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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Generating Interest: Spontaneous Generation in the Creation of Literary Criticism
by E.W. Wilder

According to John Farley, the most accepted definition of spontaneous generation is "that some living entities may arise suddenly by chance from matter independently of any parent" (1 - emphasis his). As a part of the history of science, the story of spontaneous generation, which can be traced back to Aristotle, has been seen as a "classic" case of how modern scientific techniques debunked a persistent myth (Farley 2). However, viewed within the framework of a relativistic post-modernism, such absolutism seems positively antiquated. Indeed, contemporary paradigmatics note that "modern" scientific methodology is itself mythic and therefore subject to the same historical shifts as individual theories within it. The theory of spontaneous generation is its own example, showing signs of insidiously reinfecting the body scientific in the form of attempts to explain the origins of life; though some deny the overall effect is spontaneous generation, the specifics speak for themselves:

Scientists are not now trying to prove that spontaneous generation, as we have defined it, exists after all. What they are doing is exploring chemical reactions that might plausibly have taken place on the surface of the earth when life made its first appearance. In particular, they study those chemical reactions that might assemble simple molecules into more complex ones and eventually into molecules that we now know to be characteristic of life forms. Almost without exception, scientists accept the geological and astronomical evidence that physical conditions on earth in the distant past were vastly different from what they are now, and scientists accept also that there can be no certainty about the details. But they do not in any case imagine that living organisms were originally generated from inanimate molecules in one abrupt step. They envisage, on the contrary, an extremely gradual process stretching over aeons of geological time and subject to the continuous pressure of Darwinian natural selection. This view of the origin of life has little in common with the historical concept we have chosen to call spontaneous generation. Indeed, the only important similarity between the two is that neither requires the intervention of the supernatural. (Harris 157 - my emphasis this time)

It's a distinction without a difference, of course, especially as the theory of spontaneous generation applies to literature, the focus of this paper and of the work of upcoming Foundling Theories Fund grantees.

Spontaneous generation as a specifically literary theory covers everything from the ex nihilo creations in Milton's Paradise Lost (see also "Miltonian Physics: Time and Space Revisited" by Milt Spudman, EWR print ed. 15.5 [1976]) to the more minor appearances of soldiers in Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (36) to the divinely-sourced but physically explicable appearances of plagues of insects in Judeo-Christian mythology and the literature of classical Greece. It can cover any spontaneous appearance in literature that is unexplained by the rules of normative procreation within the narrative itself. In fact, the massive potential and sweep of spontaneous generation theory may be responsible for its relatively uncommon use. While seemingly counterintuitive, a large, nearly universally applicable theory forces too many choices on the critic (see also "Buriden's Ass" by Francine DuBois EWR 5 online, http://www.postmodernvillage.com/eastwest/issue5/ftf05.html). Faced with so many possibilities, the critic is liable to simply give up on spontaneous generation and retreat to the more limited theoretical frameworks of, say, Marxism or Derridean deconstruction.

Some remain undeterred, however.

The work of Frankor Victl attests to this. Ubiquitous in the hot spontaneous generation scene of the mid-to-late 1950s (in fact, so much a part of it was he that he and his cohorts were labeled The Spontaneous Degeneration by skeptical New Critics), Victl famously postulated the "ex nihilosity of Joseph Conrad" by looking at the nature of Marlowe's narratological abilities. "Diegetically speaking," Victl wrote in his The Coal Dust Brainworm of 1956, "Marlowe's stories come out of nowhere. They are not called for - they are even dreaded - by his audiences. Like flies out of the primordial miasma, the stories circle to envelop those around him, captivating them for absurdly long periods of time. Rather than a series of 'good-ol'-fashioned sea stories,' Marlowe's tales are a postive plague: unwanted, but simultaneously impossible to shake" (92). Prefiguring J. Hillis Miller's famous deconstruction of Heart of Darkness, Victl claimed that the "unknowable" origins of Marlowe's stories pointed to them as positively the result of spontaneous generation. "Only this theory," he writes in his 1961 memoir Like a Cat Outta Smell, "castigated by the New Critics, abandoned by science, forgotten by history, could fully explain how Marlowe's stories came to be" (967). He explains with more detail in The Coal Dust Brainworm that Conrad's narrator qualifies Marlowe's tales by their lack of a point. The lack, therefore, of a center, while undermining the tales' narrative unity, makes for a totally untraceable set of events. We know Marlowe is seen by the narrator - he exists. Fine, but he could have come from nowhere. There is simply no maintenance of truth value anywhere in the text. And without a solid center, the pointless story has no lineage to speak of. It is "base matter generating words as it rots shipboard in the foetid well of Marlowe's brine-soaked brain" (423).

The picture of Conrad's great storyteller as one who has been too much in the sun and therefore prone to grow mental maggots shines throughout literature, cooking up a rich stew of material for breeding criticism in this theoretical backwater. Consider Hamlet's case as a baseline. Here we have a man, while certainly put upon by his circumstances, absolutely driven mad. Is it called for? His behavior is certainly not functional since the only major member of the cast left standing by the end of the play is poor Horatio. Hamlet's madness is a plague visited upon all the characters; Elsinore becomes a flyblown wasteland. The stinking gasses from the dead king's rotting corpse in the form of his ghost rise up, setting off the spontaneous generation of the plague. Hamlet's brainworms further generate the flies of his indecision, his "hawk for a handsaw," his methodological madness.

Witness, also, the case of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Esther Greenwood's depression, while set in New York in her 19th year, has little or nothing to do with her circumstances, which are actually quite good. She may be suffering in a Freudian sense: her father's death may have set off some repercussions for her budding adulthood, especially as she sniffs out the traces of his life through where her family used to live, where they would play, and finally to where her father is buried (Plath 121-38). But otherwise, she has done quite well, winning scholarships, taking Manhattan on an expense account, gaining the friendship of an important novelist. There's little for her to be depressed about. However, the combination of ptomaine poisoning and the summer heat has left Esther, essentially, a lump of raw, festering meat (Plath 33-40). The extreme depression that follows is due to spontaneous generation: just as maggots are spontaneously generated by spoiled flesh, Plath's heroine's brain spontaneously generates depression. The electroshock therapy she undergoes (Plath 117-18 and 173-5) is an attempt not only to "cure" her in a way appropriate to the time period, but an attempt to "cook the meat," ridding it of its festering globules of distress. The fact that it works for some time underscores the validity of a spontaneous generation analysis in this case: pump enough electricity through anything and you'll kill all the maggots that live in it.

The fact that Plath's novel is autobiographical and that her own depression later returned display also the great flexibility of the spontaneous generation model: due to the nature of the theory, there is no reason to believe further growth of the organism responsible is not possible. Therefore, any reiterations or relapses of the spontaneously generated element are easily accounted for.

That spontaneous generation as a scientific theory was originally designed to deal with only very small organisms in a pre-microscopic age is problematic. If one were to apply the theory to whole worlds as in the case of narratives like Marlowe's, or soldiers as in the case of Kingston, that critic has seemingly gone beyond the theory's original intent. Conjectural brainworms aside, the notion of spontaneous generation in its purest form is not in question; merely its application is. Who can say that anything in literature has any weight at all - that is to say, any mass? Who can vouch for the heft and breadth of a Marlovian sea story? Was Marlowe measurably lighter after its telling? Emotionally, perhaps. And here is where the theory re-displays its accuracy: if a miasma has the power to create small creatures out of mud and rotting meat, who is to say what it can do to the substance of a story?

Works Cited

Farley, John. The Spontaneous Generation Controversy From Descartes to Oparin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Harris, Henry. Things Come to Life: Spontaneous Generation Revisited. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Victl, Frankor. The Coal Dust Brainworm. Cambridge: Kerfluffle Press, 1956.

- - - Like a Cat Outta Smell. Hackensack: Roman Fever Press, 1961.