Friday, October 30, 2009

'The Birth-Mark' Takes on Enlightenment Scientism

In his excellent and highly recommended essay “Contemporary Southern Literature,” Richard M. Weaver posits the South as the only American region—and probably the only region in the world—capable of saving literature from two deep anthropological errors. In one corner, we have the Emersons and Thoreaus who spend their lives denying humanity’s capacity for wickedness; in the other, we have the later naturalistic school (Dresier, Crane, et al) who claim that human beings are mere symptoms of their environment. (If these two schools sound familiar, it’s because they largely survive today.) “One school of writing,” says Weaver
tried to present man as all glory. A later school tried to present him as all jest—for that is what he must be if he is considered merely the pawn of circumstances. Only the contemporary Southern school has combined the glory and the jest and remained faithful to the riddle of man which may never be answered.Weaver, like many of the South’s most strident advocates, is prone to overstatement. It’s true, of course, that the two movements he discusses—both of them peddling what is in the end a destructive philosophy of humankind, although I don’t think Emerson is as bad as he says he is—began north of the Mason-Dixon line. And it’s true that in 1959, at the time of his writing, the Southern Renaissance was presenting us with numerous writers who did justice to the terrible mystery of humanity.
But it’s not that simple; the South has always had its share of novelists who lean too far to one side or the other (Faulkner, who is fatalistic to a startling degree, is the most obvious kinsman to Crane and Dreiser; the post-Civil War writers who would have given everything they own to return to the era of happy slaves and virginal young women fit, in their way, in with the Transcendentalists.) And besides, you can always find counterexamples from other parts of the country. It’s patronizing for Weaver to claim the South as the spiritual center of American literature, even if he does so chiefly because as a region it has been undervalued through the years.

How he could read Hawthorne, for example, and not see a philosophical kinsman is beyond me. Hawthorne famously descends from the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts, a name now synonymous with spiritual oppression and persecution, and he does not shy away from telling the story of that oppression in stark and disturbing terms. But he does not have a knee-jerk reaction to his Puritan ancestors the way Emerson and Thoreau do; in terms of his literature, at least, he pretty much remains a Puritan his entire career, whatever he actually believed.

Weaver should have been able to get behind “The Birth-Mark,” in particular, a story that anticipates Walker Percy’s skepticism of science’s reign over the popular mind and which, in the end, could have been written by Harry Crews if not for the absence of obscenity. Hawthorne seems to have written it for the sole purpose of taking all the air out of Enlightenment optimism of the variety that created Emerson. (The Transcendentalists were not, strictly speaking, Enlightenment men; they were instead Romantics in the Byronian/Keatsian mold. But the Enlightenment lead to Romanticism, which borrowed from the movement it deposed an overwhelming optimism as to the nature and destiny of humankind.)

Our protagonist is Aylmer, a scientist hell-bent on progressing his discipline until human beings conquer the world around them. In his world, “Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle.” Indeed, his scientific experiments are “of a spiritual affinity more . . . than any chemical one.” Aylmer’s philosophy is one in which the categories of physical and spiritual have collapsed into one. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it was true of the Middle Ages, as well, and largely true of Hawthorne’s own work. But Hawthorne reads the physical through the spiritual, whereas Aylmer wishes to read the spiritual through the physical.

Enlightenment-style scientism, then, is a reversal of the natural order of things, an attempt to reduce the complicated spiritual world to the easy world of appearances. Aylmer is sinister not because he is a misanthrope but because he loves humanity so much, and so blindly. The central plot of the story involves his relationship with his wife, who is nearly perfect but who has a small, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. This will not stand with her husband, who can’t look at it without turning it into “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” He therefore elects to use his knowledge of chemistry to remove it and to create the perfect human being.

These, then, are the two marks of the Enlightenment’s abuse of science: Humanity is seen as ultimately perfectable, and it is humanity itself that can perfect it. Hawthorne is clear that what Aylmer and his real-life counterparts practice is not science but rather a sort of base superstition; we know this is true because of Aylmer’s appeal to the alchemists, who he really believes were onto something even if “a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it.” (Again, there’s the innate goodness of man on full display in a sort of free-market scientism. We must never ask if we should do something; we need only know that we can, and we must trust that we’re wise enough not to screw things up too badly.)

The problem with scientism’s obsession with the perfectability of humanity is that it completely ignores what it means to be human. Aylmer’s wife, Georgiana, has lived with this birthmark for her entire life, and no one has ever told her that it is a blemish. Her husband’s obsession over it leads her to a strong and irrational self-hatred, leading her to submit to Aylmer’s bizarre tests, which will eventually kill her.

The reason, of course, is that to be human means to be blemished. Once we attempt to remove all of the problems from a person—once we explain them away, for example, as the trend seems to be in modern psychiatry, or once we put to death that tricky old word, sin—we also remove something at the very core of their humanity. Aylmer kills his wife and grants to “the veriest clod of earth . . . a soul”; the two moves are not unconnected. What separates humanity from the matter around them is not just the ability to have faults but the inability not to.

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