Author Archives: emma mcphee

Stillness and Desolation: Darwin’s Literary Value

Although at times dry and dull, Darwin’s writings also employ a language that is complexly beautiful in both the style and imagery it uses. In St. Cruz, he follows an almost existential slant as he observes the guanaco, a form of camelid, from a chalky plain, describing the guanaco upon “the hilltop [as] a watchful sentinel over its herd”. The personification and literal elevation of the creature evokes a sense of nobility, which Darwin seems to react to with a quiet dread, stating that “all was stillness and desolation”. Cynically, he remarks “one reflected how many ages the plain had lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue.” A couple sentences later however, he returns to the detached narrative of action and observation, abandoning this icy precision for scientific statements and a more banal form of prose.

Earlier, a similar moment of linguistic beauty is shattered by the return to the scientific register, as Darwin describes the phenomenon of oceanic phosphorescence.

The sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens.

The spectacle presented by the lovely, bridal metaphor of a “milky train”, the “billow[ing]” of the waves, and the violent image of “the reflected glare of these livid flames”, evokes the Romantic sublime – a paralyzing sense of wonderment at the beauty, and the greatness, of nature. However, Darwin is not paralyzed, and this moment of loveliness is supplanted almost immediately by speculation on the phosphorescence’s cause; electricity, minute organisms of the ocean or otherwise larger, and deeper swimming creatures.

Ironically, later on in Origin of Species, he argues “Natural Selection … is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.” Yet throughout the text, he makes use of this flawed art, utilising the metaphor of war and the lexicon of battle – animal’s adaptations for sexual selection are compared to “shield”, “sword”, “weapon” and “spear”. The Struggle for Existence is framed within a narrative of war, with the brutal word “destruction” continually used to express to the reader the vitality of the process of evolution, and the consequences it has for those who can’t adapt. Darwin’s emotive connection with nature and the importance its development, however slowly spread across time it is, is expressed through such emotive language. Although unaware of his own linguistic value, Darwin’s writing nonetheless contains a number of poetic qualities that are well worth analysing.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Insubstantial Pageant’s Faded

I was 15 when I was married. He spoke to me softly then, told me in words as gentle as caresses that he would honour me, value me, love me. He had seemed beautiful too, white and flushing pink as he worked beneath the sun, colours unknown on our island of green and brown and gold. I was dazzled, of course, and my father’s insistence on our separation only increased the attraction, although in retrospect I can see his subtle direction, how he shifted me like just another actor in his spectacle.


When I first arrived in Naples, I was taken in by its structured disorder. The buildings sloped down to the water, stopping a little short of the docks, where the ramshackle wooden sheds were clustered close to palaces of stone; from our bedroom, I could see a tower of a house that seemed to sway with the wind, always appearing on the edge of collapse. Inside the palace there were tapestries and curtsied maids, the glitter of jewels and the chiming voices of courtiers, and, of course, there was my husband. At first, I loved Naples.


The illusion faded quickly, though. I should have known, with Ferdinand; his first question to me was whether or not I was a maid. I ought to have taken the warning. Instead, I treated him as a temple, and, in the first months of our marriage, he touched me lovingly, brought me gifts, delighted in my words and actions as one delights in a newborn child. But he soon grew bored with my naivety to the civilized world. I fell from his favour, and my heart felt ruptured, my lungs became stone.


When his father died and Ferdinand became the King of Naples, he was an ineffective leader. It was not surprising. If he struggled to carry logs, where would he find the strength to carry a nation? My father stepped in to assist, and, though he had abjured the roughness of magic, he still commanded complete control over the action of the courtiers. Naples became like the island, my father its god, the people his slaves.


I grew more and more nostalgic for the island, though. I missed the sunlight and the lull of the ocean, the gentle breeze of Ariel as he swung between the trees. Mostly, I missed the books. My books, too, although they were my father’s first. He never thought if I should want them before he drowned them, but during our years on the island, I became well versed in their philosophy. It was through their knowledge that I taught Caliban, gave him language, gave his garbled sounds a meaning, a purpose. That was before he – before the attempted – but it is a long time since, and I have almost forgotten his violation.


It was not so bad, otherwise. Now, when I lay down to sleep in my royal bed, the sheets of silk and my husband’s body sweating close to me, I miss the music most of all, the sounds and sweet airs that gave delight and hurt not. I try to remember the harmonies that echoed through the night, the chords of longing and serenity that danced upon the air, but here, they elude me. The pageant has faded, and I am left alone, exhausted, crying quietly into the sheets as my husband snores with sleep beside me.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Saussure’s Semiotics and Plato’s Ineffable Forms

In the early 20th century, Saussure’s theory of linguistics was published. It delineated the gap that lies between what we say and what is – that is, the relationship between language and the reality it attempts to describe. Saussure’s theory of signs divided words and meanings into two; the signifier (the word) and the signified (the meaning). The relationship between the two is arbitrary. The meaning, or signified, does not exist concretely within reality, but is rather a space in meaning that is defined by absence. For example, take the word door. When identifying an object such as a door, we tend to think we grasp its type through similarities common across all doors. However, if we deconstruct this process of reasoning it becomes more complicated. A door is usually wood, it usually has a handle, it opens from the side – yet this description is ambiguous, and applies to a number of other household objects, like dressers and armoires. A window, which is glass and also can open from the side, in this system of deduction may mistakenly be classified as a door, and vice versa. Instead, Saussure argues that words function through a negative system of definition. A door is a door because it is not a window, or a wall, or a cat or a dog or any other signified space of meaning. This methodology of defining by what is not allows us to categorize new and ambiguous objects with relative ease, and allows vastly disparate objects to be collected together despite their physical or abstract differences.


The dissimilarities between Saussure and Plato are extreme. However, Plato does, in places, prefigure Saussure in the Republic, recognising and addressing the separation of language and reality through his theory of the forms. Plato’s true forms and their direct connection to the words that describe them – beauty and goodness – are diametric opposites to Saussure’s theory of definition by absence, but both philosopher and linguist agree on a conceptual space of meaning that rests above language. This metaphysical realm that Plato attempts to reveal in the Republic is, by its nature, ineffable. As a result, the text remains incomplete, as the reader is led to the brink of a second, true reality and left hanging without resolution. Plato cannot take use any further. Language cannot convey the full truth of the form of the good, the form of the beautiful. It is our mind’s own challenge to transcend this language, to grasp the meaning of knowledge, and to understand ‘what is’. But as Saussure reveals, the question of what is isn’t quite as simple as a singular meaning.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized