Friday, July 11, 2008

Smug presentist science and historical fiction

I recently read a trio of children's novels set in the Elizabethan period, concerning a boy (orphan, naturally!) who joins Shakespeare's acting company.

When I taught A Room of One's Own a few years ago, I had my class discuss the "Shakespeare's sister" section. The almost universal cry was, "well she knows girls aren't allowed on the stage; why doesn't she just dress up as a boy?"

That masquerading as male is the natural solution to all a woman's woes is of course suggested by a good number of Shakespeare's plays (including Hamlet!). But it completely fails on a political level; it presupposes that the problems posed by women's social circumscription are always exceptional and individual. Cross-dressing isn't a political solution; women as a class cannot masquerade as male in order to gain basic rights. (Though, now that I think about it, it could be argued that the 1980s shoulder-padded, pretend-you-are-okay-with-not-getting-parental-leave model of feminism was an attempt to effect exactly that solution.)

Nonetheless, in his one (in my opinion, failed) attempt to present a three-dimensional female character, Gary Blackwood has said female character... dress up like a boy.* Sigh.

But that is not what I am writing to complain about today. No, my peeve of the moment is: Why is it that in historical novels for children, the main characters always magically transcend the scientific paradigms of their times and intuit the tenets of today's science?

Off the top of my head I can think of not only Widge in The Shakespeare Stealer (etc.) but also Jane from Boston Jane and Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear (this last not children's fiction, but something I read as a child -- bizarrely, on an adult's recommendation). I'm pretty sure that if I were to think on it I'd come up with a few more.

It always goes something like this: everybody says disease is caused by foul air, but Spunky Protagonist feels, just feels in her or his heart, that it is transmitted by "tiny seeds" that get passed along by rats and insects. It's just a feeling!

I suppose we are meant to see that pre-twenty-first-century science is so obviously crazy that we couldn't possibly respect a character that believes in such mumbo-jumbo.

This smug presentist attitude presumes that anyone with an ounce of sense could see that, for instance, blood-letting isn't an effective medical practice. But medicine is a notoriously difficult science to control; in any given case there are about a zillion possible confounding factors.

That's why it's irritating when characters intuit the tenets of modern science, but even more irritating when they figure those tenets out from faux-experimental methods. Like the character just happens to notice that, every time a person has blood let, that person's illness gets worse.

Man, if science really worked that way, we'd be in Physics City, as my father would say. Total determinism! No confounding variables! Completely clear-cut data every time! No significant sample size necessary! ...Anyone with an ounce of sense can see it!

The truth is that science is much more complicated than that, which is why centuries of genuinely smart people in the West did not come up with the germ theory of disease. It's not that they lack even the smallest modicum of purchase on reality. It's that science is not straightforward and self-evident. That is why our society employs professional scientists to do research.

It's my impression that this irritating phenomenon in children's historical fiction derives from the fact that most contemporary readers hardly know anything about science, but cling to the few things they do know (by the authority of textbooks or, sketchily, science journalism, and not by experiment) as if it makes them the intellectual superior of the entire population of the world prior to the present era.

This is actually not a new sentiment, but an outgrowth of aggressive Western progress narratives that were particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century. As Thorstein Veblen put it in his 1906 essay "The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation,"
Other ages and other peoples excel in other things [than science] and are known by other virtues. [He gives several examples of achievements in art, metaphysics, and mythology.] ...but in the eyes of modern civilised men all these things seem futile in comparison with the achievements of science.
Science is perceived as the marker of modernity as well as the thing that makes modernity superior to whatever came before it.

Mark Twain even wrote a whole book about a guy (a Yankee, significantly) who goes back in time and (violently) kicks the crap out of a whole lot of medieval people, and a medieval myth in particular (King Arthur) by means of his modern understanding of science and technology. (He also just happens to have a lot of random stuff on him, such as batteries and lead pipes. Hey, no problem! I keep such things in my purse as well.)

The violence with which the protagonist uses science and technology to attack myth and the people invested in it is striking.

But as Veblen suggests, a feeling of temporal superiority is also frequently translated into cultural superiority. A contemporary review of Connecticut Yankee by Sylvester Baxter reveals how nineteenth century narratives about historically prior people slipped easily into narratives about "primitive" people -- "pre"-scientific people who were supposed to need colonization or, as the case might be, violence. The medieval population of the novel becomes a figure for the colonized peoples of the nineteenth century -- needing to be dragged in to modernity, by force if necessary.

By resorting to the principle that "distribution in time" is paralleled by "distribution in space," we may solve many a problem. So there is a certain aspect of sober truth in this most fanciful tale, and, just as the Connecticut Yankee went back into the days of King Arthur's court, so might he go out into the world today, into Central Asia or Africa, or even into certain spots in this United States of ours, find himself amidst social conditions very similar to those of 1300 years ago, and even work his astonishing 19th century miracles with like result.

Nineteenth century science is (ironically) miraculous, and therefore unproblematically equal to progress. Connecticut Yankee is indeed a book about progress -- an anxious one, in which progress depends on mass bloodshed. But Baxter blithely ignores the ideological component of this narrative, even adding some progress-talk about the book's production:

The advance in the art of popular bookmaking in the past two decades is illustrated by the contrast between Innocents Abroad and this volume. In illustration, the progress is particularly notable. Even a child of today would turn in contempt from the crude woodcuts of the former to the beautiful pen-and-ink drawings by Dan Beard that adorn the new work.

Even a child. In the contest of least-infantilized-subject, the modern Western child turns out to be the winner.

As the inheritor of the new science, the newest people -- Western children -- get to assume intellectual authority over both colonized subjects and medieval people (Innocents and its "crude woodcuts") in a way that mimics the intellectual authority that adults hold over them (in school, for instance, where they learn this science and are disabused of fantasies in the first place). It is no wonder that the child is expected to turn away in contempt: it is the contempt of self-recognition.

Gary Blackwood, The Shakespeare Stealer (1998); Shakespeare's Scribe (2000); Shakespeare's Spy (2003).

*The character in question, in my opinion, is usually absent and therefore never a presence; or rather, she is present insofar as she presents as male. Otherwise she is a mystery, an absence, a... lack. H'm, wonder where I've seen that before.


cronquist said...

Two things come to mind:

First, that historical fiction young adult novel Catherine, Called Birdy that was a 1995 Newbery Honor book about a young noblewoman in late 13th century England. I think you've read it? I mention it because I think it might be an exception to the trend you identify, though I don't own a copy and can't check easily; because it had a strong didactic strain, I think Catherine accepts the medical science of her era.

2) The tendency to make the historical child protagonist represent modern empiricism seems to address a problem of sympathy that we can see when (less enlightened?) 21st century readers read 19th century novels. I remember one extreme case -- a grad class (not at Cal) where a student claimed to be unable to appreciate The Woman in White because it makes use of miasma theory. Sigh.

Natalia said...

Oh, but there are many other reasons not to read Catherine, Called Birdy.