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Harry Thompson, THIS THING OF DARKNESS: Narrative Anchoring



Envié este artículo a la Evolutionary Review, pero les parece largo, académico en exceso (aburro a las ovejas), y lo que publicarán será una versioncilla ligera, donde se pierde toda la sustancia de la teoría del anclaje narrativo que lo justifica. Allí se quedará en una reseña de la novela Hacia los confines del mundo. Lástima—pero ya se sabe, lo que otros te publican es al gusto de ellos. Por eso opto una vez más por la autopublicación del texto completo, visto que a lo que aparecerá en la revista no lo va a reconocer ni su padre, entre las sugerencias del editor y sus recortes. En español lo puse aquí (sí, está en español, a pesar de las apariencias...). Pero volveremos a la carga con el anclaje narrativo—o, dicho de otro modo, cómo combinamos todas las historias de las cosas en una gran historia de todo. Es un conocimiento de la realidad como proceso, y por tanto un conocimiento narrativo, la zona de intersección de la teoría narrativa y del evolucionismo. Como dice Herbert Spencer, "una historia completa de todo ha de incluir su aparición a partir de lo imperceptible y su desaparición en lo imperceptible". Esta novela hace mucho por mostrar no sólo a la teoría de la evolución como una teoría de cómo surgen las cosas, sino que también sitúa esa teoría históricamente de modo que nos muestra el surgimiento de la propia teoría evolutiva... visto desde hoy, desde su futuro. Por volver a Spencer,

"Si el pasado y el futuro de cada objeto es un ámbito de conocimiento posible; y si el progreso intelectual consiste en gran medida, si no principalmente, en ampliar el conocimiento que tenemos de ese pasado y de ese futuro; es obvio que el límite hacia el que progresamos es una expresión de todo el pasado y de todo el futuro de cada objeto y del conjunto de los objetos" (First Principles § 93).

No es que Thompson nos explique la Historia de Todo (eso no lo hace ni Spencer), pero sí explica mucho—y de paso nos hace vivir una aventura inolvidable. ¿Quién da más?

Abstract - This paper articulates an "evolutionary" reading of Harry Thompson’s novel This Thing of Darkness, a historical fiction on Darwin’s Beagle voyage and the life of Captain FitzRoy. Special attention is paid to the novel’s narrative anchoring of its events within the grand narratives of modernity and imperialism, of scientific and cultural development, and of human evolution at large.


This paper will examine the novel This Thing of Darkness (2005) by Harry Thompson (1960-2005), which is a historical fictionalisation of Darwin’s Beagle voyage and of the life of vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, then captain of the Beagle. Special attention will be paid to what I will call the narrative anchoring of these events within the master narratives of modernity and imperialism, of scientific and cultural development and, more generally, the all-encompassing "grand sequence of events", in Darwin’s phrase, of human evolution.

It was the Turner illustration on the cover of the Headline Review edition of This Thing of Darkness that made me buy the book. Also the Shakespeare quote in the title—(although the American edition has been retitled To the Edge of the World). "This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine", says Prospero in The Tempest, referring to Caliban, the barely human native of the island he rules. Shakespeare’s play has been read as an allegory, commentary or symptom of colonialism, a subject which is also promiennt in Thompson’s novel—Thompson’s outstanding novel, all too brief at 875 pages.

Harry Thompson was an active television producer, celebrated in Britain for his humour series (see Wikipedia, "Harry Thompson"). But this novel, written in the tradition of critical realism, some would say of neo-Victorianism, shows a very different side of his talent. It deals with British imperialism and colonialism, with Western attitudes towards indigenous peoples, and with the genocides perpetrated in Patagonia and Oceania. It is, also, a first-rate sea novel, which will delight the followers of Patrick O’Brian and of this quintessentially British genre. But This Thing of Darkness also depicts the intellectual impact of evolution theory—another reason why I bought it on impulse is that Charles Darwin was one of its protagonists. The novel dramatizes the religious and philosophical conflict unleashed by the advance of science and rationalism in the 19th century, leading to a crisis of faith and to skepticism in Darwin’s case, and to pessimistic disenchantment in Robert FitzRoy.

The breadth of the novel is panoramic, almost planetary, ranging from first contacts with primitive peoples to sophisticated English salons; from unspoken tensions between colleagues in the office, to the grandeur of South American landscapes and vividly described tropical storms—to immense horizons. And to a grand timescape, as well. The centerpiece is Darwin’s voyage round the world in FitzRoy’s Beagle, and thus the novel is to some extent a "remake" of Darwin’s own narrative in The Voyage of the Beagle. But the narrative also includes the preliminaries of former Beagle expeditions—it begins with the former captain’s suicide in Patagonia—then goes back to Britain, retaking the celebrated debate on human evolution between Thomas Henry Huxley and a primate of the Church, Bishop Wilberforce, with FitzRoy playing a slightly ridiculous or impotent role… And yet the dignity and gravity of FitzRoy’s character is vividly portrayed in all his actions, as a captain dedicated to his mission and his men, as a stern but just colonial administrator in New Zealand, and as a scientist dedicated to the development of weather prediction. A life story ending in FitzRoy’s own suicide, a remarried widower who misses his first wife. He is disappointed with his fortune and his career, tormented by a sense of impotence, and by the advance of skepticism and of a modern world he sees as devoid of sense unless it should be designed by a benevolent deity.

And FitzRoy’s belief in the Deity’s benevolence is severely shaken. The natives he tries to civilize and christianize are unpredictable: the results are sometimes almost too good, with the Fuegian Jemmy Button adopting British values and manners almost to the point of caricature—or alternatively the natives may be incomprehensible, brutal and enigmatic. Whenever FitzRoy manages to reach an understanding with the natives, it is the Europeans that become a problem, with their single-mindedness, their brutal greed and their contempt for the natives’ life and interests.

Although he is more often than not in the position of the leader of a small community, or perhaps because of that, FitzRoy finds only an uneasy fit in social life. He navigates from isolation to despond, with occasional bouts of dementia. Although he had managed to marry, after many years of solitude, the woman who took his breath away (a regular angel in the house, moreover), she dies prematurely. FitzRoy’s projects to develop techniques of weather prediction are hampered by bureaucratic absurdities and by the ignorance of authorities; his attempt to grant British judicial guarantees to the natives, when he is named Governor of New Zealand, clashes with the double standard his superiors and the colonists apply, and which they also expect him to apply.

FitzRoy believes in an ordered world in which everyone has their appointed place. In contrast, the world inaugurated by Darwin’s thought justifies the superiority of Western man, and foresees the eventual extinction of "inferior races" in a selective struggle for survival, embodied here at a worldwide scale in British imperialism—and, by extension, in American or Western contemporary postcolonial imperialist practices, through a transparent analogy established by the author: the words used by General Rosas to justify his war on the Indians in Argentina are lifted from Tony Blair’s speeches on the so-called "War on Terror." In this novel, Darwin is an out-and-out social Darwinist: while he doesn’t endorse the genocide by any means, he predicts that the primitive peoples and the great apes alike will be exterminated in order to deepen the difference between civilised man and the animals.

Much to his disgust, FitzRoy finds himself linked by association to Darwin’s doctrines, and cannot prevent his own actions from contributing to globalizing ends he did not wish to endorse. Fitzroy was an explorer, not a conqueror, and he is nauseated by the rapacious progress of the machinery of Empire.

Moreover, his initial friendship with Darwin, his companion in the lengthy Beagle voyage, cools down, and ends up as a spiritual conflict of almost cosmic proportions—of emblematic proportions, anyway. Darwin demotes God and installs himself, an old primate, in his stead, growing a long white beard in order to underline the parody. His initially harmless biological observations, a gentleman’s pastime, develop into a whole theory of reality, of the structure of the natural world, and of the origin and place of mankind—a theory repellent and horrifying for FitzRoy, who did not expect that his own search for enlightnenment and knowledge would yield this result. The novel dramatizes therefore the confrontation between two world-views: on the one hand, a cosmos designed and overseen by God, seen from the prism of an aristocrat whose mindset was at home in eighteenth-century assumptions and attitudes; on the other, the universe of twentieth-century science, as anticipated in Darwin’s insights, a world devoid of transcendental meaning, in which human phenomena are only the complex outcome of physical processes.

Fiztroy closes the circle with his suicide—a man financially bankrupt by his benevolent undertakings, prematurely aged, emotionally detached from his wife, and disillusioned by the advance of a bureaucratic, mechanistic, regimented civilization, one lacking in any ideals he might share.

When I was young, thought FitzRoy, I was a voyager, traversing unknown seas, the master of my own destiny. The wind and the waves may have dashed themselves against me, but I fought through to discover new shores and unknown worlds. Then I became part of a machine, a mere cog in a wheel. They took away my liberty, my independence. But at least my toil served to smooth the way for other travellers, who followed in my footsteps. Now, they have removed even that small comfort from me. I must voyage once more, to the furthest shore. I must undertake the ultimate journey. A journey without maps. (p. 852)

Fizroy dreams that he will maybe see again one day his beloved first wife Mary, and Jemmy Button, the native who befriended him with loyalty, and his young sailors who drowned while doing their duty. Will he see them again, or is Darwin right? Was FitzRoy merely just another evolved primate, too complex for his own good?

This Thing of Darkness is a magnificent historical novel. But it is not just a novel whose characters and events have been drawn from history, in order to be masterfully portrayed and dramatized. It is also a novel about human history, about the place of human history in a wider evolutionary process. It offers immense temporal and geographical horizons, encompassing the origin and sense of mankind, of modernity and of the Western expansion through the globe, in exploration and conquest; it deals with the grand narratives of globalization and of the Enlightenment, of the development of sciences and of empires—great narratives whose slow-moving progress can nevertheless be seen and felt from our limited vantage point. Thompson grasps the mode in which the small narratives of people’s lives—but these are big narratives for the people involved, too—are embedded in those wider historical and indeed geological processes, are intersected by them, and historical processes become especially visible as the clash of the different time frames of different cultures collapses whole ages of mankind together, in the experience of a single individual, in a telling moment of perception, in a gesture or a detail which assumes a symbolic proportion, the way a galaxy can be seen though a keyhole. A life, FitzRoy’s life, is grounded in a world of human significance built through history, and the ideals and achievements of a life, of a moment, can be gauged against the background of this gigantic process of world-making. FitzRoy is sorry he has been instrumental in bringing the plague of modernity through the world, and in desecrating the world by furthering Darwin’s conceptions much against his will. In the one major moment of public recognition FitzRoy gets for his efforts in weather prediction, his life achievement turns sour and irrelevant:

Still in a daze, FitzRoy stumbled forward. Everyone was looking at him, applauding. The Prince de la Tour d’Auvergne was beaming at him, and thrusting a little wooden box towards him. He took it, and opened it. Inside, nestled on a meagre bed of straw, lay a small, mass-produced, bedside travelling clock. (846)

Any development, any experience, any perception in the narrative of everyday life is shaped by the greater lines of force of the greater narratives in which human lives are embedded. In this sense, this novel effects an exemplary exercise of what I have elsewhere called (García Landa 2008) narrative anchoring, a notion which requires some additional unfolding at this point.

It is to be noted that what I understand by narrative anchoring, in spite of some areas of overlap, refers to something different from David Herman’s "contextual anchoring" in narrative (2002, ch. 9). Herman defined this contextual anchoring as the cognitive process whereby narratives ask their interpreters to search for analogies between the semiotic model built by the narrative on one hand, and cognitive models of the world in which the interpretation takes place, on the other (Herman 2002: 331). It is clear that these models may be narrative or non-narrative—it is also apparent that "my" narrative anchoring may take place "inside" a narrative (e.g. in the characters’ own cognitive and narrativizing moves) and not necessarily refer to the contextualizing maneuvers of the interpreter. Therefore, Herman’s "contextual anchoring" only partially overlaps with what I call narrative anchoring.

Narrative anchoring is the process whereby a narrative refers us to other narratives and to the prenarrative and metanarrative phenomena it is embedded in. Narratives refer us to (1) processes and sequences of events, (2) to their mental representations, to (other) narratives (3), and finally to (4) narratologies or metanarrative phenomena, as four phases or emergent levels of narrative complexity.

Let us take, as a global unifying frame, and as the background or groundwork of any narrative, the most encompassing master narrative of our culture. This is the global process of Time. I am referring here to the only existing Time, apart from the pseudo-times of theoretical or fictional worlds which are anyway embedded in it—real time, linked to the existence of the Universe, as the ultimate seabed for narrative anchoring. There are many possible "histories of (human) Time"—a mode of narrative, level 3 (take, for instance, Plato’s Timaeus, or Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time), and, faced with them, a possible role for students of narrative anchoring is the intertextual projection of cosmic histories upon one another; to situate them, articulate and map them with respect to one another, and—why not—to choose one of them as as a main frame, as the true history of time, at least insofar as it is the most adequate modelling of Time that we can devise; a true history of events which contains everything and includes the other histories of time as individual narrative events, as ideological versions or historically situated approximations to the history of Time.

This formulation suggests some degree of heuristic relativism, which is perhaps inevitable given the contentious nature of ultimate narratives about the origin and sense of the universe. But, more to the point, an intellectually significant narratology can hardly be grounded on mythical versions of cosmic processes; it will have to deal with the narratives of contemporary science as a one of its preliminary components. It is with science, and on science, that a methodological and philosophical dialogue needs to be established, or rather with the sciences of Time in its different aspects—with cosmological and astronomical, physical, biological, psychological and cognitive approaches to time. One must take in to account, too, that there is a science of science, that is, cultural theories of the functions and proper limits of science, and of the historical unfolding of scientific (meta)theories. As a consequence, a narratological approach to level (1), processes and sequences of events, must have a philosophical-scientific orientation, and be aware of this reflexive meta dimension: of the histories of histories (and the histories of theories)—and of the theories of histories (and the theories of theories).

Narrative anchoring is one prime mode of cognitive mapping, both in building a narrative and in trying to make sense of it. Any given narrative (a novel, a piece of conversation) may, or may not, present anchoring points at an initial level, at what might be called a cosmological level, through an explicit mapping of its own small model or representation of temporality with reference to more widely known narratives (e.g. traditional or culturally authoritative ones). This referring may range from common assumptions about situational scripts or shared histories—as any human interactional sequence is a continuation of previous interactions, or acquires sense on the background of those interactions—to more explicitly ideological assumptions about versions of social and political processes or historical narratives. The latter are what is usually referred to as "great narratives". But there are greater narratives than the narratives of human culture and history—such as the "grand sequence of events" of human evolution. Darwin uses this expression in a key (and ambiguously self-critical) passage of The Descent of Man: "The birth both of the species and of the individual are equelly parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance" (in Appleman 2001: 249). Taking a panoramic view, it can be argued that discourses about human evolution and the rise of human cultures and civilizations serve as an interface between the discourses of historical disciplines and the humanities on the one hand, and the discourses of scientific disciplines such as biology, geology and cosmology on the other. A consilient view of the overall development of physical phenomena must acknowledge some kind of narrative anchoring as a basic cognitive instrument in relating to one another the overarching narratives of science and those relative to specific human experiences and social phenomena.

Anchoring may be explicit or implicit, in a grading scale. The notion of an "explicit" narrative anchoring begs the question of explicitness (of how such a relatively novel notion might be explicit in human communicational interaction). My point being of course that I may be using a relatively new name or trying to isolate the phenomenon, giving it a sharper focus and making it so to speak fully explicit—but that the phenomenon itself is hardly new and "we do it all the time without thinking about it". For instance, a complaint about stress in city life may lead to a reference about the way things were "before", in a semi-historical, semi-mythical village life, or in rural/traditional ways of living, or olden times, which is one of the many stories we share, and refer to, as basic narrative patterns. Reference to specific historical processes or episodes may be even more explicit, of course, as we all share a common temporal frame and a calendar, or calendars we can match to one another.

One should also take into account that narrative anchoring (which might be contemplated as a mode of extended intertextuality) is subject to the dynamics of dialogism and interaction. Even when it is present in a latent or implicit sense in a given speaker’s discourse or in a given text, the interlocutor may respond to that element of anchoring and expand on it, making it more explicit, e.g. A says "I can’t stand travelling by bus, I mean, it’s not just that I keep losing my balance at the bends, it’s that it gets on my nerves" and B says "Yes it’s city life at its worst, I wish I lived somewhere I could just walk to work, the way people did before"—etc.

A discourse analyst’s bringing out into relief the anchoring dynamics in narratives under analysis, whether in a literary, sociological or anthropological context, is just another manifestation, or an extension, of this interactional dynamics. For instance, in my discussion, most of the groundwork for the analysis of the narrative anchoring of evolutionary theory and of FitzRoys’s colonial experiences in This Thing of Darkness has been laid by the novel itself. Narratives build on previous narratives, just as discourse is a response to earlier discourse and builds on it. The element of anchoring in a narrative may be incipient, a mere allusion to a narrative frame, or a suggestion that an event might be narrativized into a sequence or a plot. Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope (1981a) overlaps in part with this conception of narrative anchoring—narratives may be anchored, or may become anchored through interaction, to a specific place, so that narrativity is attached to space or settings—places remind us of stories linked to them, and so forth: "There’s a story in everything", and narrative anchoring is the way we have of bringing out these stories, sorting them, and mapping them into one another. Bakthin also extended his notion of the chronotope, in a rather imperialistic way, to account for "the shapes of time" articulated through different narrative modes. —But a more extensive comparison of the notion of narrative anchoring with Bakthinian ideas need not concern us at this point. Suffice it to say that narratives enter fully into dialogic play in modes which are specific to them. Being a device to shape and structure time, narratives call for further narratives—to correct, complete or contrast with them, to nest themselves into larger structures, or to branch into multiple lines of action, alternative viewpoints or "takes", or into hypothetical, nonrealized temporalities. Uri Margolin’s (2009) analysis of the modes of "non-factivity" in narrative (hypothetical narratives, non-realized developments, etc.) is relevant in this respect.

Actually, our phrase "there is a history in everything" might be reworked into an side take, "there is history in everything". Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy argued that "the past and the future of each object is a sphere of possible knowledge; and if intellectual progress consistes largely, if not mainly, in widening our acqauintance with theis past and this future; it is obviou that the limit towards which we progres is an expression of the whole past and the whole future of each object and the aggregate of objects" (1937: 247). Spencer’s thought provides, therefore, a well-articulated philosophical grounding for a theory of narrative anchoring. But there are many other narratives, and narratologies, in other influential philosophical interpretations of reality.

Historical materialism and other schools of historical thought have taught us to see any cultural object, any human ideologeme, social mode of interaction, or structure of feeling, as historically grounded and generated—a product of history. The historicity of human phenomena can be extracted through critical analysis—squeezing out the history of objects or situations, or perhaps restoring it to our perception (to use another image), is a major dimension of narrative anchoring. The main thesis of Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel may be taken to be a theoretical undepinning for a specific mode of narrative anchoring: the representation of individual lives against the backdrop of historical processes—imperialist expansion, modern nationalism, or the dissolution of feudal social structures with the advance of capitalism.

Any narrative initiates the work of narrative anchoring—perhaps through its very existence, and its implied invocation of narrative patterns and procedures which will make it readable or understandable for the addressee. But intentional or explicit narrative mapping—which shades off into the built-in intentionality of signs—can be expanded or supplemented through the receiver’s own strategies of narrative anchoring. A receiver’s (or a critic’s) response need not stick to the intentional narrative mapping put forward by the narrative. Bakhtin’s dialogics is again relevant at this point—more specifically his notion of conflicting discourses (Bakhtin 1981b). For instance, a mythological narrative may be countered with a demythologizing narrative, proposing a for instance a scientific account of human phenomena—or of nature and of the world—instead of a mythical or traditional narrative. Which leads us back to Darwin as a prime example of natural narratologist, substituting the scientific narrativity of non-teleological natural selection for previous teleological narrative accounts of the way in which human nature came into being.

We can see more clearly now the sense in which This Thing of Darkness presents the narratives of its characters’ lives as narratively anchored in historical processes—some of them specific to its nineteenth-century immediate context, some of them much larger: European imperial ventures, globalization, civilization, and the whole human history considered as a process of cultural and scientific development. And, beyond that, it is anchored in the evolutionary processes in which Darwinian theories situate the origin of mankind. In the last instance, this element acquires a reflexive dimension in the novel, insofar as we are dealing with narrative self-knowledge, through a focus on the development of a "grand narrative" as self-knowledge. Of course, as the novel shows as well the conflict between this great narrative of evolutionary theory and another influential mythical-religious narrative, Christianity or theism (a.k.a. "intelligent design"), which provides a completely different account of the origin and place of man in the world, a more traditional grand narrative or grand myth. As the conflict is artfully portrayed both in its 19th-century and its 21st-century intellectual relevance, the novel’s operation of narrative anchoring can only be described as rich, complex, and significant.

This Thing of Darkness is a historical novel which goes beyond its confines, to open vast narrative vistas of globalization, civilization, evolution and geological time. A novel about history, and a novel for history, too—Harry Thompson’s only one, as he died of cancer soon after the publication of his book. Silence would seem to be an adequate sequel to a book which sets out to sum up a life, an age, history itself and, why not, the human odyssey of species—and which somehow gets the wind it needs to pull these worlds inside worlds into motion, and sail along on an adventurous journey of discovery.


Appleman, Philip, ed. 2001. Darwin. (Norton Critical Edition). 3rd ed. New York: Norton.

Bakhtin, M. M. 1981a. "Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel." In Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 84-258.
_____. 1981b. "Discourse in the Novel." In Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 259-422.

Brown, Maggie. 2005. "Harry Thompson." Obituary. The Guardian Nov. 9. Accessed May 27, 2009.

Darwin, Charles. 1839. Voyage of the Beagle. In The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. 2002-09. Accessed May 27, 2009.

Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. 2002-09. Accessed May 27, 2009.

García Landa, José Ángel. 2008. "Blogs and the Narrativity of Experience / Los blogs y la narratividad de la experiencia." Online at Social Science Research Network (March 27). Accessed May 27, 2009.

"Harry Thompson." In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed May 27, 2009.

Hawking, Stephen W. 1988. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam.

Herman, David. 2002. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. (Frontiers of Narrative). Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P.

Lukács, Georg. 1969. The Historical Novel. 1937. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin.

Margolin, Uri. 1999. "Story Modalised, or the Grammar of Virtuality." In Recent Trends in Narratological Research. Ed. John Pier. (GRAAT 21). Tours: Publications des Groupes de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de l’Université François Rabelais de Tours. 49-62.

Plato. 1961. Timaeus. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Rampton, James. 2005. "Harry Thompson." Obituary. The Independent Nov. 9. Accessed May 27, 2009.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. London, 1862. 6th ed. (The Thinker’s Library). London: Watts, 1937.

Thompson, Harry. 2006. This Thing of Darkness. 2005. London: Headline Review. (US title: To the Edge of the World).

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