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SURVIVAL


 
 

...the poetry of Darwin
and of Finches...

 

 

To Kill A Mockingbird just turned 50.  And we took it up again with some of the delight of childhood, this novel by Harper Lee set in 1932 in the town of Maycomb, Alabama and that in its own way, opened a lot of minds.  Everybody knows Scout and Jem, the mysterious Boo, lazy hot Southern summer days...

 

What comes across rather powerfully on rereading is a sort of shock as to the nature of what things were like then.  The very hopelessness of the legal system, the horrific fact that women were not allowed to sit on juries, the abhorrent nature of racism in the 1930s.  The book was published in 1960óthe Kennedy years, and the civil rights movement was just gathering steam.  Now, here, in 2010, the brilliant realization that Atticus Finch won!  Not only do women sit on juries, but sit on the Supreme Court, and a black man is President, a black man who was also President of the Harvard Law Review.

 

And weíve been thinking about a line from Derek Walcottís luminous and lovely poem White Egrets, where he creates a rather beautiful set of images: the green lawn which is like a page, the egretís beak which is like the nib of his pen, words like worms that are discarded or selected.  Selection is what the egrets teach, Walcott says....taking us back to Darwin....

 

And this is where the Finches come in (for this poetís eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, sees the pattern...)  Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection while in the Galapagos.  He noticed that while there was only one species of finch on the mainland, there were 13 different species of finches, differentiated by beak size and shape, that had evolved on different islands.  From this, the realization that in different environments with different foods, finches with beaks more suited to getting a particular sort of food survived.  And so, natural selection!

 

 

Obama is famous for quoting Martin Luther King:  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  And we have seen that it does, especially in an environment like ours, a free society based on a marvelous Constitution.  We realize that, most poetically and wondrously, only the strong survive.  We havenít moved backwards from the 1930s but gloriously forward.  Finches like the Aunt in the novel, didnít quite make it.  The Aunt of whom Scout says: I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.  And then Ms. Maudie, who is one of the few people with the right sort of beak one might say, says: The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us....The handful of people in this town with background, thatís who they are.

 

To those Finches who would trumpet their length of squattage on their questionable patch of land (those who haven't quite realized that this is not England--that the aristocracy here is one of ability and intelligence!), who would run with the Ewells if it is convenient (McCainís pandering to the base with Palin comes, rather sadly, to mind), who would, with all the forces of obscurantism, try to enforce creationism in school curricula (one thinks of the rather disturbing number of Republican Senators who do not believe in evolution), we say this: know that the arc bends toward justice.  Know that which each passing year, the momentum is forward, toward openness, toward equal rights for all (younger people are far less opposed to gay marriage, for example--they just donít understand, delightfully, what all the fuss is about).  Selection is relentless.  Alexandra Finch Hancock lost in the game of selection, for finches like her were always on the wrong side of history and of evolution, and still are.  Theyíve lost, before they ever really get started.  Itís not a mockingbird that gets killed in the long run, but the wrong sort of finch with the wrong sort of beak...a weak beak....  Darwin wins.  Harper Lee wins.  Atticus Finch wins.  For selection is, most poetically, what the egrets teach....

 

Read again: To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

 

Online: White Egrets, Derek Walcott

 

See the film again: To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

 

Tags: literature  film  poetry  politics   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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