English Literature in Transition 1880-1920
Volume 42 : 2 1999
pp 125-142

At the Intersection of Victorian Science and Fiction: Andrew Lang's "Romance of the First Radical"

JULIE SPARKS

San Jose State University

EVER SINCE C. P Snow's famous Rede Lecture of 1959, wherein the scientist-novelist lamented the schism between the sciences and the humanities, the intellectual divergence and mutual hostility between the "two cultures" has been seen as not only inevitable, but also fated to increase. It is easy to overlook the fact that as recently as the last century the two realms were, if not quite united, at least closely intertwined. In his study of this interconnection, Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, J. A. V. Chapple points out that in the early part of the century, scientists considered themselves "natural philosophers" while many artists demonstrated a lively interest in the latest scientific discoveries.1 Coleridge, for example, took an active part in the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which may have also attracted the young Tennyson.2 Furthermore, the extremely prolific and popular periodicals of the day, including Macmillan's Magazine, Household Words, the Fortnightly Review, Cornhill Magazine, and the Nineteenth Century, published both serious scientific articles and works of literature and criticism. Often these journals provided the original forum for the writings of scientific luminaries. The generally educated reader "could turn from J. W. Croker's merciless assault on Poems by Alfred Tennyson in the April 1833 number of the Quarterly Review to Whewell's urbane assessment of Mary Somerville's Connexion ('her profound mathematical work on the "Mechanism of the Heavens" has already been treated of in this Journal'), without any feeling that, tone apart, they were moving to a different kind of discourse."3 In many respects they were not.

Many historians of science and new historicist literary critics have investigated the impact of science on literature, and a newer, equally fertile line of inquiry reverses this trend to examine the scientific literature of the period for traces of fictional devices and habits of mind. A third possibility, one I would like to employ here, is to combine the two methods by examining the work of a Victorian interdisciplinarian, Andrew Lang — a writer of fiction and of original anthropological works — to see how scientific data and paradigms invade the science writer's fiction, and how fictional devices and artistic speculation make their way into his scientific treatises. Because no scientific discovery occupied a position of political neutrality in those turbulent times (any more than it does in our own), this third rhetorical dimension — political commentary — is important and will be considered also. Through this tri-part investigation of Lang's anthropology and two of his short stories on anthropological themes, we will see that, despite their separate cultural niches, the sciences and the humanities continue to bear evidence of a common epistemological ancestor.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is remembered today primarily as an extremely versatile man of letters. He wrote poetry, plays, and stories for adults; original fairy tales for children, a book about Joan of Arc, The Maid of France (1908), biographies of Sir Stafford Northcote (1890) and J. G. Lockhart (1896); and a history of Scotland in four volumes (1900-1907). He translated Homer, and collaborated with H. Rider Haggard on a novel about Odysseus's later adventures, The World's Desire (1890). He also wrote He (1887), a parody of Haggard's She, with W. H. Pollock. As a journalist, he wrote essays, reviews, and polemical pieces on literary controversies of the day. However, Lang is best remembered now for his collections of fairy tales, beginning in 1889 with the Blue Fairy Book and continuing for 26 volumes (some posthumous). Lang's life-long interest in fairy tales and folklore carried him into the realm of scientific inquiry, for like many newly forming scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century, anthropology was broadly defined to encompass related disciplines, including comparative mythology, ethnology, and philology. Lang studied all three disciplines and wrote five books on these subjects: Custom and Myth (1883), Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887), The Making of Religion (1898), Social Origins (1903), and The Secret of the Totem (1905). Although he was what we would now consider a gentleman amateur in the field, it was a time when gentleman amateurs took their studies seriously, and their contributions were taken seriously by others. Lang became an influential anthropologist. In his monograph on Lang, Roger Lancelyn Green asserts that even in the 1960's, "no real expert [in anthropology] is either uninfluenced by [Lang's theories] ... or denies their importance."4 Lang wrote the article on "Totemism" for the Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition (1875-1899). 5 In the twenties, Wells cited him as an authority on "primitive thought" in The Outline of History (1920), and Sigmund Freud referred to him sixteen times in his famous Totem and Tabu (1913).6

Lang participated actively in the young field of anthropology, not only gathering data, but also wrestling with others about how the data should be interpreted, particularly with Max Müller, then established as a Professor of Philology at Oxford. When Lang was in college, his interest in the ancient Greeks led him to study their mythology and religious beliefs, and those of other cultures as well, including the Egyptians, Etruscans, Mexicans, and Peruvians.7 In this early study of mythology, Lang encountered Müller's theory of mythology, which held, in short, that "Greek, and hence all European and Middle East mythologies, were explained as 'a disease of language' originating in a misunderstanding of the supposed Aryan language and culture from which western civilization was thought to stem."8 The "misunderstanding" was supposed to have arisen when a people given to employing colorful personifications of natural phenomenon — the gloom-chasing sun, the rosy-fingered dawn, the shape-shifting moon, and the like — handed on their language to a more literal-minded generation who believed the personified natural phenomena were historical figures. Consequently (as Lang outlines the theory), myths grow "about supposed persons, whose names had originally been mere 'appellations.' In conformity with this hypothesis the method of comparative mythology examines the proper names which occur in myths" and traces them back to the natural phenomena they once described.9

From his extensive study of myths from around the world, Lang was able to see the weak point in this theory: some of the myths and folk tales cited as having a purely Aryan lineage were also told by the aboriginal people in Australia and among pre-Cortez Aztecs in Mexico, which could certainly not be explained by a connection to the Sanskrit language spoken by the ancient Aryans. Clearly this fact challenged Müller's elegant philological interpretations of myths and his notions of European folklore's genealogy. But Lang did more than challenge a particular interpretive strategy: he also challenged an attitude of scientific conservatism and elitism that tended to prefer the intricate, even the contorted interpretation to the more common sense, straightforward one.

Lang demonstrates the absurdity of this tendency in a brilliant fictional parody of Müller's method, "The Great Gladstone Myth," collected in In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories (1887). The story is identified in a footnote as "a chapter from Prof Boscher's 'Post-Christian Mythology,' Berlin and New York, A. D. 3886."10 This Müller-like scholar writes in a far future England where London is an ancient ruin and the Victorian era has receded into the dim mists of prehistory. The professor begins by remarking that "In the post-Christian myths of the Teutonic race settled in England, no figure appears more frequently and more mysteriously than that of Gladstone or Mista Gladstone. To unravel the true germinal conception of Gladstone, and to assign to all the later accretions of myth their provenance and epoch, are the problems attempted in this chapter."11 Lang himself appears in the discussion (though his name has been garbled through the ages of history into "Longus, or Longinus") as one who "meanly argued that" the "aid of philology" in interpreting ancient myth "must be accepted with cautious diffidence." The professor argues that "On the contrary, Philology is the only real key to the labyrinths of post-Christian myth."12

Throughout the story there is enough information between the lines for the informed Victorian to understand fully the personages and political controversies that underlie the scraps of "myth" and artifact that the learned but obtuse narrator discusses. However, Professor Boscher (whose name should be read as "bosh," a charactomym reflecting the worth of his ideas) is blinded by his (Müller's) belief that mythical figures come from a basic misunderstanding of ancient references to natural phenomena such as the dawn and the thunder. Gladstone, he concludes, meant "sun-hawk," an epithet for the sun. The parody is ingeniously constructed to demonstrate how even the most obvious, common sense interpretations are rejected when they conflict with an established interpretive method. The professor seems almost to acknowledge the bias himself when he says, "From philology we turn to the examination of literary fragments, which will necessarily establish our already secured position (that Gladstone is the sun), or so much the worse for the fragments."13 Yet the most extreme case of obtuse interpretation in the "chapter" follows, when the scholar discusses a small stone pillar (or pedestal or altar) on which "some letters or hieroglyphs are defaced." The professor declares that "there can be no doubt that the inscription is correctly read G. O. M," which he interprets to mean "Gladstonio Optimo Maximo, 'To Gladstone, Best and Greatest,'" though the small illustration of the stone makes it clear to the reader that the real explanation for this "artifact" is the one that the narrator derisively dismisses as "unscholarly": that the inscription says "90 M," meaning "ninety miles from London." The narrator concedes that the stone was found at an archeological site ninety miles from the ruins of London, "but that is a mere coincidence, on which it were childish to insist. Scholars know at what rate such accidents should be estimated, and value at its proper price one unimpeachable equation like G. O. M. = Gladstonio Optimo Maximo."14 Coincidentally, in insisting that "G. O. M." refers to Gladstone, the professor does hit near to an affectionate nickname for the great leader used by his party, "the Grand Old Man," often abbreviated to G. O. M., but this only adds to the fun for Lang's Victorian readers.

The final statement of the "chapter," though ironic coming from the obtuse narrator, states the "moral" to Lang's apologue: "Caution, prudence, and an absense of preconceived opinions — these are the guiding stars of comparative mythology"15 This story also demonstrates that speculations about "prehistory" must be viewed with particular caution. Readers of this ridiculous interpretation of Victorian "artifacts" and "literary fragments" are forced to recognize that their own interpretations of Paleolithic cave paintings, tools, and burial sites (which Lang discusses in Custom and Myth) might well be equally ridiculous, fraught as such interpretations must be with preconceptions about how their remote ancestors "must have" resembled them.

With his own warning about interpretive caution in mind, and with the added insight about "prehistoric" speculations, Lang tried to demonstrate prudence in his own scientific efforts, as he declares in the introduction to his first scholarly book on anthropology, Custom and Myth (1883), which includes some material previously published in periodicals. Lang explains his particular method of studying folklore by comparing it to the accepted method for studying the more material artifacts of human culture: "There is a science, Archaeology, which collects and compares the material relics of old races, the axes and arrow-heads. There is a form of study, Folklore, which collects and compares the similar but immaterial relics of old races, the surviving superstitions and stories, the ideas which are in our time but not of it."16 Lang calls up the physical relics of archeology only metaphorically in comparing that science to anthropology, but he uses the image again to explain the folkloric "method," or strategy of interpretation: "Just as the object and use of the arrow-heads became intelligible when we found similar weapons in actual use among savages, so the salutation of the sneezer becomes intelligible when we learn that the savage has a good reason for it. He thinks it expels an evil spirit."17 Thus, "the method is, when an apparently irrational and anomalous custom is found in any country, to look for a country where a similar practice is found, and where the practice is no longer irrational and anomalous, but in harmony with the manners and ideas of the people among whom it prevails."18

Then Lang goes further to argue a point of interpretation which raises serious contention in a number of related fields: does similarity (of body shape, of language, of myth, of custom, of technology) prove consanguinity (or descent), or can similar things develop in isolation? Lang states his position on this in relation to both custom and myth: "It is not necessary for comparison of this sort that the uncivilized and the civilized race should be of the same stock, nor need we prove that they were ever in contact with each other. Similar conditions of mind produce similar practices, apart from identity of race, or borrowing of ideas and manners."19 And here he returns to the image from archaeology:

Everywhere Neolithic arrow-heads are pretty much alike. The cause of the resemblance is no more than this, that men, with the same needs, the same materials, and the same rude instruments, everywhere produced the same kind of arrow-head. No hypothesis of interchange of ideas nor of community of race is needed to explain the resemblance of form in the missiles. ... The same sort of similarity was explained by the same resemblances in human nature, when we touched on the identity of magical practices and of superstitious beliefs.20

Although he acknowledges that some of the myths and customs may have spread by slaves and captured brides from alien peoples, Lang argues for his theory of the essential similarity of the human "mythopoetic faculty."21 Returning once more to the arrowhead analogy, he explains that "myths, like arrow-heads, resemble each other because they were originally framed to meet the same needs out of the same material. ... the need was to explain certain phenomena — the material (so to speak) was an early state of the human mind, to which all objects seemed equally endowed with human personality, and to which no metamorphosis appeared impossible."22

With this assumption in mind, it is clear that Lang's study of the folklore and myth of antiquity and prehistory is motivated not so much by a curiosity about those distant times as by a wish to understand contemporary society by analogy. This is particularly evident in his fictional treatments of anthropology, some of which are collected in In the Wrong Paradise, with "The Great Gladstone Myth." These short stories are meant as "apologues" which draw moral lessons from stories about "savages," misguided missionaries, and a certain Stone Age hero whom we will examine in detail.

In his short story "The Romance of the First Radical: A Prehistoric Apologue," Lang trades his scholarly seriousness for a satirical whimsicality, mining the paleoanthropological theories of his time to form a parable of Victorian follies and oppressions. Despite its whimsical tone and contemporary focus, however, Lang's picture of prehistory also contains many references to anthropological data and mirrors the standard paleoanthropological methods of discovering "truth" about prehistoric society. This should not be surprising, considering not only the subject matter of the story but also how deeply Lang's study of anthropology influenced his world view and his habits of thought. As Percy Muir comments, Lang

was a scholar who could make a scholarly subject more palatable than caviare in general. The penalty of this, however, was that his scholarship never entirely deserted him, and even in his most popular fictional writings there is always a slight tang of midnight oil. ... Similarly, his own fairy-tales, excellent though some of them are ... are not entirely freed from the anthropological background with which Lang himself was so familiar that he hardly detected its presence, or, if he did, thought it no matter.23

Even more than his fairy tales, this "Romance" of prehistory is both a work of fiction and a replica of "straight" scientific writing which demonstrates — whether deliberately or not — how similar the two genres were at this stage of history when anthropology was yet a very young science. The narrator explains in the beginning of the story that "In the absence of history we must fall back on that branch of hypothetics which is known as prehistoric science. We must reconstruct the Romance of the First Radical from the hints supplied by geology, and by the study of contemporary savages among whom no Radical reformer has yet appeared. In the following little apologue no trait of manners is invented."24 By this, he means that whenever he describes a peculiar custom or belief held by the First Radical's tribe, he cites some instance of a modern tribe that exhibits a similar custom or belief. We can see in this the "method of anthropology" Lang describes in his Custom and Myth. To understand how the techniques of satirical fiction work in tandem with this scientific method, we will first examine each element separately, then discuss how they work together.

Lang's principal purpose in this story is clearly satire. Its title points to its political emphasis on the role of the Radical, and its subtitle, "A Prehistoric Apologue," identifies it as a moral parable. He holds up a prehistoric mirror to reflect ridicule back on certain hegemonic institutions that make dishonest claims to absolute authority in defining both "God's Will" and the nature of reality: the Church and the medical establishment. By pointing out the absurdity and cruelty of their prehistoric antecedents, the story criticizes restrictive marriage laws, irrational and oppressive funeral rites, Sabbath laws, the violence inherent in the English schoolboy's public school experience, and — most especially — the demonizing and persecution of the freethinkers who call such follies and oppressions into question. Even more important than the criticism of particular institutions, though, is Lang's criticism of tendencies of human nature responsible for them. The prehistoric setting allows Lang to depict the foolish beliefs, restrictive mores, and political injustices as relics of our most primitive human ancestors, who exhibit habits of thought which we can only hope to evolve beyond: specifically, the naive or lazy credulity of the masses, the inherent conservatism of the unreflective, the inability of most people to evaluate independently the ethical soundness of their society's codes of conduct. With a touch of the "cultural relativity" that the comparative study of societies often brings to the anthropologist (even in the predominantly ethnocentric Victorian era), Lang is able to view the mores of his own society with a certain detachment, with a rationalist's eye, and he encourages his readers to question whether the pieties and traditions they respect might be just as absurd and destructive to human development as the superstitions and bizarre customs of our "savage" prehistoric ancestors.

This independent habit of mind is modeled for the reader in the story by Why-Why, a defiantly progressive, freethinking, atheistic Promethean hero whose name reflects his questioning nature. This "first Radical" that Lang holds up as a hero seems to possess an instinctive understanding that customs serve society as a shell serves a hermit crab: protective at first, but constricting if not discarded once they have been outgrown. Through Why-Why's tribe, Lang shows how easily "what is" can become "what ought to be" — as in the case of exogamy (necessary when the tribe is small, to prevent inbreeding, but unnecessary when the clan grows to a far-flung multitude.) Of course, this type of hero — one who defies the highest authorities in order to bring freedom and the light of rationality to the people — had great currency in both the public life and the literature of the period. In Bulfinch's Mythology, the story of Prometheus appears first, and after the story proper Bulfinch discusses the modern treatments of the Promethean hero, noting that the titan "has been a favourite subject with the poets" and that he had "become the symbol of will resisting oppression." Bulfinch particularly notes the Promethean image in Byron's work and alludes to Shelley's play Prometheus Unbound.25 It is no coincidence that Shelley himself, the most famous persecuted freethinker of the period, came to be identified with this type of hero, by Lang (who styles his Why-Why on the poet) and others. Bernard Shaw cites Shelley as "an example from life" in his definition of the "moral pioneer" in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). According to Shaw, there were two kinds of moral pioneer. The first kind, "Whose eyes are very longsighted ... is the one who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous," while the second kind "declares that it is wrong to do something that no one has hitherto seen any harm in." According to Shaw, Shelley did both kinds of pioneer work. As a first pioneer, Shelley said "It is not wrong to take your sister as your wife." 26 As a second pioneer, Shelley said "It is wrong to kill animals and eat them."27

In Lang's story, Shelley's predecessor in Radicalism, Why-Why, urges his tribesmen to question the reigning superstitions and social dictates of the tribe, including both religious and "scientific" pronouncements. In his earliest boyhood, he privately decides that the sanctified origin story of his clan, "hallowed by immemorial belief" was "bosh-bosh." The story, as told by Why-Why's mother, held that "long ago Pund-jel, the first man, made two images of human beings in clay," which came to life when he "danced a corroboree round them and sang a song." When asked who made Pund-jel, she explains that he "came out of a plot of reeds and rushes." She also tells of "the Deluge and the frog who once drowned all the world."28 Despite the additional touches from "primitive" custom and folklore (the corroboree and the supernatural frog), it is hard to miss the reference to other sacred myths familiar to Victorians (the Genesis creation story and baby Moses among the rushes). In his religious skepticism, Why-Why again resembles the atheist Shelley.

Why-Why also defies any custom which seems senseless and either needlessly restrictive or positively harmful, which Shaw defines as the work of the second pioneer. In this capacity, moving from the political to the personal, Why-Why repudiates the taboo forbidding a wife to look at her husband or speak his name aloud. (This is a problem for Why-Why's mother, because when her husband deserts the family, she cannot denounce him to the tribe.) Why-Why also declares that it is wrong to forbid a brother to speak to his sister. (When Why-Why tried to comfort his sister on the death of their mother, the sister bears the weight of his crime: she is killed and eaten.) Most important to his own fate, however, is Why-Why's opinion about the tribe's marriage laws. Just as Shelley believed that love sanctifies any union, while a marriage without love was a moral horror, Why-Why objects to the standard "marriage" of his tribe, the violent capture of a woman from a foreign clan. Furthermore, Why-Why declares that it is not wrong to marry a woman from the same totem clan as yourself, as long as she is not from your immediate tribe. (Why-Why seemed to have a rudimentary understanding of the dangers of inbreeding.)

Although he is able to successfully break every other tribal taboo that he pleases because he is too powerful a warrior to be bullied, Why-Why is finally brought down when he and Verva slip away to raise a family in the free wilderness. They live in edenic bliss for a year, producing a darling son with her hair and his eyes, but finally the tribe finds them and summarily slays them both. (It's not clear what happens to the baby.) Before he dies, however, Why-Why delivers a ringing prophecy which causes his tribesmen to finally realize, too late, the value of the hero they have lost. The chapter titled "La Mort Why-Why" records the dramatic final scene:

A light seemed to shine about his face, and his first word had a strange tone that caught the ear and chilled the heart of all who heard him. "Listen," he said, "for these are the last words of Why-Why... He does not curse you for you are that which you are. But the day will come" (and here Why-Why's voice grew louder and his eyes burned) — "the day will come when you will no longer be the slave of things like that dead dog," and here he pointed to the shapeless face of the slain medicine-man. "The day will come, when a man shall speak unto his sister in loving kindness, and none shall do him wrong. The day will come when a woman shall unpunished see the face and name the name of her husband. As the summers go by you will not bow down to the hyenas and the bears, and worship the adder and the viper. You will not cut and bruise the bodies of' your young men, or cruelly strike and seize away women in darkness. Yes, and the time will be when a man may love a woman of the same family name as himself."29

Lest we miss the contemporary point in all of this, the narrator says, in sum, that "He had bravely asserted the rights of the individual conscience against the dictates of society; he had lived, and loved, and died, not in vain. Last April I plucked a rose beside his cave, and laid it with another that had blossomed at the door of the last house which sheltered the homeless head of SHELLEY [sic]."30 Finally, Lang sums up the achievements of this first Radical:

The prophecies of Why-Why have been partially fulfilled. Brothers, if they happen to be on speaking terms, may certainly speak to their sisters, though we are still, alas, forbidden to marry the sisters of our deceased wives. Wives may see their husbands, though, in society, they rarely avail themselves of the privilege. Young ladies are still forbidden to call young men at large by their Christian names; but this tribal law, and survival of the classificatory system, is rapidly losing its force. Burials in the savage manner to which Why-Why objected will soon, doubtless, be permitted to conscientious Nonconformists in the graveyards of the Church of England. The teeth of boys are still knocked out at public and private schools, but the ceremony is neither formal nor universal. Our advance in liberty is due to an army of forgotten Radical martyrs of whom we know less than we do of Mr. Bradlaugh.31

In its final words, then, the story brings the reader back into the present and shines its satirical beam on contemporary events and customs, which seem to be the chief concern of the writer in this "Romance." However, though the forum (Fraser's Magazine) and style suggest a fictional, allegorical treatment of the cave-man image, we can also see in these final passages a strategy used in the science writing of the day which makes a bridge not just from past to present, but from one kind of discourse to another: from the straightforward, "objective" scientific essay about prehistory that professes to present the plain data, to a more artful fictional reconstruction of prehistory that takes a certain poetic license in its interpretation of that data. Lang describes the burial of Why-Why and Verva, then provides the scientific "proof" of the event by describing how their remains were discovered by modern scientists. After Why-Why's powerful swan song, the remorseful tribesmen chose a cave-tomb for the fallen prophet, and "there they laid the lovers — Why-Why crowned with a crown of sea-shells, and with a piece of a rare magical substance (iron) at his side." Then this mythical prehistoric tomb is brought into the present and into fact: "Many thousands of years later," the narrator continues, "the cave was opened when the railway to Genoa was constructed, and the bones of Why-Why, with the crown, and the fragment of iron, were found where they had been laid by his repentant kinsmen." To make an even more direct link between Why-Why's remains and the reader's everyday reality, a footnote adds that a photograph of the pair, "thus arrayed, may be purchased at Mentone," (an expensive seaside resort town on the French Riviera on the route to Genoa).32 This device is also used earlier in the story, when the setting is first established: "The remains of their dinners, many feet deep, still constitute the flooring of the cave, and the tourist, as he pokes the soil with the point of his umbrella, turns up bits of bone, shreds of chipped flint, and other interesting relics."33

This reference to physical remains is one link between the "science of prehistory" and the fictional realm, but a more common element of anthropology that Lang uses in this story is the continual reference to "hints supplied by geology, and by the study of contemporary savages among whom no Radical reformer has yet appeared" to prove that "no trait of manners is invented" in this depiction of human society.34 Thus, whenever the narrator describes a custom or myth of Why-Why's tribe, he offers an instance of a similar custom or myth from a contemporary "savage" society. For example, in describing the prohibition that doomed Why-Why's mother, the narrator asserts that "[t]he etiquette of the age (which survives among the Yorubas and other tribes) made it criminal for a woman to see her husband, or even to mention his name."35 When the medicine man is described as being "dressed in the skin of a wolf, tagged about with bones, skulls, dead lizards, and other ornaments of his official attire" Lang lends legitimacy to the description by noting that "[y]ou may see a picture very like him in Mr. Catlin's book about the Mandans."36 And when describing a custom observed between Why-Why's tribe and the neighboring hill tribe that violently marked births with a raid on the new baby's tribe, the narrator explains that "[g]ood manners, of course, forbade the cave people to resist this visit, but etiquette permitted (and in New Caledonia still permits) the group to bury and hide its portable possessions."37 About the custom most critical to the fate of Why-Why, Lang offers no parallel from modern tribes, but any reader familiar with his latest anthropological work, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, which came out the same year as Why-Why's story, may remember this passage: "There is some evidence that in certain tribes the wingong or totem of each man is indicated by a tattooed representation of it upon his flesh. The natives are very licentious, but men would shrink from an amour with a woman who neither belonged to their own district nor spoke their language, but who, in spite of that, was of their totem. To avoid mistakes, it seems that some tribes mark the totem on their flesh with incised lines."38 Again, in shoring up his image of prehistoric customs with these modern instances of similar customs, the artist imitates the anthropologist in assuming that we can deduce the character of prehistoric thought and custom by studying their "relics" in "primitive cultures" still living.

Similarly, Lang extrapolates backwards, as it were, and plants customs and patterns of thought from "civilized" cultures and modern times back into prehistory on the assumption that one can draw analogies in either direction. Just as Darwin examined the tiny points on modern human's ears and deduced that our proto-human ancestors' ears were pointed, Lang looks at contemporary customs that seem peculiar to a rationalist and concludes that they must be vestiges of a former, more primitive culture. In some cases, one must read this as a device of satire, as we discussed above. For example, when the narrator informs us that Why-Why's conduct "was certainly calculated to outrage all conservative feeling" when "[o]n 'tabu-days,' once a week, when the rest of the people in the cave were all silent, sedentary, and miserable (from some superstitious feeling which we can no longer understand), Why-Why would walk about whistling, or would chip his flints or set his nets," it is clear that Lang is speaking tongue-in-cheek, pointing out the irrationality of Victorian Sabbath laws rather than hypothesizing that prehistoric societies must have had a similar custom.39 However, as Nadia Khouri and Marc Angenot point out in their article about the speculative license taken by Victorian paleoanthropologists in their "nonfiction" works, "when theorization becomes narration, we witness a sudden shift from scientific caution to uncontrolled projections" to such an extent that "the scientist goes on from a description of Paleolithic remains to sheer narrative hallucination."40 As the prime example of this, we are given a passage by a nineteenth-century French scientist, Leon Pontet, "who contritely observes, as he depicts the customs of Cro-Magnon: 'None of those sublime feelings that serve to ennoble the vulgarity of the act were then involved in sexual intercourse.'"41 This is such a standard assumption about prehistoric humans that it is easy to forget that we have absolutely no direct way of knowing about the emotions of our forebears. Modern humans experience both lust and love, but because we value the latter over the former, and because we assume a linear, one-directional evolution from "ape to angel," as it were, we assume that what we see as the more spiritual emotion must be the more recent development, and that our possession of it is one feature that distinguishes us from our prehistoric ancestors, as from the brutes. Modern lapses from "the higher love" into the more "primitive" lust are explained by adherents to the Victorian optimistic view of progress as regrettable atavisms. On the other hand, biological determinists, who tend to be more pessimistic, point to such lapses as inherent and inevitable behavior of our essentially brutish natures.

Although Bernard Shaw was much less sentimental on this subject than mainstream Victorians, asserting in The Quintessence of Ibsenism that instances of "the higher love" are as yet extremely rare and tenuous, as our capacity for it is still evolving in the species, he expresses the typical Victorian optimism that the development will continue. Not surprisingly, his discussion of this evolutionary development includes an image from anthropology:

We have plenty of these masks [idealistic constructs that disguise ugly realities] around us still: some of them more fantastic than any of the Sandwich islanders' masks in the British Museum. In our novels and romances especially we see the most beautiful of all the masks: those devised to disguise the brutalities of the sexual instinct in the earlier stages of its development, and to soften the rigorous aspect of the iron laws by which Society regulates its gratification. When the social organism becomes bent on civilization, it has to force marriage and family life on the individual, because it can perpetuate itself in no other way whilst love is still known only by fitful glimpses, the basis of the sexual relationship being in the main mere physical appetite.42

In the next essay in the collection, "The Womanly Woman," Shaw specifies love's evolutionary stages. The first stage is "the humdrum fondness of the bourgeois Jack for his Jill"; the second stage is the grand passion, such as "Tannhauser's passion for Venus" ("a development at once higher and more dangerous" than the homely fondness); and the highest stage is "the more perfect love," "known to most of us by the descriptions of the great poets," such as Dante's love for Beatrice, or Tannhauser's for St. Elizabeth.43

Like Shaw, Lang seems to be following this progressive paradigm from paleoanthropology in his depiction of the evolutionary leap from lust to love made by Why-Why and Verva: Lang makes it clear that the union of Why-Why and his beloved Verva is not just primitive lust, but something much higher:

Both these untutored hearts were strangely stirred, and neither Why-Why nor Verva could imagine wherefore they turned pale or blushed when they met, or even when either heard the other's voice. ... These artless persons were in love without knowing it. It is not surprising that they did not understand the nature of the complaint, for probably before Why-Why no one had ever been in love. Courtship had consisted in knocking a casual girl on the head in the dark, and the only marriage ceremony had been that of capture. ... Why-Why and Verva must be held the inventors and, alas! the protomartyrs of the passion. 44

It is hard to tell from his tone whether Lang is commenting ironically on his contemporary scientists' presumptions on this score or whether he is merely reflecting the usual preconceptions. However, I would be inclined to give Lang credit for irony here, especially considering the touches of absurdity he adds which seem designed to undercut the sentimental romanticism of the primordial love scene featuring these classically star-crossed lovers. For example, consider Verva's actions upon learning of Why-Why's tender passion: "The girl leaned her golden head on Why-Why's dark shoulder, and sniffed at him, for kissing was an institution not yet evolved. She wept."45 This depiction of love's "evolution" also contains a sly reference of that controversy central to anthropology discussed above: whether any given innovation arises spontaneously in disparate, isolated cultures or whether it is spread by contact with the innovators. Lang coyly asserts the latter in this case, the position which he more commonly denied in the context of myths: "Probably the institution of being in love has been evolved in, and has spread from, various early centres of human existence. Among the primitive Ligurian races, however, Why-Why and Verva must be held the inventors."46 If we recall the extremely slim evidence Lang's narrator provides as the basis for this primeval love story — two fossilized skeletons buried together with some curious decorations in what is now Genoa — we are brought back to a realization that in the earliest days of paleontology the "scientific" reconstructions of prehistoric human societies, and especially the earliest human emotions, were built on no stronger foundation.

It is easy to scoff at those Victorian notions of prehistory — the defiant skepticism of religious conservatives that greeted the early fossils, the eager credulity with which the Piltdown Man fabrication was embraced by the opposite faction, the magisterial pronouncements about the Stone Age gender relations, religious beliefs, technological and linguistic achievements, and the cozy bourgeois home life around the campfire imagined by the sentimental (e.g., Stanley Waterloo, author of The Story of Ab, written the same year as Lang's "Romance"). However, as contemporary historians of science like Stephen J. Gould and cultural critics like Donna Haraway have continually pointed out in recent decades, no amount of cultural awareness and epistemological sophistication can change the fact that the practice of science, like the practice of literature, involves imaginative speculation that is inevitably shaped by the cultural practices, social mores, and philosophical or religious attitudes of the human beings who engage in it.47 Like the myth-makers, poets, and writers of political allegories, scientists trying to reconstruct prehistory are — at least to some degree — story-tellers. And like Lang, they are motivated not so much by idle curiosity about what happened to our remote ancestors as by concern about what will happen to us and our descendants. Images of the supposed extinction of the Neanderthals by the Cro-Magnons are invoked to explain the conflict in the Balkans; images of violent and promiscuous cave men oppressing cave women enter into discussions of contemporary gender relations. It is not the ambition of this article to attempt to counter this pervasive habit of mind, merely to encourage a certain critical stance among modern readers, writers, and critics of prehistoric discourses — those "stories" which use "evidence" from prehistory to make deterministic arguments about "human nature" to sanctify the customs and myth of our own time. To the extent that it is humanly possible, we should strive for the intellectual and moral independence of Lang's Why-Why.


Notes
  1. J. A. V. Chapple, Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1986), 1.
  2. Chapple, 4.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. Roger Lancelyn Green, Andrew Lang: A Walck Monograph (New York: Walck, 1962), 41.
  5. William M. Clements, Native Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (London: Swallow, 1986), 264.
  6. Antonius Petrus Leonardus de Cocq, Andrew Lang, A Nineteenth Century Anthropologist (German Ph.D. thesis, Uitg. Zwijsen Tilburg, 1968), 129.
  7. Green, 40.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Andrew Lang, Custom and Myth (London: Longmans, 1893), 1.
  10. Andrew Lang, "The Great Gladstone Myth," in In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories (New York: Harper, 1887), 228.
  11. Ibid., 229.
  12. Ibid., 231.
  13. Ibid., 233.
  14. Ibid., 238.
  15. Ibid., 243.
  16. Lang, Custom and Myth, 11.
  17. Ibid., 14.
  18. Ibid., 21.
  19. Ibid., 21-22.
  20. Ibid., 22.
  21. Ibid., 23.
  22. Ibid., 24-25.
  23. Percy Muir, English Children's Books: 1600 to 1900 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954), 153-54; also in Classic Fantasy Writers, Harold Bloom, ed. (New York: Chelsea, 1994), 129.
  24. Andrew Lang, "The Romance of the First Radical," in In the Wrong Paradise, 147-48.
  25. Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1968), 19.
  26. Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (New York: Hill & Wang, 1957), 24.
  27. Lang, In the Wrong Paradise, 152-53.
  28. Ibid., 152-53.
  29. Lang, 171.
  30. Ibid., 172.
  31. Ibid., 173.
  32. Ibid., 172.
  33. Ibid., 149.
  34. Ibid., 147-48.
  35. Ibid., 154.
  36. Ibid., 155. Lang refers to George Catlin (1796-1872), a noted painter and amateur ethnologist who lived among and studied Native American tribes and wrote about his experiences. Lang treats Catlin respectfully as a fellow anthropologist, referring to Catlin's observations in both Myth, Ritual and Religion and Custom and Myth. However, as Stanley Weintraub points out in his monograph, Victorian Yankees at Queen Victorias Court: Democracy and Monarchy (Lethbridge, Alberta: University of Lethbridge Press, 1994), Catlin wasn't above a certain "fictionalizing" of his data. In 1841 Catlin mounted a very popular show of American Indians and their artifacts (including his own paintings of the West) in London. The artifacts were real, but the "Indian" performers included some imposters, one being Catlin's own nephew.
  37. Ibid., 150.
  38. Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion (London: Longmans, 1899), 1: 67.
  39. Lang, In the Wrong Paradise, 160.
  40. Nadia Khouri and Marc Angenot, "The Discourse of Prehistoric Anthropology: Emergence, Narrative, Paradigms, Ideology," The Minnesota Review 19 (1982), 117.
  41. Ibid., 118.
  42. Shaw, 38.
  43. Ibid., 51-52.
  44. Lang, 163-64.
  45. Ibid., 168.
  46. Ibid., 164.
  47. See Stephen J. Gould, "Introduction," The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981); also Donna Haraway, Primate Visions (New York: Routledge, 1989), Introduction and Chapter 14 for interesting discussions of this point.