Peter Ackroyd The Plato Papers  
Peter Ackroyd:
The Plato Papers
The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)

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  I will speak of a novelist, Charles Dickens, who flourished in a period somewhere between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries of our earth. The titles of his works have been retrieved but only one text survives, alas in an incomplete form. Seven pages have been removed, and the author's name practically defaced, for reasons which are unknown to me. Most of the narrative remains, however, and it provides a unique opportunity to examine the nature of Mouldwarp imagination. The novel is entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by Charles D--. The rest of the name has been gouged out by some crude tool, and the phrase "Vile Stuff!" written in a dye based substance. Clearly the reader did not approve of the fiction! Perhaps it was too melodramatic, or romantic, for her refined taste! Despite this erasure, we have no cause to doubt that this novel was composed by the author of Great Expectations and Hard Times.

It opens with a statement by the hero of the narrative--"When on board HMS Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts..."--who then proceeds to tell his remarkable story. By observing bees, and pigeons, and various other creatures around him, he manages to create within his own mind an entire world of such complexity that eventually he believes it to be real. This is reminiscent of another fiction we have recovered, Don Quixote, in which the protagonist is similarly deluded. The quixotic hero of The Origin, however, is portrayed as being obsessed by "struggle", "competition", and "death by natural selection", in a manner both morbid and ludicrous. He pretends to be exact in his calculations but then declares that "I have collected a long list of such cases but here, as before, I lie under a great disadvantage in not being able to give them". This wonderfully comic remark is succeeded by one no less rich in inadvertent humor. "It is hopeless", he states, "to attempt to convince anyone of the truth of this proposition without giving the long array of facts I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced." Here is a character who, if real, would not have been believed!

The subtlety of Charles Dickens fiction now becomes apparent. In the act of inventing this absurd fellow, this "naturalist" travelling upon the extraordinarily named Beagle, he has managed indirectly to parody his own society. The subtitle of the novel itself suggests one of the objects of his satire--"The preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" refers to the Mouldwarp delusion that all human beings could be classified in terms of "race", "gender" or "class". We find interesting evidence of this in an anecdote of a comedian, Brother Marx, of whom I will speak at a later date. Yet Dickens is able to mock this eccentric hypothesis through the words of his hapless narrator, who suggests that "widely ranging species which have already triumphed over many competitors ... will have the best chance of seizing on new places when they spread into new countries". It should be recalled that in the middle period of Mouldwarp the separate nations fought and colonized each other; as our hero puts it in his usual bland fashion, "the northern forms were enabled to beat the less powerful southern forms" with the purpose "of being victorious in distant lands in the struggle for life with foreign associates". It is the final masterstroke of irony by Charles Dickens that his character solemnly maintains the pretence of discussing only birds and insects, while at the same time providing a wonderfully succinct if brutal summary of the society from which he came!

His is a dark world indeed, dominated by the necessity of labor and the appetite for power. Even the bees are "anxious ... to save time", and the protagonist extols "the more efficient workshops of the north"; nature itself is described as frugal or even miserly, with a continual desire "to economise"! Yet, in a transitional chapter of this novel, the hero ceases to be merely comic and reveals more malign or sinister characteristics. He suggests the need for "heavy destruction" and announces, with no irony at all, "let the strongest live and the weakest die". In one remarkable passage he celebrates the spectacle of violent death--"we ought to admire", he informs us, "the savage instinctive hatred of the queen bee, which instantly urges her to destroy her young queens, her daughter". We have come across fragments of writing--"the death of queens", "queens have died young and fair"--which suggest that he is here alluding to a dramatic tradition now lost to us. But nothing can disguise his own interest in carnage.

Combat and slaughter, in fact, become the principal components of the unreal world which he has created. He imagines all life on earth to be derived from one "common parent" or "primordial form"; the offspring of this "prototype" then develop into various species of animal or plant, which in turn fight among themselves in order to "progress towards perfection". He calls it "evolution". No laughter please. He is only the protagonist of a novel! Well, laugh if you must. But remember that Charles Dickens himself is satirizing the blind pretensions of his era. Remember, too, that no one from this dark past could have known that all aspects of the world change suddenly and that new organic life appears when the earth demands it. Only in the Age of Witspell, for example, as it realized that the petrified shapes found in rock or ice were created to move or mimic their organic counterparts. In the same period it was also recognized that each portion of the earth produces its own creatures spontaneously.

I will conclude this oration with a theme introduced by the novel itself. Even as the protagonist concludes his false and rambling description of the natural world, he reflects upon his own experience in lugubrious terms. "How fleeting are the wishes and effort of man," he complains, "how short his time!" These are typical Mouldwarp sentiments but, on this occasion, they come from a deluded scholar who claimed to understand the motive power behind such general "wishes and efforts"! May I recommend The Origin of Species to you, then, as a comic masterpiece?
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Excerpted from The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 1999 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.