finally, it is a model of literary criticism itself. On all of these grounds, it deserves to be read widely and deeply.

John Holmes, University of Reading