Ruth Awakening, Bangalore Time Out, January 2010

Bangalore Time Out, January 12th 2010


Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter is here to update the theory of evolution, says Jaideep Sen.

You wouldn’t expect rock music to serve as a way of understanding theories of such things as evolution, natural selection and male-dominated societies. Cartloads of chimpanzees perhaps, or missions of monkeys, congresses of baboons, leaps of leopards, even rabbles of butterflies – that’s the sort you’d think of. But Ruth Padel wouldn’t have it any other way when she put down I’m a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock ’n Roll in 2000, a book in which she related the myths of Eros and Psyche, Narcissus and Echo, Orpheus and Eurydice to the rise of such legends as Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and Liam Gallagher. The crux of that book was in Padel’s supposing that “the maleness of rock ’n roll has its roots in Greek heroic myth”. Instances of the Dionysian hysteria of girls at concerts only pushed that thought along. It might also be a matter of interest that Padel, who pens poetry on, among other things, Charles Darwin, is also the naturalist’s great-great-granddaughter.

“The Greek gods and myths stand as a sort of passim for sexual appetites,” declared Padel, who’s in the city to read from her latest book, Darwin – A Life in Poems and to introduce readers to her forthcoming novel, Where the Serpent Lives (expected this year). As in, Aries, the god of war and aggression, was married to Aphrodite, god of sex and love. “That is an important link – [between] sex and aggression,” she said. “In a way, that mythical mode of thinking was bedded down for us by Greek mythology. That’s where I began.”

Padel’s been in the news recently for all manner of reasons, not all of them flattering. In May last year, she took up the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University – as the first woman to ever do so, but stepped down nine days later, over a row that involved allegations of her having incited a smear campaign against her leading rival in the race to the post, the Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. The scandal even took on feminist overtones, as novelist Jeanette Winterson ran Oxford down as “a sexist little dump”.
Padel’s background, meanwhile, was instantly up for everybody’s reading: she was born in 1946 in an attic of her family home in London, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society, has been Chair of the UK Poetry Society since 2003, wrote a doctoral thesis on Greek tragedy at Oxford, taught Greek there and at Birkbeck, and opera in Princeton, has written six collections of poetry, several of which were short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize, and has even sung in an Istanbul nightclub.

In all of that, Padel’s own takes on her great-great-grandfather’s diaries, letters and journals, and her rock ’n roll theories of evolution, were very nearly lost. In Darwin – A Life in Poems, Padel picks up Darwin’s notes and places them in her own poetry, piecing together verses describing the “jellyfish, sea butterflies, the pteropods” [in the poem “Plankton”] on the decks of the HMS Beagle, which Darwin sailed on a five-year voyage in 1820, to conflicts between his scientific ideas and the religious faith of his wife, Emma, even venturing into the death of their ten-year-old daughter Annie, and his decades-long illness.

The result is an unusual biography of the naturalist, whose 1859 book On the Origin of Species was celebrated the world over last year, 150 years after it was written. “I related imaginatively to moments in Darwin’s life that seemed to me like snapshots of important emotional incidents,” said Padel. “It seemed to me that poetry was a better medium to do that, than prose is.” Padel explained that a large part of the poems included direct quotes of Darwin’s, placed in inverted commas.

The choice of poetry, as a form to sum up Darwin’s life, was also directly related to the content, said Padel. “One of the most common words in all of Darwin’s writings is ‘form’. Evolution wasn’t a new idea [then], what was new was his understanding of the mechanism of natural selection,” she said. “But nobody had imagined that, over time, a species would actually change its form – to an adapted form. For me, that [learning] had a relation to how poems can change form too.” Padel explained that in her childhood she was surrounded by books in which “the heroes were either animals or naturalists who’d communicate with and understand them”. She added, “That was the bedrock of my imagination.”

A few quotes that Padel employs in her poems may still resonate among readers today. In “A Path around a Lake”, she echoes Darwin’s words, “Religion is an affair of the heart, not the intellect.” In another poem, “Survival of the Fittest”, Padel writes about Darwin’s years spent studying pseudopodia, and of his fears of having wedded his own first cousin; the dread of “effective inbreeding”. “I’ve sent ten thousand barnacles out of the house, and I’m sorting out my species notes,” begins the poem. “I am unusually well, but excitement and fatigue bring on dreadful flatulence; he doesn’t say ‘fart’, may be he doesn’t know the word.” Padel said that she’d noticed Darwin’s sense of humour when she was reading his poems aloud. “For instance, he says, ‘the devil is our ancestor in the form of a baboon’ – that’s a sort of little laugh.”

The serious consequences of the Oxford incident brought Padel back to her foremost concerns. “Human society has always been run by men,” she said. “It’s still difficult for women to stand up for themselves.” That concern happens to go back to her own rock ’n roll theories: “I’ve got a full chapter on the misogyny of rock [in I’m a Man…]. It was all sort of unnoticed, because it was so liberating in other ways in the ’60s, but actually, it wasn’t good for the chicks.” She added, “Making women think about their own feelings of anger, or abandonment, or desire, is one of the things that men have done best in the west in the last 2,000 years.”

To drive home her point, Padel offered: “Have you got, in your head, thousands of songs written by women, explaining how you feel? That’s the position that women are in – we have all these songs written by men, for a woman’s voice to sing. That’s the task – it’s in poets, as well as singers. We have to find our own feelings.”

Another theory in I’m a Man… states, “There are no male groupies…one point to look at would be biological inheritance,” explained Padel. “Men have to leave, and hunt, and gather a group. Women follow them, they follow power. Men don’t want power in women.” That’s the theory of evolution right there, she agreed.