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Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900


Robert Craig and Ina Linge

The relationship between biological thought and literature, and between science and culture, has long been an area of interest by no means confined to literary studies. The Darwin Anniversary celebrations of 2009 added to this tradition, inspiring a variety of new publications on the cultural reception of Darwin and Darwinism. With a fresh scope that includes but also reaches beyond the «Darwinian» legacy, the essays in this volume explore the range and diversity of interactions between biological thought and literary writing in the period around 1900.

How did literature uniquely shape the constitution and communication of scientific ideas in the decades after Darwin? Did literary genres dangerously distort, or shed critical light upon, the biological theories with which they worked? And what were the ethical and social implications of those relationships? With these broad questions in mind, the contributors consider the biological embeddedness of human nature, perspectives on sexual desire, developments in racial thinking and its political exploitation, and poetic engagements with experimental psychology and zoology. They also range across different literary traditions, from Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, to Britain and the USA. Biological Discourses provides a rich cross-section of the contested relationship between literature and biological thought in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures.

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1 The Beast Within: Darwinism and Desire in the Italian Fin de Siècle (Elena Borelli)


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1    The Beast Within: Darwinism and Desire in the Italian Fin de Siècle


In this chapter I explore the depiction of desire in the works of three late nineteenth-century Italian authors: Antonio Fogazzaro, Giovanni Pascoli, and Gabriele D’Annunzio. I claim that their representation of desire is embedded in an anthropological paradigm much indebted to the popularization of Charles Darwin theories. In this context, desire is seen as the remnant of mankind’s brutish ancestors, and, therefore, something to be repressed and overcome. In portraying desire as an obscure inner force, Fogazzaro, Pascoli, and D’Annunzio reappropriate not only Darwin’s theory, but also Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will, and Eduard von Hartmann’s idea of the Unconscious. The texts I analyse show that this biological discourse of fin-de-siècle Italy in turn anticipated the advent of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.

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