Monday, September 28, 2009

There's Seven People Dead on a South Dakota Farm

I’d never read Charles Brockden Brown before I was forced to for my comprehensive exams. I’d always thrown his Gothic novels in with the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and so my distaste for Poe always kept me away from him. In last night’s fit of insomnia (it’s strangely appropriate), however, I read through the entirety of Wieland, an interesting if not successful novel.

Warren Barton Blake calls Brown the world’s first novelist of ideas. I’m not qualified to make that call, knowing almost nothing about Continental fiction, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Wieland is a novel fixated upon an idea. What I noticed, however, is that Brown’s fixation on this idea is in constant tension with his desire to (a) provide a tidy moral to the story; and (b) make sure we know that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural.

The idea at the center of Wieland involves the possibility of divine revelation, and its central question is, “If you think God is speaking to you, how do you know?” It’s a good question, for sure, and one that has been a major concern of Western culture ever since Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on that mountain. Kierkegaard, for example, wrote his most philosophically successful book on the subject, praising Abraham for suspending every ethical principle he had to obey the terrible commands of God.

When I reread Fear and Trembling earlier this year, I was made uncomfortable. In a year in which the tanking economy and whatever power you want to ascribe to Satan has driven numerous men to kill themselves and their families, it is not possible to read the story of Abraham or any speech in praise of him in a blasé fashion. If divine revelation is inherently subjective (and for Kierkegaard it nearly always is), and if it always goes against prevailing moral and logical systems (and for Kierkegaard it nearly always does), how can we simultaneously praise Abraham and condemn the out-of-work banker who slaughters his entire family? Couldn’t God be speaking to the latter as much as the former?

Kierkegaard presents this argument almost before we can, but his response to it is frustrating at best. If a parishioner hears the priest praise Abraham, goes home, and kills his own son, it is the priest’s fault because “he hadn’t known what he was saying”—because he hasn’t taken the story seriously enough. But that doesn’t offer those of us who do take the story seriously much to go on, and the question still stands: If religious decrees are personal, and if they can go against morality, how can we wholeheartedly condemn the man who murders his family?

Well, Charles Brockden Brown raises the question, however briefly. We are presented with a family of religious fanatics. The elder Wieland (we’re never given his name) is a model of Kierkegaardian belief, a sect unto himself, one that admits no outsiders and refuses to judge outsiders. One night, he refuses to do something God commands and spontaneously combusts; his wife kills herself soon after, leaving their children orphans. (Literary historians: Is this the first instance of spontaneous combustion in literature?)

His son and daughter grow up as “bosom companions,” as the old novels are fond of saying, and soon become the center of a very tight-knit community of thinkers and gadabouts. Then a mysterious stranger blows into town, and everything falls apart. The end result is that the younger Wieland, in a fit of religious frenzy, ends up murdering his wife, servants, and children; further, he insists that, while he certainly performed the act, he is not morally culpable for it because “my deed was enjoined by heaven . . . obedience was the test of perfect virtue, and the extinction of selfishness and error.”

Had Brown left it here, we’d close the novel with something big and important to think about; in fact, had he left it here, it would have been the biting statement against the Second Great Awakening I think he meant for it to be. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reveals that nothing at all supernatural has happened, that in fact that mysterious stranger was a ventriloquist who tricked Theodore Wieland into the murders. In wrapping the novel up this way, Brown takes a fantastic open question and shuts it tight—depending on your perspective, he either lets God off the hook for Wieland’s crimes or else makes Him nonspeaking or nonexistent, and neither of these options is anywhere near as interesting as what the novel could have been.

So, two hundred years later, let’s tear out those pages of the book and let the question stand by itself: Assuming you believe that God spoke to Abraham and told him to kill Isaac, on what basis can we tell anyone that any horrible thing they do does not come from divine command? What do we make of this most horrible story of the Hebrew Bible?

No comments: