Heraclitean Fire — ‘Erasmus Darwin’ by Desmond King-Hele


I’m sitting in New York City, enjoying the Culture, thinking about my so-called career (which has plumped most of the time for jobs which pay me a monthly salary, complete with other necessities, like health insurance), thinking about writing, thinking about getting serious and stopping this dabbling, and then I read this review, by Harry.

Heraclitean Fire — ‘Erasmus Darwin’ by Desmond King-Hele

Read it. It’s worth it. Trust me on this one.The bit that really struck me was this. Erasmus Darwin was Charles’ grandfather, a doctor and a genius. Nobody’s really heard of him. The reason nobody’s really heard of him was that he took his job — his doctoring, his service to other people, seriously. So seriously that the genius became a hobby, something he did on the side.

Harry puts it this way:

erasmus-darwin.jpgEven so, there’s a touch of defiance in the book’s full title: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. That’s because almost everything on that list comes with a caveat of one kind or another. For example, many of them are based on a few lines or a quick sketch appearing in his Commonplace Book or in one of his letters; and while it’s undoubtedly takes a remarkably inventive mind to come up with the principle for the gas turbine a hundred years ahead of its time, if it never gets beyond a quick scribble it’s a very limited achievement. Another example is his improved steering system, which worked by just angling the wheels left and right instead of turning the whole axle. This creates a much more stable carriage and is the principle used by all modern cars. Darwin built a carriage on this model, and used it successfully for decades going over thousands of miles of bumpy roads to visit his patients; but he never made a real effort to market the idea and it died with him.Which isn’t to say he had nothing to show for his scientific brilliance. He submitted quite a few papers to the Royal Society on subjects like meteorology and geology; he did the first English translation of Linnaeus, and wrote a major book on medicine. But there is no one major achievement you can attach his name to. Partly that’s because he was a very hard-working doctor. Not only did it take up a lot of time; he was also very worried about his professional reputation. Much of his work was published anonymously because he didn’t want to detract from that reputation, and the biggest single factor that prevented him from achieving more as a scientist was probably that he always put his career first.

And this:

If Erasmus hadn’t had to work, who knows what he would have achieved. His medical practice certainly proves he was capable of hard work; his calculations suggest he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, which on C18th roads is a hell of a long way.

Harry points out that Charles may not have been as brilliant as his grandfather, after all. His grandfather was the one who thought up the theory of evolution; Charles was the one who put it to the test. As Harry says:

Comparisons between Erasmus and Charles are inevitable, and it’s tempting to put the difference between them down to personality: to suggest that Charles was less brilliant but made up for it with dogged single-mindedness.

But (as Harry observes) there’s this other thing. Erasmus was in a way sacrificing his genius for service, and at the same time laying a foundation, paving a way for his grandson to make the history he allowed to slip by him. He was a very successful doctor, and made enough money to establish his son enough so that by the time his grandson came along Charles was rich enough to be single-minded:

Personally I think the financial aspect is just as important. Erasmus and his son Robert were both highly successful doctors and Robert also had a very good eye for investments, with the result that Charles was a wealthy man.

There was another thing, too; presumably Erasmus Darwin’s choice wasn’t only about the money. He spent enough time on the road to suggest that he took his calling seriously as well; helping people, doctoring, was as important to him as the stuff that was going on in his head.

Now. There are many similarities between 18th century Britain and my country, The Bahamas. (I was going to say the 20th century Caribbean, but I realized (a) that we’re pretty eight years into a new century, and (b) that I’m really only talking about one place in the Caribbean, mine). When I was a student, I found that twentieth century literature, once I got past the modernists, bored the stuffing out of me. The things they were struggling with seemed chimerical. Who cared if western civilization was eating itself, crumbling like all decadent civilizations around its members? From my perspective, so much the better for it (sorry). Nineteenth century literature came in two flavours: the one I liked, the Romantics, who were really eighteenth century babies writing the new century into being anyway, and the one I didn’t, the Victorians, who were rigid and stuffy and worried out of their gourds about all sortsof things, like how to manage the responsibility for owning the whole world, and for destroying all the foundations on which that ownership had been established. I found their angst rather pathetic, to tell the truth, and it didn’t give rise to either great poetry or great theatre (sorry again; I think that Victorian poets were very good, but not luminous, like their predecessors, and dramatists were non-existent till Shaw and Wilde rescued them from their stuffiness), though the novelists had a field day.

But the 18th century –!

Okay, so I didn’t get into the poets. Pope and Dryden took themselves, to my mind, too seriously with those effing couplets. (I may be of a different opinion now). The playwrights, too, were a little, well, mannered. (I have never been one for drawing-room comedies and farces, though there is a place for them — Moliere and Coward come to mind). But the essayists, and those inventors of the novel, those people playing around with the printing press and coming up with all sorts of rule-bending (and rule-setting) solutions — those multi-talented men, those self-publishers, those satirists — they spoke to me.

When I was a student, I decided that it wasn’t because one set was better than another. It was because the things that were going on in eighteenth century England, Scotland and Ireland were pretty close to what was going on in late twentieth century Bahamas. There were issues, specially in Scotland and Ireland, where the fun novels came from (Swift’s and Sterne’s and Hogg’s novels are satirical masterpieces) of sovereignty and identity and questions about transitions from one kind of communication to another, issues that rang true to me. All the people in public life knew one another, and not in a superficial, bowler hat way; they ate at each other’s houses and knew all the dirt about them. Issues had personal casts and biases, and people didn’t try to hide that fact. Abstractions had concrete roots.

And individual professionals — doctors, lawyers, people of the middle and upper middle classes — were finding for themselves a space to be.So I understand what pressures were faced by Erasmus Darwin. He may not have had the option of being single-minded; his society and his position in it may not have allowed it. At the same time, there is a sense of obligation to other people that a man like him may have also felt — a sense of from-whom-much-is-given-much-is-demanded-ness, that is certainly active in my own context. The issues may have been financial; but they may have also been moral. To dedicate oneself to singlemindedness is a selfish act, in the final analysis, when there are so many others who don’t have the option to do so.

It’s a dilemma I’m facing now, and it’s a dilemma that will be solved by the principle of how many people ultimately benefit from my personal/private choice. A strange consideration for the twenty-first century, but nevertheless relevant to me.

Thanks, Harry, for the link, and for the thought.

3 thoughts on “Heraclitean Fire — ‘Erasmus Darwin’ by Desmond King-Hele

  1. Glad you liked it.

    I wouldn’t want to suggest that Charles Darwin was a complete plodder, intellectually. He doesn’t seem to have made such a dazzling impression on people who met him, though. Coleridge described E.D. as ‘wonderfully entertaining and instructive’ despite not being a fan of his poetry.

  2. Erasmus Darwin’s grandson (and Charles Darwin’s half-cousin), Sir Francis Galton was also a genius:

    He created the statistical concept of correlation and widely promoted regression toward the mean. He was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities, which he needed for genealogical and biographical works and for his anthropometric studies. He was a pioneer in eugenics, coining the very term itself and the phrase “nature versus nurture”. As an investigator of the human mind, he founded psychometrics (the science of measuring mental faculties) and differential psychology. He devised a method for classifying fingerprints that proved useful in forensic science. As the initiator of scientific meteorology, he devised the first weather map, proposed a theory of anticyclones, and was the first to establish a complete record of short-term climatic phenomena on a European scale.[1] He also invented the Galton Whistle for testing differential hearing ability.
    Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Galton

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