Book Review: Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories by Adam Phillips

2013 jpbohannon

2013 jpbohannon

Adam Phillips begins his small book Darwin’s Worms with a story about the composer John Cage. Cage had attended a concert by a friend. In the program notes to the concert the friend had written that he hoped in some small way that his music helps to ease some of the suffering in our modern world. When Cage criticized this desire, the friend asked him if he didn’t think there was too much suffering in the world. “No,” replied Cage. “I think there is just the right amount.”

And so, Phillips writes, it is to remind us of and reconcile us to the fact that the amount of suffering in life is just the right amount that we turn to Darwin and Freud.

Darwin was very aware of the suffering in the natural world. Anticipating Freud on one level, he saw all organisms in a war for survival, thrust forward by an instinct to regenerate, adapting continually to a constantly changing environments. While the rest of his society were arguing, debating, proselytizing what it believed were the weightier implications of Darwin’s observations, Darwin studied the lowly earthworm, understanding its importance in the life of nature and, in turn, our own, (which he would argue is part of nature and not separate from). Flipping the usual symbolism on its head, removing the lowly worm from man’s symbolic last meal (“not where he eats, but where he is eaten”) and placing it at the continual meal that is life, Darwin points out that worms function in nature like plows, turning over soil and creating the soft and germinating loam that we take as the earth’s surface. As they struggle to survive (and “struggle” and “survival” are both key words in Darwin and Freud’s lexicon), worms leave behind shards of the past–that which they cannot digest–and form suitable soil for the plants that will provide for their future. Darwin states that:

“…it would be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms.” That is a very large contribution to life on earth, powered simply by the worm’s instinctual drive to survive.

Later, Freud elaborated this drive, this instinct to survive and coupled it with its antithesis, the death instinct. At first, he termed them simply, the life instinct and the death instinct. Ultimately, he gave it the poetic designation of “Eros and Thanatos.” The life instinct is easy to understand. Man is driven to survive and to propagate. (“To be or not to be” becomes “to survive or not to be.”) The latter, however, the death instinct is a bit more difficult to get one’s head around. Freud believes that in the struggle to survive man also has a desire to cease that struggle–to stop the pain, if you will. However, the desire, says Freud, is also to be in control of that death. To make it part of one’s life story.

Later in the book, Phillips gives us passages from two separate biographies (“life stories”) of Freud. Both describe the same scene, Freud’s death (“death stories”). The scenes themselves are poignant, but what Phillips does with the passages is telling. In it, he shows Freud “controlling his death” the way that he thought all humans desired. In a way, it is a heroic portrait and an affirmation of Freud’s theories.

As Phillips concludes, in their work, both Freud and Darwin “ask us to believe in the permanence only of change and uncertainty… . to describe ourselves from nature’s point of view; but in the full knowledge that nature, by (their) definition, doesn’t have one.” In an work that analyzes mortality, death, and loss, Darwin’s Worms is a surprisingly upbeat and reassuring view of the world.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Freud famously said that there are no such things as coincidences. But today as I opened my computer to begin writing this post about Darwin and Freud, the homepage on my computer opened to this New York Times article revealing the discovery of the fossil of a nearly complete skeleton of what is the earliest primate known, changing scientists’ time-line for the appearance of primates on earth by 8 million years, and giving credence to the growing theory that primates emerged first in Asia rather than Africa.

Xijun Ni/Chinese Academy of Sciences An artist's interpretation of a tiny primate that is thought to be the earliest known ancestor of nocturnal primates living today in Southeast Asia. from NYTimes 06/06/2013

Xijun Ni/Chinese Academy of Sciences An artist’s interpretation of a tiny primate that is thought to be the earliest known ancestor of nocturnal primates living today in Southeast Asia. from NYTimes 06/06/2013

How appropriate. Darwin would have been excited, for he saw great value in studying the simplest and earliest of life-forms, plankton, barnacles, and earthworms.


Job’s question, the Death of a Child and Ben Jonson’s poetry

Job asking “Why?” Asking “How much more?”

Last year, a friend of my sister had a 4-year old child drown in a neighborhood swimming pool.  One would think that was enough for any parent to bear.

Last week, the very same woman’s 4-month old baby died in her crib—a case of SIDS.

This is a Job-like battering.   How much more can two people take?  How much more? They can’t be looking to sense, or reason, or “God’s plan.”  None of that can help, certainly not at the moment.

Lately, I have had a number of friends and relatives  who have lost aging parents. Sad as that is, it is reasonable and acceptable—part of the pattern of life.  But the death of a child?  No.

And there are thousands of children all over the world who die every day of disease, mal-nourishment, war, violence, and mere accident.

Statue of Father and Son
Vatican Museums. ©1999 A. Jokinen.

I used to teach a poem by Ben Jonson. If Shakespeare had not come along the era would have probably been known as “the Age of Jonson.”  He was much more successful, much more popular than Shakespeare was during his life.  And yet, he is not really part of the common culture today.  Shakespeare has pushed him aside.  But he is good and he is important. Here is the poem in which Jonson tries to deal with the death of his son: 

On My First Son
by Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson’s first son—also named Benjamin, which in Hebrew means “Son of My Right Hand”—died when he was seven years old. Jonson, renowned and celebrated for his poetry and drama, puts it all in perspective and rates this dead son as the best thing he has ever created.  One can feel the father’s pain in the final two lines–the fear of “liking too much” that which one loves.

Brueghel, Auden, and the death of my mother

My mother died yesterday.

She was a simple, quiet, sweet woman whose last few months were horrible. And while it might sound cold-hearted, I can honestly say she is better off today than she was the past few weeks. For better or worse, at least she is now at peace.

And while I have a good number of siblings and a large network of friends and relatives with whom to share the loss, privately I turn to Art with a capital “A.”

The picture above is of a painting by Pieter Brueghel. Entitled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, it depicts the legendary fall of Icarus, who (in one story) famously disobeyed his inventive father and flew too close to the sun. The sun melted the wax holding together the wings that his father had fashioned, and he crashed into the sea.  Through the ages, Icarus has become a two-sided symbol for artists: he is either a symbol of blatant disobedience akin to Eve or Pandora or Deidre or a symbol of great striving, of “flying to the sun,” of grabbing all the gusto one can.  I usually lean to this second interpretation and see Icarus as an example of risking it all in pursuit of one’s dreams.

Anyway, this painting is one of my very favorites because

detai from painting: Icarus’ two legs in the water

Brueghel has depicted this grand, mythic tragedy as happening amidst the pedestrian goings-on of daily life.  If you look closely,  you can see Icarus’ legs darting into the water in the right hand corner of the canvas. If you are not looking for them –and did not have the title of the painting to clue you toward Icarus–you might miss them entirely in the busyness of the entire painting. There is a shepherd, a ploughman, a single fisherman, a stately ship and a far-away city, but the boy falling out of the sky barely registers on their existence.

A very famous painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus also has been the subject of several poems, most notably by Auden and William Carlos Williams.

Below is W.H.Auden’s poem about the painting which now hangs in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Artes Belgique in Brussels:

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

So yesterday, after the mortician took my mother’s body away, after my brother and sisters and I cleaned out her personal effects and donated her clothes to the needy, I drove away and stopped at a convenience store for a sandwich. The store was extra crowded, there was a particularly annoying man in line, and the cashier herself was particularly surly.  I wanted to yell to them, to say, “Hey, don’t you know my mother just died?!” But of course I didn’t and of course they couldn’t have. They were simply going about their normal Saturday routines.

Instead I thought of Brueghel and Auden and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Yet, Auden missed another part of the equation.  While it is true that the world goes on despite, and during, moments of personal tragedy, it also does the same in moments of great personal triumph. We tend to think that much of this existence is about us, about our heartbreaks and our victories–and very little of it really is.

Anyway, my world is different today than it was yesterday.  I must meet with siblings to arrange funeral services, arrange affairs at work for missed time, try to find a wearable suit for the funeral…and the entire time the great big world will go spinning along, unaware of what any of us are dealing with.

As Auden said, “they were never wrong,/The Old Masters.”

Margaret (Peggy) Bohannon

nee McNeila


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