Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Signature of All Things

When I read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, on which the 2010 film is based, I had little interest in what sounded more like a journey of self-indulgence than an authentic spiritual quest.  Perhaps that was unfair.

When a friend recommended Gilbert’s 2013 novel, I decided to give it a try.

The Signature of All Things is also a quest narrative.  The first part reads like a classic success story, as her father rises from poverty in 18th century England to wealth in Philadelphia through his application of botanical knowledge to the development of early pharmaceuticals.  His daughter Alma is born into wealth and focuses her 19th century quest on the acquisition of botanical knowledge, not only for practical application, but for its own sake, though she also seeks achievement and recognition in the scientific community.

Alma’s professional quest is paralleled by her personal quest for romantic and sexual fulfillment.  This quest leads her into a misguided marriage in which a mystery arises regarding her husband’s sexuality, and she is as bound and determined to solve that mystery as she is to solve the mysteries of the natural world.

 At this point the narrative becomes like a detective story, as Alma, after her father’s death, gives up her inheritance to her adopted sister and devotes herself to tracking down her late husband’s secrets.  This journey takes her to Tahiti, where her professional and personal quests intersect.

She learns more about her husband (as well as the Polynesian people and the Christian missionary outreach), enjoys a moment of sexual fulfillment, and, through a personal experience, not scientific study, achieves an intellectual breakthrough in her understanding of nature.

Alma develops her own theory of the survival instinct and natural selection but fails to publish it because she feels the theory is incomplete.  Darwin, of course, publishes The Origin of Species in 1859 and later The Descent of Man, achieving world recognition for the theory that Alma had also formulated.

What was and perhaps still is incomplete about the theory is the problem of altruism.  Given evolutionary theory, why do humans individually and in groups, make sacrifices in order to assist and promote others’ well-being, even save others’ lives, often at their own expense?  Multiple theories have been developed to explain how human altruistic behavior might have evolved, but there is still no good account for how it might have pre-evolved in the non-human world. (

In the end Alma must accept the limits of human knowledge, not only in the intellectual, scientific realm, but also in her personal life.  As much as she discovers about her husband’s secrets, there are unanswered questions that remain shrouded in mystery. 

The historical backdrop to Alma’s story includes the role of women in the 19th century, the increasing reliance on science as an authority for truth, the colonizing outreach of Christian missionaries, and the conflict between religion and science, of which creationism vs. evolution is but one example.

Western imperialism and race relations also figure in the narrative.  Alma’s father participates in the European western expansion, making his fortune exploiting plant life around the world before settling in Philadelphia.  Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence, becomes an abolitionist, and Alma herself lives among the Polynesians in Tahiti, where Christian missionaries have established a Western foothold.

The novel moves from the Old World of Europe to the so-called New World of North America to the Third World of Tahiti and ends in Holland where Alma, having abandoned her estate in Philadelphia to Prudence, connects with her mother’s Dutch family. 

This movement parallels Alma’s own journey of exploration, expansion, and discovery, her almost imperialistic thirst for control through scientific and personal knowledge, and her final retreat and acceptance of limits to the power of knowledge and to her own ego.

But what of the title, The Signature of All Things?  It is borrowed from Jacob Boehme’s 1621 work by that title.  Boehme was a Christian mystic who argued that God had imprinted a message in every plant and flower, a kind of secret code that he called “the signature of all things.”  Similar to 19th century Transcendentalism, nature is an outward expression of spiritual truth.  In this view, science becomes a way of reading, not simply the material world, but the mind of God.

Alma is a scientific materialist, but she marries Ambrose, a Christian mystic who follows the teachings of Jacob Boehme.  Turns out Ambrose wants a chaste marriage, or as he calls it a marriage blanc, much to Alma’s disappointment.  It also turns out that Ambrose is most likely a repressed homosexual, who has displaced his sexuality into religion.

This dilemma results from a huge miscommunication between Alma and Ambrose, leading them to think they are both on the same page regarding the expectations for their marriage.

The friend who recommended Gilbert’s novel to me pointed out that this misunderstanding is only one of many mistakes Alma makes when it comes to “reading” other people.  As brilliant as she is when it comes to unearthing the (material) secrets of nature, she is clueless when it comes to understanding human beings.  And perhaps herself.  Her obsession with knowledge and control may well be a displacement of her own frustrated sexuality into science.  Does her blindness to humanity prevent her from seeing beyond the material world to spiritual truths?

Perhaps, but in the end, having been chastened by the recognition of her failures in human relationships, Alma comes to respect those, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, who see in science a religious revelation, and to accept her own limitations, neither converting to a religious world view nor denying spiritual reality.  In the final image of the narrative, Alma is leaning against a tree, held up by it really, as if nature were all she needed for support.

The Signature of All Things is a kind of historical novel in that it features actual historical personages, such as Captain Cook, Jacob Boehme, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as the backdrop of Western imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, women’s roles, sexual repression, and class privilege in the late 18th and 19th centuries. 

We know now that there were important women scientists, activists, and leaders in history who remained invisible until 20th century feminist scholars began lifting them up.  Gilbert’s novel offers an imaginary portrait of such an invisible woman, who resists almost every female stereotype of its time period.  Far from conforming to the Cult of True Womanhood (domesticity, piety, purity, submissiveness, Alma is professionally active, atheistic, sexually alive (if not fulfilled), outspoken, and assertive.  At the same time the novel presents a realistic version of the classic quest myth with a classically larger-than-life and classically flawed heroine.