On Literary Metaphor and the Human Genome

Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth points to the similarities between writing itself and mankind—neatly reflecting our opening metaphor for the human genome at the start of the semester: The Human Genome is the Book of Life.

Genes carry information about our history–a code for inherited traits–that lends to our current situation and future fates. Words too, work in these three tenses: the past, the present and the future.

The books we have read this semester have worked in this way—exploring the three tenses—to demonstrate the complexity of human identity. Let us not forge the three-dimensionality of that elegant structure: the Double Helix. The Double Helix is a continuous thread that may be traced back to our roots, and read, as a book, to help make sense of contemporary situations and future predicaments.

The nice thing about this metaphor—that the Human Genome is the Book of Life—is that it provides space for diversity. One does not need to limit an interpretation to genetic determinism, or commit solely to a belief in individual agency, just as one does not need to decide between the power of nature and nurture. Understanding genetics metaphorically allows for the full range of interpretation that we subject books to, or art to. As of yet, this type of understanding is effective because we are still deciphering that molecule and analyzing the information it provides.

The interesting thing about language is that it may be perceived as either a blessing or a curse. Drawing from Monday’s class, when we discussed allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the Caribbean setting of White Teeth, I’d like to point out an interesting element of Caliban’s relationship to Prospero. Caliban claims, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/For learning me your language.” (1.2.364-366) Here, what Prospero perceives as the gift of knowledge, Caliban rejects as a painful burden. Caliban’s only desire in using the knowledge of language is to perverse it, by using it to curse his teacher.

Is this not the very question we have sought to understand this semester? Have we not debated the boundaries and parameters of knowledge? Have we not sought to understand when scientific research provides knowledge we desire, and when it becomes something we detest? Have we not tried to determine the motivations and implications for science, and whether these be beneficial or adverse?

And although debate, forums, and conferences are useful in expanding dialogue on these topics, there may be no answer. And I think this ambiguity is something many authors acknowledge, and why chance is a recurring theme in the writing of Eugenides and Zadie Smith. Perhaps the debate over the good and the bad is as arbitrary as the flipping of a coin.

In a world where good and bad is so ambiguous, many people look to the novel to see these issues explicit in the struggle of human nature illustrated in fiction. People read, fundamentally, to explore the human condition: our past, or present our future. People read to be entertained, but only through the fundamental limits and guidelines of our passions and reason.

The famous artist Gauguin journeyed to Tahiti to find what he believed was the primitive, the remnants of the roots of human nature. In the 1890s he painted Where we are from? Why we are Here? Where we Are Going? Gauguin illustrates in another way how people look to art to understand the meaning of life in three tenses. People look backward, to look forward.

The human genome is a new source to understand the abstract human condition, not only our molecular make-up. This follows with the extended metaphor developed in the comparison between books and the mapping of our human genome. Genetic information provides a means of understanding human existence, as it points scientifically to the tiny places language fails to articulate. In this sense, the future of genomics is, itself, an artistic practice deeply rooted in the same literary and artistic tradition that produced The Tempest and White Teeth.

Elizabeth Frankenfield

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~ by lizfrank on April 16, 2008.

One Response to “On Literary Metaphor and the Human Genome”

  1. Very provocative

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