I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Angel’s and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life. I got it going in a flurry and then slowed down as I looked at other things, but I kept coming back to it and it has become a part of my life over the last few months.
The book looks at the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, with particular focus on their writing styles and how their times informed their thoughts. The title refers to a dispute about the epitaph uttered by Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, at the moment Lincoln passed away. Gopnik describes the scene as everyone waits for Stanton to speak first, because he seemed like the natural choice to say something. The guy taking notes, so anxious to write down what Stanton said, broke the lead of his pencil in his haste, panicked, and wasn’t quite sure what he had heard. The same went for other people present, likely distracted by the buffoonish note-taker.
So there was confusion as to what exactly Stanton had said. Had he said “He belongs to the ages now,” or “He belongs to the angels now.” Gopnik goes deeply into this question, exploring all possibilities and the journey takes him into larger questions concerning that time and this time and history and perception and writing, among other things. It’s fascinating. I got back to it today and back to a discussion I had sneaked away from about Darwin’s admiration for earthworms. For Darwin the worms made the world. My epiphany came after a morning’s work on something I’ve been writing and I found that if I took my time and just came back to stories over time as I felt like it, instead of trying to finish as quickly as possible, like they were products for market, I felt happier in myself and the work improved too.
Prior to this I had been searching for the holy grail of writing: completing the perfect thing in one sitting. It rarely happens. It can happen, but in general, works are developed over time and they are all the better for it. Leonard Cohen said he was writing verses for Hallelujah over a period of ten years or so, and this is not unusual for him. Most of his songs and poems are written in this way. As he said, some of them wither and get forgotten and others keep developing.
So I’m on the bus to town and I’m reading Gopnik and and he’s talking about how the God question was never a big deal to Darwin, as it was to others of his time. Because the God question claimed that God the creator upped and created the perfect eye, whereas Darwin knew that the perfect eye evolved from a series of less perfect eyes. The ideal form created in small increments of improvement over time.