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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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14 Amoeba, Dragonfly, Gazelle: Animal Poetics Around 1908 (David Wachter)


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14  Amoeba, Dragonfly, Gazelle: Animal Poetics Around 1908


The present chapter analyses the representation of animals in early twentieth-century literary and scientific texts. Drawing on a constellation of works published around 1908 by Rainer Maria Rilke, Jakob von Uexküll, and Karl Möbius, I am interested in the notion of animals as beautiful objects as well as perceiving subjects with genuine forms of agency. The argument begins with an overview of Karl Möbius’s approach to nature’s beauty in The Aesthetics of Animal Life and moves on, via Jakob von Uexküll’s Environment and Inner World of Animals, to selected works from Rilke’s New Poems. In these series of readings I wish to test the assumption that Möbius, Uexküll, and Rilke, respectively, but to a different degree, negotiate a potential departure from anthropocentrism in an encounter with the non-human. Three comparable, yet distinctive types of ‘animal poetics’ thus become apparent.

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